ACL Airshop makes bid for air cargo supremacy with new Greenville factory
By John Jeter
Steve Townes is as persistent as a mule. A 1975 graduate of West Point—whose mascot is a mule—Townes tried for four years to wrangle the purchase of Airline Container Leasing, an Easley-based company manufacturing the straps and leasing the gear needed to ship any cargo by air—including animals. And that persistence paid off.
Today, Townes, CEO of Ranger Aerospace, owns Airline Container Leasing, now called ACL Airshop.
In mid-May, Townes and the rest of the ACL team celebrated the grand opening of the cargo company’s brand-new $7.2 million, 60,000-square-foot factory at 500 Park Commerce Road, Greenville, just off of the busy Charlanta I-85 corridor.
ACL Airshop’s 30-plus employees make quarter- and half-inch-wide polyester strips for netting and for use as individual straps to keep air cargo in place. The operation’s just part of ACL’s overall business—leasing unit load devices, or ULDs, to 200 airliner customers across six continents. ULDs include “cookie-sheet” pallets that slide into cargo-hold tracks like seats, along with equipment such as containers, and, of course, the tie-down stuff.
“When you rent that U-Haul truck, you’re not going to just throw Mom’s china in the back and hope for the best,” says Townes, who’s also ACL Airshop’s chairman and CEO. “Right there at the cash register, every U-Haul store has boxes, padding blankets, bubble wrap—that’s us at the end of the runway.”
At a lot of them, in fact.
ACL Airshop now boasts a “strategic footprint” in 52 of the world’s top airports, with its largest at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.
ACL Executive Vice President Wes Tucker, who has been with the firm for 16 years, says he’s seen growth quintuple. Back in 2003, ACL had some 4,500 ULDs on lease while today there’s more than 30,000, he says. Townes believes the company eventually will have 80,000 ULDs available for lease in as many as 80 major hub airports worldwide.
That’s because, as he points to a photo of a 747 freighter, “Every piece of equipment, for cargo control, on this aircraft potentially belongs to us: pallets, containers, straps, and nets, and so forth.”
He promised threefold growth within five years to ACL’s previous owner and his own board at Ranger, which Townes founded in 1997. The company bills itself as a “private equity consolidator and management holding company specializing in aerospace operations and aviation-services deals.”
Airline Container Leasing started in New York in 1979 and began shipping horses by air. It grew its services to cover all ULD needs for numerous airlines. The perfectly successful operation wasn’t for sale in the year 2000 when Ranger first tried to acquire it, but Townes mulishly wooed the owner with calls, emails, and birthday cards—they share the same birth date. Finally, in 2016, he says, “One thing led to another.”
“When they came in,” Tucker says, “Steve sat all the management group down and said, ‘Look, I’m not going to come in here with a big pile of rules.’ The reasons that we were successful for so many years, the reason we were such a sexy buy for Ranger, is because of the entrepreneurial spirit of the company.”
Moreover, Townes saw no point in changing horses—err, mules—midstream. “We could have shut the whole thing down and outsourced all those aerospace manufacturing jobs to China or Mexico. My ardent pitch to our board of directors was, ‘Hell no, we will do it here, in the U.S.A., here in the company’s hometown.” Today, Morgan serves as ACL Airshop’s vice chairman.
Both Townes and Tucker see even more growth on the horizon. The sector generates a $19 billion annual impact on the state, according to SC Aerospace, where Townes sits on the board of industry stakeholders. He also sees a $2.5 trillion annual market in the air-transport industry, not including military.
Tucker, meanwhile, cites airports themselves as growth indicators, especially with Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport expected to open a $30 million air-cargo facility this year. The 110,000-square-foot-warehouse and 13-acre cargo ramp will be able to accommodate three Boeing 747-800 aircraft simultaneously.
Tucker remembers such freighters flying in twice a week. “There are two or three a day now,” he says, adding that ACL Airshop will be at the end of the runway with equipment to strap everything in.
With the double-digit growth in e-commerce, air cargo has become what Townes calls a “fundamental thread in the fabric of our life around the entire world.” Today, he aims to weave ACL Airshop—which has doubled in size since the 2016 buyout—into the global supply-chain tapestry.
“Everything that we do,” he says, “finds its way onto an airplane.”