““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Jeppesen's Mark Van Tine
If 10 years ago you had peeked into the cockpit of almost any business aircraft or airliner in the world, you would have seen a large, boxy flight bag holding several thick leather binders with the words "Jeppesen Airway Manual" embossed on the cover. These held hundreds of thin-paper pages of airport diagrams, route charts and text critical to navigation-all information gathered, processed, checked, printed, collated, packaged and mailed by the company founded by former barnstormer, airmail carrier, aviation pioneer and eventually long-time airline pilot and millionaire Capt. Elrey B. Jeppesen.
At the peak year of its paper business, Jeppesen printed 2.5 billion pages covering procedures at 14,700 airports. Every week from its headquarters in Englewood, Colo., the company mailed up to a half million envelopes of updates and revisions to its customers worldwide.
"Captain Jepp," as everyone called him, sold his company for $5 million in 1962 to the Times-Mirror Corporation, which held it for 38 years. The Tribune Company bought Times-Mirror-and along with it Jeppesen-in March 2000 for $8 billion. Five months later, it sold Jeppesen to Boeing for $1.5 billion. Jeppesen now generates about $600 million a year in revenue. Captain Jepp died on Nov. 26, 1996, at age 89.
Today, if you look in those same business aircraft and airliner cockpits, you won't find as many with the formerly ubiquitous Jeppesen flight bags and binders. But the Jeppesen navigational charts are there still, in electronic form, available to pilots on multifunction cockpit displays or separate handheld computer notebooks, called electronic flight bags. That's not to say the aviation world has gone completely digital. In 2006, the company still shipped 1.5 billion of its familiar hole-punched pages.
"Every week when our shipment of revisions goes out," Mark Van Tine, president and COO of Jeppesen, told me, "in my mind I hear pilots opening and closing binders all over the world."
Though the transition from paper to electronic has taken longer than the Jeppesen people originally thought it would, it has nonetheless provided the impetus for the 73-year-old firm to transform itself from an aviation information printing company to "an information solutions provider in transportation."