by Joe Bollig
VINLAND — Dave McFarlane has worked for himself most of his life. But there was a brief period when he didn’t, and it made a big impression.
“I worked once, for a short time before I was married, for a refrigerator company,” said McFarlane. “I was on the line helping assemble refrigerators.
“I think I lasted four days.
“I walked away seeing how [the company] treated [their workers]”, he continued. “They had to raise their hand to go to the restroom. They had a break on the buzzer, and had to be back on the line running on the buzzer. They were like trained monkeys.”
Humans, he decided, were not designed to work like machines — or trained monkeys.
“I thought to myself, ‘If I’m ever in a position where I have to hire people, I wasn’t going to treat them that way. They were going to have respect, like human beings.’”
Today, as president of McFarlane Aviation Products, McFarlane has established respect for his employees and the dignity of the human person as bedrock principles of his company.
“I believe in the Christian principles of treating all people with respect and helping anybody if it’s possible,” he said.
The roots of McFarlane Aviation, Products can be traced all the way back to McFarlane’s boyhood in Arlington, Iowa, whose population today is about 500.
“My father had to repossess a service station [in 1966],” said McFarlane. “I was 14 and my brother Claude was 13. Dad taught both of us how to change oil and tires. That was when service was ‘superservice.’ The car drove in and you checked the oil, cleaned the windshield and pumped the gas.”
When McFarlane was 16 and his brother Claude was 15, their father gave them the Texaco station.
“He said, ‘Just replace whatever you sell and keep the books. Do the advertising and run the business.’ We hired a great-uncle to run the station during the day when we were in school.”
The two boys took turns holding down the fort while the other was at supper or afterschool activities. They did homework between tasks. They even hired some of their friends.
“We learned to talk to customers and sell product,” said McFarlane. “We’d attend supplier meetings and learn all about tires and batteries. We got a lot of respect. It was a great business education.”
About this time, McFarlane took flying lessons. He’d been smitten with the romance of flight since he’d begun building model airplanes as a little boy.
When he went to community college, McFarlane used his self-taught car body repair and painting skills to paint aircraft as a part-time job at night.
He didn’t finish college, but went on to a series of jobs in aviation, including crop-dusting. He founded McFarlane Aviation in 1970.
He met his wife at his sister’s wedding, and he and Phylis were married in 1973. Today, they’re members of Annunciation Parish in nearby Baldwin.
The McFarlanes brought their aircraft repair and crop-spraying business to Kansas in 1978, when they bought the Vinland Airport, located 10 miles southeast of Lawrence.
“My parents asked me, ‘How do you pay for an airport?’” he recalled. “I said, “You don’t.’ It loses money, but it gives you a base of operations.”
It occurred to McFarlane that many of the parts he was installing could be better — and cheaper.
He incorporated his business as McFarlane Aviation, Inc., in 1986, and began to manufacture parts for small aircraft. Manufacturing aftermarket replacement parts for small aircraft became the company’s sole focus after 1993. Now, the company is McFarlane Aviation Products. Its 75,000-square-foot factory is at the Vinland Airport.
Respect is the standard
Two people who have come to know Dave and Phylis McFarlane over the years are fellow Annunciation parishioners Dave and Nancy Kronoshek.
The McFarlanes are difficult to pick out in the pews because they are so modest. They’re involved in the parish — Phylis on the finance committee, and Dave grilling burgers at the parish booth during the annual Maple Leaf Festival.
“That’s what I like about them the most,” said Dave Kronoshek. “We admire them as a couple. They’re successful, but they live a low-key, humble life. They still live in the same little ranch-style house near the airport.”
“He’s proud of his business,” he continued, “but he’s prouder of how he runs his business. He’s interested in seeing his people participate in the success. That’s right in line with what Pope Francis says about business.”
Kronoshek took a tour of the factory and was impressed not only by the plant, but with the 80-person workforce.
“They’re loyal to him because he’s loyal to them,” he said.
McFarlane has good basic benefits but, over and above, he has others that are quite uncommon. For example, the company owns three airplanes and subsidizes employee flying lessons. About 15 to 20 employees are pilots.
In addition to their sick and vacation time, McFarlane adds another free week without pay. Employees can give their sick time to another employee. The company also has a flexible time policy, so an employee can work early or late — if possible — should they need to be absent to take care of family matters.
“We try to create a family environment,” he said. “A person spends one-third of his life at work, so we want to make it as pleasant as possible.”
The company also has a profit-sharing plan.
“We want our employees to feel they’re part of the business,” he said. “We want them to take ownership in the business — more than just a job.”
“We do that several different ways,” he said. “One is that, at the end of every month, we figure profit and loss of the business, and we share 25 percent of the profit with our employees. The harder they work and save on supplies, they see the reward. There are some months without profit, but it’s accumulated until we do.”
Employees also get a bonus on the anniversary of their employment date.
McFarlane’s approach is based both on altruism and practicality.
“I like helping people, and one of my biggest pleasures is to watch people learn new things,” said McFarlane. “We spend a lot of effort in training and exposing people to new types of skills. I feel a lot of satisfaction watching people become successful in life.”
Simply put, company policy is the Golden Rule.
“The basis of our policies toward our employees is to treat them the way we’d like to be treated,” said McFarlane.