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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    She’s flying high as chief executive of Columbia Air Sales and Service

    Kelly Zierenberg, chief financial officer, left, and Melissa Duzguner, chief executive officer, of Columbia Aircraft Sales and Service, next to a Daher TBM 850 airplane Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023, in the Main Sales and Avionics hanger in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Groton ― Melissa Duzguner, whose company sells $5 million airplanes, remembers being mistaken for a receptionist when she answered sales calls.

    “Occasionally, it still happens where I’ll answer the phone and they assume that I’m a secretary and then ask to speak to someone else,” Duzguner, now chief executive officer of Columbia Aircraft Sales and Service, said last week. “Definitely there was more of that as I was coming up in the industry.”

    Columbia has provided factory-authorized aircraft sales and services for Daher, a French aircraft manufacturer, since the 1990s.

    “It’s funny because people come to this campus (at Groton-New London Airport) and they have no idea what we do,” Duzguner said. “We’re a 43-plus-year business in the state of Connecticut that’s been here all along. And people are just ... they’re amazed that they had no idea we exist. So yeah, it’s a unique business.”

    “We’re a small company that does a lot of big things every day,” she said. “Everybody here wears multiple hats.”

    Duzguner has worn a few hats herself since taking over as CEO.

    In February, the company sold off its three aircraft refueling locations, which made workers anxious.

    But in the sale’s aftermath, Duzguner said she helped reassure employees that the company was “stronger than ever,” and that the move would help it transition back to its original purpose: “sales and service.”

    Before it sold off the refueling locations, the company was known as Columbia Aviation Companies, reflecting its fueling, sales and service divisions. Recently, Columbia has reclaimed its original name, Columbia Aircraft Sales and Service, and has redone its website.

    From West Virginia to eastern Canada, the company is the exclusive distributor of Daher’s TBM line of high-powered single-engine turbine aircraft, which can travel up to 330 knots, or about 415 mph, according to Duzguner, who is also the company’s director of sales.

    That speed will get you to Florida ― or anywhere else you need to go ― in record time, Duzguner said. With all the available bells and whistles, the plane’s cost is around $5.3 million.

    The TBM 960 is not just any plane, Duzguner said, sitting at the head of a conference table in the company’s sales office during a recent interview. On the table, she had laid out a photo of the white, gray and red single-engine plane in mid-flight.

    “Basically, that’s the Ferrari of single-pilot aircraft,” she said of the plane, which is manufactured in France. “This is the peak of general aviation.”

    The company’s maintenance shop services airplanes from all over the country.

    “They (maintenance customers) like working with our people,” Duzguner said. “They trust our people to take care of their most prized asset, which they fly their families around in most times.”

    Kelly Zierenberg, chief financial officer, left, and Melissa Duzguner, chief executive officer, of Columbia Aircraft Sales and Service, pause to talk while walking Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023, through the Main Sales and Avionics hanger in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    From “counting wings” to selling them

    Well before she took over as CEO, Duzguner said she grew up an “airport brat” and hung around planes with her father.

    “I was painting rivets at 6 and 7 years old,” she said. “They gave me a little can of white paint and they sat me up on a ladder and I was retouching rivets on the older airplanes.”

    Duzguner said that while she was in college studying to become a marine scientist, she came back to work at Columbia in the summer. Eventually, she realized her academic pursuits weren’t meeting her expectations.

    “You know what it was, honestly? It was sitting in genetics class at 10 o’clock counting flies, counting fly wings, you know, the wrinkles on the flies,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is not what I want to do with my life.’ ”

    After Duzguner completed a semester of field research in Hawaii, a professor told her he didn’t think science was right for her.

    “He’s like, ‘You’ve got a strong personality. You’re sort of a leader, and I can see you getting really frustrated, because you’re either going to be working for someone who’s going to take all the credit for all of your research ― and that’s going to frustrate you ― or you’re going to be teaching,’ ” Duzguner recalled.

    “I think part of it was the fact I was a girl, too,” she said. “And he thought that my challenges would probably be even harder because I was a girl coming into the sciences.”

    Duzguner made it clear she did not want to discourage any women from pursuing a career in science. And she noted the irony in her foregoing one male-dominated field for another.

    “I’ve had a lot of time to establish credibility because I’ve been here,” she said. “Whereas I think some women entering the aviation business that haven’t had that advantage of working in it as long might encounter a little bit more (of a barrier to entry). It still, to this day, is very male-dominated.”

    “That’s one of the things that makes this company so unique is that it’s run by women,” Duzguner said of Columbia. The company’s chief financial officer and human resources director also are women.

    As CFO, Kelly Zierenberg’s job is to make important financial decisions and ensure the company adapts to shifts in the economy.

    “When the economy shifts, we are making decisions to make sure that we're not going to have six airplanes sitting on the ramp unsold,” Duzguner said. “So always, so it's a little bit of a lot of forecasting, a little bit of luck, and a lot of just paying attention.”

    She and Zierenberg work in unison, helping out with each other's duties when needed.

    “She's as involved in my side of the house and I'm as involved in her side of the house,” Zierenberg said. “And we can sort of pivot and adapt as needed. If I get pulled into sales deals, she can step up and handle a little bit more of sort of general company business ...”

    Kim Parker, the human resources director, works to maintain employee morale, help manage workers’ health benefits and concerns, and recruit aircraft technicians, Duzguner said.

    “So it’s nice to see women at the helm of a place like this that’s been in business for 43 years,“ she said. ”It’s encouraging to me.“

    d.drainville@theday.com

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