Niche market pays off for immigrant Aurora business owner

“It is growing, and not too many people want to do business there,” the Avtech president and CEO said in an interview at his Aurora office this week.

20170501-Avtech-Aurora, Colorado

A governor for a C-130 sits in the small warehouse on Monday May 01, 2017 at Avtech. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20170501-Avtech-Aurora, Colorado

Yonas Soloman is the owner of Avtech, an Aurora-based exporting compay that sells airplane parts to Africa. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

AURORA | Selling airplane parts to a handful of countries in east Africa is about as niche as a niche market can get.

And despite the growing demand for air travel in places like Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea, the distance from here to there means not many companies are looking to tap that market.

Yonas Solomon’s Avtech International is an exception.

“It is growing, and not too many people want to do business there,” the Avtech president and CEO said in an interview at his Aurora office this week.

In that small but growing corner of the market, Solomon has managed to carve out a successful business exporting airplane parts to the other side of the world.

Last year, Solomon said the company, based out of a small office and warehouse on Havana Street in Aurora, saw its sales surpass $1 million.

This week, Solomon will be honored with the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Exporter of the Year Award. A ceremony for Avtech is planned for May at the Aurora Municipal Center. U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, is set to present the award to Solomon, according to SBA.

Other honorees this year in Colorado include Denver’s Mi Casa Resource Center, which was named the national Women’s Business Center of the Year.

“It is my honor and distinct pleasure to announce the 54 winners from across the U.S. and its territories,” SBA Administrator Linda McMahon said in a statement. “These small business owners define entrepreneurial spirit and best represent the 28 million small businesses that are the backbone and economic engine for today’s economy. I look forward to welcoming the winners to Washington next month when they are officially honored for their achievements.”

Solomon launched Avtech in 2012 after spending more than a decade working in the airplane parts business in Dubai. The company buys parts in the U.S. for big name planes — Cessna, Lockheed and Boeing among them — and ships them to airlines, governments and other customers in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as well as east Africa.

Solomon said the work can be slow, with customers waiting a few months to make a decision after he quotes them a price, and that’s kept some competitors from jumping into the market.

“People here are impatient, (they) don’t like to wait,” he said with a grin.

In the company’s early days, Solomon said it was tough to get loans, which meant he was paying for the parts up front out of his own pocket.

Big banks weren’t interested in such a niche market so far away, he said, and he hadn’t been in business long enough to show the sorts of results lenders want to —and like to — see.

“I had to get a track record,” he said.

But he said he approached SBA in 2015 and they helped him secure a loan from Commerce Bank. That loan helped Solomon expand the business.

“That’s when things started moving,” he said.

Last year, for the first time, Avtech cleared that $1 million mark and Solomon said he is hoping the company will continue its upward growth.

Today, the company is just Solomon and his wife — along with some help from family members. He said he’d like to add office staff as well as more staff in his warehouse, too.

He’s also looking at expanding to other markets in Africa.

In 2016, he visited Rwanda, Zambia and Ghana with hopes of expanding Avtech’s sales to those African nations.

He said he chose those spots because the planes he already traffics in parts for are common in those regions.

And in his travels, Solomon said, the people in the airplane business there told him they could use a company like Avtech.

“They were also having a problem getting parts,” he said.