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Uczekaj Guides Aspen Avionics to Greater Heights

New Mexico Business Weekly; by Kevin Robinson-Avila, NMBW Staff; Mar. 13, 2009 ©2009; article and sidebar reprinted with permission of the New Mexico Business Weekly

In a very real sense, John Uczekaj spent his entire career preparing to head Aspen Avionics Inc.

An electronics engineer by training, Uczekaj, 50, has spent more than three decades in the aviation industry.

He helped lead giants like Honeywell International Inc., Airbus and Boeing Co. through monumental transitions from analog-based hardware systems to digital software controls. He steadily climbed the management ranks, eventually heading industry divisions at Honeywell with thousands of employees and earning an international reputation as a key leader in the development of modern avionics.

Now, as president and CEO of Aspen Avionics, Uczekaj ("ou-zeh-kai") is helping general aviation aircraft owners switch from analog to digital systems at an affordable price. And, in the process, he's helping lay the foundation for a small Albuquerque-based startup to grow into a major player in the aviation industry.

Phil Boyer, who headed the 400,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association for 18 years until his retirement in December, says he joined Aspen's board of directors in January as a volunteer largely out of respect for Uczekaj.

"I wouldn't have done it were it not for John asking me and for the deep respect I have for him," Boyer says. "John knows everybody out there in the industry and he's well respected by everyone. He has a tremendous reputation."

Boyer says Aspen offers a game-changing product for the general aviation industry, but it's Uczekaj's leadership skills and his ability to attract top-notch management to Aspen that will allow Aspen to succeed.

"Aspen is probably the smallest venture that John's ever been involved in, but he sees the real value of its product," Boyer says. "His upbeat spirit and boundless energy will help develop Aspen's potential into solid growth."

Going from top dog at large companies to a small local startup might seem like a step backwards, but Uczekaj says it was the next natural step in his career path.

"It took a bit of soul-searching to make the leap, but I realized that fully running a company was what I'd always been working towards," Uczekaj says. "It was, by far, the best decision I ever made. It has fulfilled the career circle for me."
In fact, Uczekaj has led a pretty linear career in the aviation industry.

The son of Hungarian refugees, Uczekaj was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., after his parents fled the 1956 revolution in Hungary. Uczekaj's father, an electrical engineer, moved the family in 1967 to Seattle, Wash., to take a job at Boeing.

At one time or another, Uczekaj's entire family—including his mother and six siblings—all worked at Boeing.
Uczekaj himself had few doubts about following in his father's footsteps.

"My dad was a real role model for me," Uczekaj says. "We talked a lot about aviation and airplanes, and I always loved math, so I studied to be an electrical engineer."

He graduated from Oregon State University in 1980 and immediately joined Boeing to work on a program to transition 757 and 767 planes from hardware to software-designed electronics.

"I was very lucky to enter at that time because there was a fundamental change under way in the aviation industry to transition from hardware to software systems." Uczekaj says.

As the digital transformation gained force, Uczekaj steadily climbed the industry's ranks.

Sperry Flight Systems recruited him in 1984 to Phoenix, Ariz., to help adapt emerging Boeing avionics technology to business jet aircraft. He remained with Sperry for 20 years, staying on after Honeywell acquired Sperry in the 1980s, and again after AlliedSignal bought out Honeywell in 1999.

Uczekaj received his first management position in 1985, when Honeywell asked him to lead an engineering team to upgrade avionics on the Airbus A340.

Since then, Uczekaj has held one management position after another. From 1989 to 1992, he headed a Honeywell program in France to modernize avionics on the Airbus A320, and from 1992 to 1995 he led Honeywell's engineering department in a program to convert Boeing 777 planes to a fully integrated avionics suite.

His only stint outside aviation occurred from 1995 to 1998, when he was vice president of engineering for Honeywell's industrial automation and control division, which managed contracts for oil refineries and chemical plants.

He worked as vice president for marketing and sales at Honeywell's business commuter aviation division from 1998 to 2000. And, finally, Uczekaj headed the avionics division from 2000 to 2004, following Honeywell's merger with AlliedSignal.

At that point, however, Uczekaj set his sights even higher.

"It became clear to me that I wanted to actually run a company," Uczekaj says. "I decided I wanted to gain more direct entrepreneurial experience."

For that reason, he left Honeywell in 2004 and became chief operating officer for The NORDAM Group, an aviation parts manufacturer and maintenance, repair and overhaul company in Oklahoma. He remained there until late 2006, when investors from Aspen Avionics came calling.

Since joining Aspen in February 2007, Uczekaj has drawn on his contacts in aviation to attract top industry talent to Albuquerque.

"The one prerequisite for me was to be able to hire the people I need," Uczekaj says. "Aspen has a great product, but to bring the product to market is another thing. I've hired well-known industry people and put them in key leadership positions."

Aspen investors strongly approve.

"It's an incredibly well-managed company," says John Bessone, regional director for private equity at Fort Washington Capital Partners, which invested in Aspen. "John's stellar reputation has allowed Aspen to attract a very talented team. That's the true strength of the company."

Brian Birk, managing partner for Sun Mountain Capital, says Aspen's management is a key reason Sun Mountain has invested in the company.

"Aspen has ground-breaking technology that fits a critical need in aviation, and with John at the helm, the company has top-notch management in place to take the product to market," Birk says.

Uczekaj lives in Placitas with wife Diane, his high school sweetheart. Married 29 years, the couple have two horses and are avid riders.

Learn more at Aspen Avionics' website: | 505-348-8302

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