This Fort Wayne company flies under the radar, but it’s highly respected in the airline industry
By Dan Watson | Input Fort Wayne
"I thought that place was abandoned!"
That's the reaction Jensen Cabinet CEO Brian Robertson often gets when he shows people the company's home. It's a seven-story brick building just off Clinton Street that looks every bit of its 108 years of age. But from that humble structure comes handiwork that's the envy of an industry.
If you've flown recently, you've probably seen it.
Jensen Cabinet has carved out a niche for itself in the airline industry, producing ticketing and check-in counters, podiums, charging stations, and other types of casework. It works with United, Delta, and American Airlines, as well as directly with airports.
"We're the second-oldest vendor for United (Airlines)," Robertson says. "The only one they've been with longer is Boeing."
And the modest building is symbolic of Robertson's own start with the homegrown company.
As a jobseeker in 1993, he had just returned from a stint living in Florida. Driving past the Jensen Cabinet facility, he noticed the company's sign and was intrigued. When he arrived home, he had a message from his mother-in-law, passing along a tip that Jensen was hiring.
The company eventually offered him a job, but not the management-level position he was hoping for. Instead, he was on the production floor, building cabinets.
"I made $7 an hour," he says with a smile.
But it was a foot in the door for Robertson, who had done carpentry work for his father's company. And he made it clear that he eventually wanted to move up into company leadership.
Over the next several years, he did just that, teaching himself how to use AutoCAD software, which has allowed him to start designing cabinets for production. After his promotion to a management role in 2002, he received a phone call from United Airlines. They wanted Jensen Cabinet to bid on a deal to outfit Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
Robertson's team put together a package and won the contract. The former trim carpenter had reeled in a $4 million deal. He became part-owner in 2005.
Founded in 1949 by Karl Jensen, the company originally broke into the airline industry in the 1960s. Since then, its work has become a fixture in airports across North and South America, the Pacific Rim, the Middle East and Europe. It's been seen in airline commercials as well as "The Terminal," a 2004 movie starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Lately, Jensen has played a role in LaGuardia Airport's $8 billion rebuild.
"Right now, we're doing LaGuardia's new terminals," Robertson says. "We've done Concourse B, which is beautiful, and we'll have Concourse A in 2020."
Airlines occasionally look to other cabinet vendors but, almost without fail, they come back to Jensen. Robertson credits the company's heavy-duty workmanship, especially its in-house metalwork.
"We always say our competition is our best salesperson," Robertson says. "(Competitors) build it, and we have to go fix it."
In recent years, Jensen has diversified beyond the airline industry, including working with customers much closer to home. For example, the company now creates stainless steel doors for an MRI machine company based in Noblesville.
When a Fort Wayne company needed metal components for their hydrotherapy treadmills, Jensen got the job, too. And the company's first foray into direct-to-consumer products is coming soon: A heavy-duty drink rail Robertson designed himself that can mount onto virtually any railing or banister.
Meanwhile, Robertson has become an ambassador for his hometown of Fort Wayne. When airline executives visit the city, he "accidentally" drives the long way to his favorite destinations to show off projects like Parkview Field, The Landing, Skyline Tower, and Electric Works.
"Having been in a few cities that have developed their rivers, I'm very excited about the riverfront,” Robertson says. “I also love the idea of Electric Works. Fort Wayne is a perfect-sized city. We'd never consider going anywhere else."
As many manufacturers struggle to recruit workers, Robertson has had good luck with his workforce in Fort Wayne, too. He speaks highly of the employees he's recruited out of the Career Academy at Anthis, just a few blocks away from Jensen's facility. And as part of his work with the Gateway Coalition, a group that promotes careers in the skilled trades, he tells the unlikely story of his career at Jensen Cabinet.
"I started here in 1993 making $7 an hour, and now I'm the majority owner," he says. "Anything's possible; you just have to work hard and look for opportunities."