Christopher Whiteside says image matters in his business. AJ Walter Aviation's striking new headquarters in the Sussex countryside, not far from Gatwick airport, may look more like the home of a trendy software design house than a stockist of aircraft spare parts.
But for Whiteside - president of the 80-year-old company - investing $24 million to build the warehouse and office complex was about being seen to be competing on a level playing field with the big boys: the OEMs and major airlines that want to control the aftermarket in components.
"Look, no one gets fired for buying from Lufthansa Technik and I can't compete with United Technologies, so all I've got is my level of service, and my brand. Presentation is everything. You get business because of your brand," says Whiteside, who took over the running of the business from his father in 2004.
Since then, AJ Walter has undergone considerable expansion, moving into fields such as consumables management, engines and, now, component repair, with the acquisition last year of part of the former Aveos maintenance, repair and overhaul business in Montreal, which has been renamed AJW Technique.
The Canadian business, which will become operational this quarter and employ about 300 people, will allow AJW to offer an in-house component remanufacturing service for the first time - until now work has been sent to third-party contractors.
But the rationale goes further than that. What Whiteside describes as a "judicious purchasing opportunity" will give the UK company an industrial footprint - and market foothold - in North America, helping towards Whiteside's ambition to create a $1 billion turnover global business by 2017. "The concept of service-level agreements and power by the hour is only just catching on there," he says.
With a current turnover of around half that figure, AJ Walter, which has distribution hubs in Singapore, Dubai, London, Montreal and Miami, has built its reputation by focusing on start-up airlines, generally those that cannot afford to invest in spare parts inventory, and on the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families.
It supplies, loans, manages and services mainly rotable components under a variety of financial packages, with stock held at its own depots or at customer premises. The company carries out about 40,000 transactions a month and claims to have 17% of the worldwide Airbus and Boeing narrowbody spares business.
In the past 18 months, AJW has moved into consumables management, focusing on the 500 fastest moving items, as well as engine repair. Although it does no maintenance work itself, the company offers an exchange service for fan blade sets on the CFM56 engine that powers the 737 and A320.
It acquires engines with "green time" remaining on aircraft being parted out, and leases them to airlines. Eventually, the engines will be broken down for parts. Another venture launched last year sees it partnering with British Airways' engineering arm to provide spares support to Boeing 787 operators. AJW hopes to secure its first customers this year.
Whiteside is not modest about having made a personal fortune from trading spares. His ample office would be the envy of many corporate chief executives. It is straight out of James Bond, with balcony terrace, sofas and a large bookshelf lined with art hardbacks and a concealed door. His other office is a Bombardier Global Express, a photograph of which adorns the shelf.
His 350 staff do not do badly either. The building, which he helped design, contains a gym and dance studio, while solar panels and a rainwater recycling system help reinforce AJW's green credentials.
Whiteside makes no excuse for the comforts: "I've worked in dumps all my life and don't want to do it again. I wanted to create an environment for my staff that they don't want to leave."
Another picture frame behind his desk contains a letter from his former headmaster, predicting that Whiteside would achieve little in life; he was expelled from school at 15.
Three decades later, he says, he is often asked what his proudest achievement has been: "Quite simple - attracting all these talented people to come and work for this business."