Because of a fateful decision made in Fort Rucker back in the 1980s, rather than conducting an interview in Boise, Idaho, as the president of night vision leader Aviation Specialties Unlimited (ASU), Jim Winkel could have well instead been conducting a Bible study in Central America as a missionary. Whether that decision was made with providential prayerful guidance, or just good judgment, Winkel now gets to faithfully serve two masters: (1) At ASU, he serves his passion for night vision technology, and (2) at All Saints Presbyterian Church, he fulfills an even higher calling as an elder for his Presbyterian Church in America’s missionary efforts.
A lot of lessons were learned, and a lot of time and moves transpired before Winkel worked his way to the president’s desk in Idaho. Some moves were historic; one of Winkel’s earliest boyhood memories is making the westward road trip along Route 66, as millions did to California, so his father could work for Shell Oil in the San Francisco Bay Area. Winkel spent most of his childhood there in the ‘60s, but the elder Winkel again was transferred, to Houston, Texas, which was far removed from the California counterculture scene of the 1960s. “Making that move was quite a culture shock,” Winkel recalls. “Racial desegregation in the schools was a big issue at the time in Texas, an issue that didn’t impact me in California.” Civil rights race issues weren’t the only adaptation. Winkel humorously remembers, “Another big change I had to adapt to was the Texas accent. I remember our PE coach telling us not to forget our towel fee to wash our towels. I thought he was saying not to forget our taffy fee; I was wondering why in the world we needed to buy candy in gym class?” Winkel adjusted to Southern culture enough to successfully ask a fellow high school student, Sandy, out on a date. It must have gone well, the couple has been married for 37 years.
Those halcyon Houston high school years were good ones, but the student was about to make decisions that would directly shape his destiny, even if he didn’t know it at the time. “An Army recruiter told me that based on my ASVAB test scores he wanted to send me to West Point,” Winkel reflects. “You know, when you’re young, you really don’t know much. I instead chose to go to Boot Camp, because I really didn’t know if I wanted to commit to the military at that age like an appointment to West Point would have required. In the Army, I learned electronics repair for GCA radar.”
At Fort Hood, the aspiring aviator was temporarily assigned to an aviation company and got accepted to flight school. He flew Hueys when he was transferred to Germany. Upon returning, he was assigned to Fort Rucker, Alabama, as a flight instructor, when he heard that missionary calling, ”At about this time my wife and I felt a strong calling in our spirit to become missionaries in Central America. With the political turmoil in Central America at the time, we decided that it wasn’t the right environment to raise our kids.”
Rather than enter the mission field, Winkel entered the Florida National Guard. “I spent eight-and-a-half years in the Florida guard and absolutely loved it.” He became a standardization instructor pilot and the lead instructor pilot for the Black Hawk unit. Winkel adds, “I was privileged to obtain a multi-engine, fixed-wing qualification as well. I was also an instrument examiner. So I kind of punched all my tickets.”
Well, he punched one more. Florida was assigned to C-23 Sherpas. “My last two years, I was the detachment commander of that unit, which we started from scratch.”
After 20 years of service, Winkel’s military years were maxed out and over. In 1996, he realized he’d soon be leaving the military and its retirement benefits weren’t going to support his young family at the time. “In preparation for that, I had an idea of taking night vision out of the military and getting it to law enforcement. Many law enforcement pilots had flown with night vision in the military and they wanted to continue flying with NVG (night vision goggles) in their civilian careers.”
Moon Shadow Training
Thus, he founded a little company in Lakeland, Florida, called Moon Shadow Training, which wound up training about 30 customers around the country and Winkel ran Moon Shadow Training for about a year when he left the military. He recalls ruefully, “Sometimes my instructor pilots were the ones making all the money.”
Still, it was a year of entrepreneurial effort that opened a window of opportunity, even when Winkel did his best to slam that window shut. As a result of Moon Shadow, he developed a relationship with Litton Industries, which manufactured night vision goggles. They invited Winkel to Dallas for a meeting. “I thought they were going to talk to me about becoming a consultant and for three hours they tried to convince me to become their manager of business development for a new aviation products unit they were establishing.” he recalls. “For three hours I tried to convince them I wasn’t their guy; I told them I was just a dumb Army pilot who didn’t know anything about business development.” Winkel wasn’t as unenthusiastic as he played. On his way from the airport he pulled over to a payphone (remember those?) and called Sandy to tell her about the persistent offer that had been made. “As a Texas girl, she jumped at the opportunity and in 1999,” he says, “We moved our family to Dallas, which began my journey of being involved with large aerospace defense companies.”
The beginning of that journey began with a rush. The awe-shucks former Army pilot started developing and selling for Litton and also regulated night vision standards by co-chairing the RTCA committee that created minimum requirements for NVGs that published the defining document (DO-275) still in use today for governing NVG flight within the national U.S. airspace system. From Dallas, Winkel was promoted to business development manager for Europe, then rose to international business development manager and finally became the BD/Sales department manager.
