For Lonnie Rogers, failure was never an option. A former Marine pilot who served two tours in Vietnam, Rogers often learned his lessons the hard way. He went on to put that knowledge – and his never-say-die attitude – to work for Ideal Aerosmith, and to this day he embodies a spirit of innovation and hard work that has been the foundation of the company’s growth and success.
After he left the Marines, Rogers found himself out of work in the early 1970s. “I didn’t want to work for the airlines,” he recalls, “but I was completely out of money, and times were very hard. I decided to try my luck at selling real estate, and I found out that I had a knack for it.”
He took that talent to Florida, and by the late 1970s, he and a partner had a booming real estate business on Marco Island. They sold the company in 1982, and Rogers immediately sought to reinvest in a new endeavor. He knew an American businessman working out of the Netherlands who was focused on returning to the United States, and the two of them identified Ideal Aerosmith as a promising opportunity.
When Rogers and his partner acquired Ideal Aerosmith in 1983, it was located in Wyoming. Previous ownership had built a solid, profitable business around testing equipment and precision metering valves and had received several awards from the Defense Department for its contributions during World War II.
Flexibility and creative engineering had always been strong points at the company. For example, at one point Ideal Aerosmith actually began manufacturing small, inexpensive, unsinkable fiberglass boats in the 1950s, thanks to an owner who was struggling to find the perfect boat for his family and found that other area residents were experiencing the same problem. The endeavor proved successful, though it was later decided that Ideal Aerosmith should instead concentrate exclusively on its core business. “Every once in a while people still contact the company asking how to get one of our boats,” Rogers laughs.
But boating was the furthest thing from Rogers’ mind as he evaluated his new company in the mid-1980s. One of the first things needed was a change of scenery. During his days in the real estate business, Rogers and his partner joined a successful construction company that was building apartments in Minnesota and North Dakota. East Grand Forks, MN, looked like the perfect home for his newly acquired business, especially after the reception he got from city officials, particularly Henry Tweten.
“Henry was amazing,” says Rogers. “He took us to the capitol in St. Paul, and he was fearless and very welcomed there. He walked right into meetings and introduced us to all the decision makers, including the governor. They agreed to assist with obtaining financing, and we got the ball rolling.”
Rogers moved to East Grand Forks and served as Ideal Aerosmith’s vice president of operations. He was involved with many of the company’s business dealings and also helped with sales. After a time, Rogers’ entrepreneurial spirit took him back to Florida and even to the oil fields of Oklahoma. But he kept a position with Ideal Aerosmith even as he applied his business instincts to other businesses.
Meanwhile, his partner did what he could to manage the day-to-day affairs of Ideal Aerosmith. Unfortunately, business took a turn for the worse, and by the early 1990s, the company had slid into financial disarray. His partner relinquished all of the company’s stock to Rogers.
Rogers had begun drilling some oil and gas wells in the Tulsa, Oklahoma, area and met the Owens family while there. The Owenses recognized the potential Ideal Aerosmith held and agreed to become partners as the company started its journey with new leadership.
Energized by the vote of confidence and the opportunity to rebuild Ideal Aerosmith, Rogers returned to East Grand Forks with renewed determination. “When you’re in the Marines, you learn to do more than you thought you could,” Rogers says. “As a pilot, there were situations that we flew in where I convinced myself that I could do something, did it, then noticed unsteady knees after we were back on the ground. At Ideal Aerosmith I was so intent on Ideal and its people being successful that all of us were able to share in that energy together.”
Unfortunately for Rogers, there were few employees left at the Ideal Aerosmith plant to build existing orders. “Everyone pitched in,” he recalls fondly. “We all worked hard to make it happen. We even had some former employees volunteer their time to help us out. I remember working with Kevin Otto testing connections at 2 a.m. But we got it done.”
For a company that was fighting for survival, every sale was important. “Every time we’d make a deal, we’d celebrate. We’d make a sale, and then we’d order pizza,” he laughs.
A turning point came when Rogers made a sales call to Honeywell in Phoenix, Arizona, to sell a testing table. When he arrived, he got the unfortunate news that Honeywell didn’t need any testing tables. The wheels in Rogers’ head began to turn. “I sat back in the meeting and just asked them if there was anything else we could do for them – even if we had to learn how to do it. The Honeywell manager looked at me and said ‘y’know, there might be.’ They asked if we could put together a certain cable assembly for them, and I agreed, even though we had never done it before.”
His positive outlook began to energize the company, and before long things started to look up. “Think big, and we’ll become big. That’s what I always tried to instill,” says Rogers. It was a mantra that paid dividends, and the spirit of innovation soon spilled out of the meeting room and onto the manufacturing floor.
“One of our old tables had been made the same way for many, many years. The controls only allowed for a few speed settings,” he recalls. “I suggested a variable speed knob and our engineers thought I was nuts. ‘Nobody will buy it!’ they said. But not only did it end up increasing sales, it actually required fewer hours to produce while providing an exceptional value to our customers. When we thought creatively, it paid off!”
As Ideal Aerosmith began to turn around, Rogers noticed that many of their customers turned to other manufacturers for add-ons or other parts. In what might be his most important management decision, Rogers insisted that Ideal Aerosmith develop a “turnkey” solution for their customers, along with a relationship-based sales and service strategy that encouraged collaboration rather than competition. The results have been easy to see.
“We’ve grown our market share, thanks to our philosophy of working with customers rather than simply selling them a product,” he explains. “We’ve set a new standard of service for this industry, and that has been a big part of our success.”
From the late 1990s through the early part of the 2010s, Rogers and the team at Ideal Aerosmith (including George Owens’ son Greg) didn’t just free the organization from its financial turmoil, they achieved incredible growth by investing in big ideas and great people. The result is a company with new product offerings, new target markets (including the oil industry) and new facilities, as well as a prominent role in the world of motion simulation and testing. In 2013, Rogers turned 75 – the same age as the company that he worked so hard to rejuvenate. It is fitting, then, that both Rogers and Ideal Aerosmith look to the future together. “We’re going to keep growing,” Rogers says, matter-of-factly. “This company is just going to keep getting bigger and better. I am extremely pleased that Ideal is able to attract such great and responsible people to the company.”
Today, Rogers serves as the chairman of Ideal Aerosmith’s board of directors but has bowed out of the day-to-day operations of the company. Instead, he likens himself to a cheerleader, offering encouragement and advice – “in the rare circumstance needed.” “I’m glad to have been a part of this success story,” he says humbly.
Lonnie Rogers now spends part of each year in Missoula, Montana, with a group of veterans who share his love of fly fishing. He admits that it is not a sport that he has mastered. But as he describes his new hobby, his eyes sparkle with the same spirit that made his work with Ideal Aerosmith so important – and one wonders if the trout in Montana stand any chance at al