Anna Sowa / The Bulletin

Bend-based Columbia Aircraft Manufacturing Corp., one of Bend’s largest employers, announced Thursday that it has replaced its chief executive officer, added three new top managers and is temporarily laying off 185 workers — reducing its work force to half the level it was a year ago.

The workers are expected to get their jobs back in four to six weeks, once the company refines production and improves its manufacturing process, said Randy Bolinger, vice president of marketing and business development.

The furloughed employees — primarily workers who built the planes — will continue to receive medical benefits and training in new manufacturing techniques, and will be eligible for return-to-work cash incentives.

Current President and CEO Bing Lantis is stepping down to attend to family matters and other personal interests, according to a company press release.

Longtime aviation industry veteran and Malaysian native Wan Abd Majid will be the new CEO. Columbia first partnered with Malaysian investors in the 1990s, when U.S. investors weren’t interested, company officials have said. Majid has worked with the company since that time, Bolinger said.

Majid and Columbia’s board of directors have appointed three new senior managers who were consultants throughout the country.

They are Carl Young, chief restructuring officer; Michael Culver, chief operating officer; and Rich Reighard, chief financial officer. Those three positions and people are new to the company, Bolinger said.

The company wants to maintain its production pace of four planes per week, Bolinger said, which would require 525 employees. Columbia still has inventory to deliver, so it will make only one plane per week until the inventory is reduced.

“Once we get rid of the inventory, we hope to ramp up production on the assembly lines,” Bolinger said. “And we expect to bring those people back.”

On March 9, Columbia laid off 59 workers, saying the additional employees were not needed after a June hailstorm damaged some planes waiting to be delivered to customers. Workers were reappointed to repairs, requiring fewer for new planes. In November, the company reduced shifts of 400 workers, citing the same reasons.

Those changes weren’t enough, Bolinger said, and led to the company making its most recent changes.

At one point last year, Columbia had more than 700 employees, making it one of the largest employers in Bend. Now, the company is working at half that, with 335 employees delivering aircraft and improving the company’s production efficiency and customer service, according to the release.

The manufacturer has in the past complained about difficulty in finding and keeping qualified workers in Central Oregon.

“That is exactly why we want to provide benefits and get those (furloughed) employees back,” Bolinger said. “It’s always a challenge to find those highly skilled people and once we find and train them, we want to keep them.”

The move comes as an expansion is about to start at Bend Municipal Airport, where Columbia is a major tenant. Airport Manager Greg Phillips says Columbia’s restructuring may slow the expansion, but it will still happen. In addition to a new and longer runway, the planned expansion includes development for future hangars and land reserved for aviation and industrial use.

“The infrastructure (improvements) need to happen regardless,” Phillips said. “If Columbia course-corrects — and even if their operations change — I’d still expect they’d (use) the Bend airport.”

Bolinger said Columbia currently has the airport capacity it needs.

Sorting out

Roger Lee, executive director of Economic Development for Central Oregon, says he wouldn’t be surprised if the region’s large employers announce more layoffs this year. Last month, Bright Wood Corp., of Madras, laid off 140 employees and Culver’s SeaSwirl Boats Inc. announced it was moving to Minnesota, eliminating 170 jobs.

“There is some sorting out going on in the economy,” Lee said, adding that Central Oregon created more jobs from 2000 to 2005 than the rest of the state combined and that some companies need to cut staff to increase their productivity and efficiency.

“The sky’s not falling; we’re still healthy here,” he said.

Columbia, known as Lancair Co. until 2005, makes premium piston-engine aircraft that seat four people. It launched operations in the mid-1990s, and the current manufacturing facility opened in 1999, producing its first plane in 2000.

The company encountered financial hardship in 2002, when a major investor pulled financial support and Columbia was forced to lay off 277 employees. Then, the Malaysian Ministry of Finance acquired controlling shares of the company.

The last few years have been profitable for Columbia, however. The company reported record sales in 2005, and officials projected in the spring that sales this year would at least equal last year’s.

Columbia delivered its 500th airplane last year.

In a separate matter involving the company, Lance Neibauer, Columbia’s founder, sued Columbia in December for up to $1.55 million in severance pay, which he said he was promised when he was ousted from the company in April 2006. The status of that suit was uncertain late Thursday.