DULUTH — Cirrus Aircraft announced Tuesday, June 4, a new CEO to succeed its co-founder, Dale Klapmeier, who is stepping down but will continue to serve as a senior advisor. This marks the first time that Cirrus has operated without a Klapmeier in a leadership position.
Dale Klapmeier and his brother, Alan, started Cirrus in 1984 from a barn on their parents' property near Baraboo, Wis. They moved the company to Duluth in 1994.
Cirrus has named Zean Nielsen its next CEO. The job won’t be Nielsen’s first leadership gig, as his credentials include senior roles at other high-profile companies, including Tesla Motors, James Hardie and Bang & Olufsen.
In a written statement, Klapmeier said: “We are fortunate to have someone of Zean’s caliber and experience to lead us into the next era of growth. I am looking forward to moving into a senior advisory role and continuing to work with our exceptional team on reinventing the future of personal transportation.”
Cirrus employs about 1,020 people in Duluth, another 250 at a composite plant in Grand Forks, N.D., and approximately 120 more at an aircraft delivery center in Knoxville, Tenn.
Nielsen’s resumé includes his most recent stint as executive vice president of North American sales at James Hardie, an industrial building materials company; a previous job at Tesla Motors, where he served as vice president of global sales operations; and 17 years at Bang & Olufsen, a manufacturer of high-end electronics, where he ascended to the role of the company’s president for North and South American markets.
In a statement, Nielsen said: “I am honored and humbled to join this team of experienced general aviation leaders and a world-class workforce as we continue to bring game-changing products and services to market. Our mission is to deliver an aviation experience that is the pinnacle of innovation, quality and safety to our customers — and that is exactly what we will continue to do for many years to come.”
Alan Klapmeier left Cirrus in 2009, five years after he and his brother sold a controlling interest in the company to Arcapita Bank, an investment offshoot of the First Islamic Investment Bank of Bahrain. Before departing, Alan Klapmeier made an unsuccessful bid to buy Cirrus’ then-nascent jet development program. When that failed, he left to found Kestrel Aircraft, which has since merged with Eclipse Aerospace to form One Aviation Corp.
Dale Klapmeier stayed on at Cirrus and was named CEO in 2011, after Arcapita sold its interest in the company to the current owner CAIGA — short for Chinese Aviation Industry General Aircraft.
Cirrus earned a reputation for its innovative design and sleek composite construction, as well as its novel decision to include a whole-plane parachute as standard equipment on each aircraft the company sells.
In 2014, the Klapmeier brothers were honored with an induction to the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Dale Klapmeier’s departure from his role as CEO was far from unexpected. In December of 2018, Cirrus announced it had launched a search for a new CEO in anticipation of Klapmeier’s plans to step down in 2019.