It’s not every day that a young Latina working mother is approached by two financiers and asked if she’d like to start her own business — particularly in the early ’90s. But that’s exactly what happened to Louise McKinnis while she was working at a bearings company in Fullerton, California.
“My mom was a bit of an adventurer and knew a good opportunity when she saw one,” shares Suzanne Burks about her late mother. Sadly, McKinnis passed about five years ago. Burks had the opportunity to work alongside her mom as she built the company — ESP Aerospace Fasteners, a distributor of fastening hardware for commercial and military aerospace applications — and has since continued the family legacy as company president.
“It’s an interesting story,” Burks explains. “Two gentlemen, who were nearing retirement and about to shut down their staffing company, essentially headhunted my mom to see if she wanted to start her own company of choice. They offered to back her financially.”
And that’s how ESP Aerospace Fasteners was founded. McKinnis was a smart, feisty woman, according to her daughter. She had worked in upper management, had fastener industry knowledge, as well as plenty of contacts on the manufacturing and customer side of the industry, so this decision made sense.
“The company was a complete start-up with my mom serving as president and maintaining 51% ownership,” she adds. “Within five years, she bought out the two gentlemen and became full owner.”
At 23 years of age, Burks joined her mom at ESP and has worked there ever since, earning her role as its current president. This past November, the company celebrated 30 years in business.
“Initially, it was pretty much just the two of us in a small office with two desks, a couple of computers, and a fax machine,” she says. And not everyone at the time believed the business was female-owned. “I remember customers asking to speak to my mom’s husband, assuming she couldn’t possibly be the owner. It infuriated me then, but my mom took it in stride and would simply share that she was divorced and the company president.”
Burks used to call her mom “the General” as a joke. “She was all of five-foot-three, always wore heels, and knew how to make an entrance. Everyone would stiffen up when she walked into a room. I mean she was also a lot of fun and extremely kind and giving. But when she meant business, she meant it.”
It’s of little surprise then that ESP Aerospace Fasteners has earned and maintained its top-tier supplier status with industry leaders, such as L-3 Communications, L3 Harris, Honeywell FM&T, Lockheed Martin, and Kaman Aerospace.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve built and how we do business,” says Burks. “Take our Honeywell account, for example, one of our largest ones. We went from an approved supplier 30 years ago to an approved ‘dock-to-stock’ supplier — which means we’re also receiving inspection and parts because of the quality we offer. And there’s L3 Harris, which has needed parts no one else can find. But I will…I’ll find the needle in the haystack.”
Burks attributes this dedication and success to the fact that ESP was built on her family’s values.
“My grandfather used to share stories of starting a union for workers as a mining engineer in Mexico. We come from entrepreneurs who really cared about those they worked with,” she says. “It might be old school, but in some ways, I feel like we’ve lost a lot of the eye contact and face-to-face relationships in business. Now so much is done through a quick email. But we truly value customer connections and I love that part of the job.”
Burks remembers traveling long distances to pick up parts, inspect them in her vehicle, and drive them out to an airport base some 160 miles away from their office when she covered sales for ESP Aerospace Fasteners. She’s covered several roles at the company over the years, gaining valuable experience.
“This is the level of commitment we have and confidence that we’ve earned, ensuring the quality of our parts and, sometimes, even hand-delivering them to our customers,” she says.
The result: Burks is continuing the legacy her mom started. Two of her three sons are now also working at the company. One is in accounting and one in sales. The eldest initially worked in shipping and receiving but is currently in college out of state. Burks is also continuing her education. She has an associate degree from Fullerton College and is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in business.
“When she was first diagnosed with an illness, my mom told me I could sell the company,” she shares. “I think she wanted to give me permission to move on or do something else I might enjoy. But I love this. And I love working with my sons now. It’s the right fit for me.”
In fact, Burks has plans to give back, primarily to the Hispanic community in her region via ROP, a regional occupation program. ROP students typically gain a better understanding of how academics relate to careers and can acquire practical experience in a field of interest.
“I want to share what’s possible with high-school students…I mean, some of the kids don’t even know what the aerospace industry is or entails, even though it’s big in Southern California,” she says. “We have contacts with NASA and JLP, which have programs that could offer scholarships and I would love to be able to partner or match some of those opportunities and provide for the future.”
Like mother, like daughter, in so many ways. Burks’ mother also paved the way for future generations.
“I feel my mom led as an example. ESP qualified as a minority, female-owned business back in the ’90s, which opened the door for other women and women minorities…showcasing what was possible 30 years ago,” says Burks. “I’m proud of that and her. I hope to continue to do the same for minorities today.”