This international experience served Winkel when he left Northrop Grumman in 2006 (The defense contractor had acquired Litton Industries.) for France-based Thales, which wanted Winkel to help grow their optronics business. For two years he endeavored to do just that, flying from his Dallas home to the Thales tactical radio facility in Maryland. However, the upcoming executive, who had developed a skill for closing large sales, flew head-on into an obstacle he couldn’t overcome: government politics. “It was increasingly difficult to promote Thales’ products in the U.S.,” Winkel recalls. During one important presentation before a U.S. government panel, the government director opened the meeting by stating, “I just want everyone here to know that you guys are a French company.” Taken aback, Winkel replied that although the parent company was based in France, he and his team were representing Thales’ British operations. The director countered that he just wanted everyone on the review panel to know for sure Thales was a French company before they deliberated. “He then stood up and walked out of the room, leaving the panel, and us, dumbstruck. It was one of the most unprofessional displays I’d ever seen,” Winkel remembers with a tone of astonishment lingering in his voice.
After that episode, Winkel received a timely call from his former employer (recently acquired by L3 Technologies) asking him to come back as vice president of business development for the electro-optics division. “I decided to leave Thales, because I realized it was going to be extremely difficult to put an operation for them together when the U.S. government had significant bias against the French,” says Winkel.
The returning VP soon snatched career victory from recent defeat in a way that would have made the Marquis de Lafayette smile. Undaunted, Winkel struck up a conversation with Mike Atwood and his company, ASU. Winkel had known Atwood for years, going back to their days when they served on the RCTA committee. The problem was that for most of those years, Atwood represented competing products to those Winkel sold. That changed when Atwood decided to make the move to Winkel and L3’s night vision line. It became a lucrative move. Shortly after making the switch, ASU won a $43 million NVG order, which became the largest sale in ASU history.
“ I came to admire what ASU was doing.” Winkel says, “Mike was one of those legendary guys. He and I had similar ideas back in the mid ‘90s, but he was the guy that made those ideas successful.”
The admiration was returned. In 2013, Mike and Chris Atwood began a conversation with Winkel about his coming onboard when Mike eventually exited his company. “I never had any intention of moving our family from Texas, but decided to join ASU,” explains Winkel. “Our roots were in Texas; I was heavily involved in my church’s mission work.” Still, the Winkels left the land of Texas tea and loaded up the truck and moved to Boise … Idaho, that is, the land of smurf turf blue football fields and ASU blue sky.
Things have a way of working out, or maybe Providence wills it for faithful Presbyterians, but Winkel has been working for ASU for approximately five years, now serving as the company’s president. Not only has the night vision business prospered, but Winkel and his wife were able to serve and revitalize missionary efforts in their new Boise church home. “It’s been a real blessing to see the passion that people have for missions in our church here. It’s phenomenal,” says a man at peace with the decisions he made.
Recipe for Success
Winkel has been rewarded with a diverse career; he navigated through international corporate skies, and storms, to land at a relatively cozy, family business in Idaho. How did a self-described “dumb Army pilot” have such a successful career in so many environments? Winkel answers, “I think there are a few ingredients. One is having a real understanding of how the technology works and how it will be employed operationally. It’s one thing to have an idea for a cool widget; it’s another thing to understand how it’s going to be used. In aviation operations, there are many considerations: operational performance, safety, regulatory issues, and cost issues are examples. It’s a real dynamic environment.”
Leadership experience is another ingredient in a successful business recipe. “The military gave me an opportunity to lead people. Leading people is very different in the civilian world. In the military, everyone has a shared experience. You have very consistent, clear-cut chains of command. That’s not always present in civilian environments. We have a lot of people with military backgrounds here at ASU, but our company culture is currently changing. I’m tending to be more hands-off and delegating to our vice presidents. I try to set the vision and let them execute. When I served in the past at lower levels, I had teams and more directly planned the execution. Now, as president, I have people below me who plan very well for their teams. I set the overall vision for the company and look at those things outside the specific scope of VPs, such as regulatory issues and new product development. Being the ultimate leader, as Mike and Chris have only recently moved into far less active roles in the company, is something new for me. I’m still growing and learning,” he says.
One life lesson Winkel has learned is that his role as a father is now a greater priority than it was in the past. “I’ve made some changes since moving to Boise. I take time to get outdoors and enjoy God’s creation with my family,” he says. “I’m taking time to enjoy my teens still at home, more than I did with our older children. With them, I got busy with the military, business, and life in general and didn’t spend the time with them like I’m now doing with our younger children. I’m now trying to be an encourager to these young kids both as a father and a friend too, which has really been a really neat experience.”
Make no mistake; Winkel is not transforming into a laidback stay-at-home, snowboarding dad. There are challenges facing ASU and the president is planning for his people to overcome them. “The North American market has slowed down; we’ve reached a saturation point,” he explains. “So, we’re making a global push to introduce, game changing, really cool night vision technology into Europe, Asia, and Africa. The challenge with reaching farther abroad is that your logistics lines stretch further. Sending a team of installers to Entebbe takes more planning than sending them to Shreveport.”
Winkel retains his zeal for missions from the ‘80s, which is when he first flew with NVGs. Back then he hated the full-face, uncomfortable apparatus that provided only marginally better visibility. He eschewed the technology, until his Florida National Guard unit became an NVG fighting force. Then he found night vision technology vastly improved and much more comfortable and functional. “You could look down to the ground and see clearly see six shadows in perfect formation and I’d think Wow, how many people in history have ever experienced night vision like this!
I went from absolutely hating the technology to loving it. It’s a neat thing; not only does it save lives, but it’s cool. I’ve got a real passion for it.”
With passion for his family, church, and night vision, Winkel is a man on a mission.