group photo in front of Avion Solutions building

(L - R), Ginny Wagner, Chief of Staff, Avion Solutions; David French, Vice President & Chief Financial Officer, Avion Solutions; Brian Wylie, Senior Program Manager, Avion Solutions; Kevin Rotenberger, Chief Engineer, Avion Solutions; Ken Hovanes, Director of Information Technology, Avion Solutions; Evan Wagner, Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, Avion Solutions; Dr. Chuck Karr, UAH Interim President; Dr. Shankar Mahalingam, Dean UAH College of Engineering; Dr. Rainer Steinwandt, Dean UAH College of Science; Dr. Helen Lien, UAH Major Gifts Officer; Mallie Hale, UAH Vice President for University Advancement; Jennifer Memolo, UAH Development Writer; Sidney Martin, UAH Science Student Ambassador; Avonlea Benefield, UAH Science Student Ambassador

Michael Mercier | UAH

Gary Donald, founder and former President of Avion Solutions, Inc., is no stranger to hard work, and he knows how a quality education can open doors. Donald grew up in Iowa, his father was a janitor, and as a young man, he worked hard labor to pay his way through college at Iowa State University. As a result, Donald says he has a soft spot for state schools, which is one of the reasons he’s proud of the Gary Donald Endowed Scholarship for students in engineering and science at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System.

The scholarship was created to honor Donald’s retirement and is made possible through a gift of $250,000 from Avion. Gary’s son and current Avion President Chad Donald says this is the best way to honor Gary’s belief in the value of education and giving to the community.

“He wasn’t going to value a gold retirement watch,” Chad Donald says of establishing the scholarship. “This way we could continue helping people as he’s always done and give someone the opportunity to chase their passion.”

Dr. Charles Karr, the new Interim President of UAH, also recognizes this gift as an extension of Gary Donald’s legacy: “We are so very thankful for Avion’s generous gift in honor of Gary Donald’s retirement. Mr. Donald built a stellar career on hard work and strong morals. It is our hope that our great university will produce many, many more graduates who ride these strong values to success.”

Gary Donald has worn many hats in his career. After graduating from college, he served in the Army, worked as a civil servant, succeeded in the private sector, and finally formed Avion with two partners. The company, headquartered in Huntsville but with satellite offices across the U.S., focuses on engineering, programming and lifecycle logistics and employs a variety of professionals in the STEM fields.

“Ultimately, we want to make sure we’re keeping our military strong and safe,” says Chad Donald, highlighting the company’s concentration on Army aviation. One thing Gary Donald says he’s learned during his various jobs is that it’s important to “do a job well, whatever that job may be.” That applies even if the job isn’t easy or fun. “You can look for better opportunities, or you can work to make the situation better. Sometimes there’s an open door, and sometimes you build the door.”

gary and chad donald

(L-R) Gary and Chad Donald, former and current Presidents/CEOs, respectively, Avion Solutions

Courtesy Avion Solutions

In 2020, Avion announced it is a 100% employee-owned company with its sale to the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). According to Gary and Chad Donald, this is something that just made sense in order to retain and reward their employees. “Since we became an ESOP company in 2007, our goal has always been to be a 100% employee-owned ESOP,” says Chad Donald. “I’m proud of our employee owners who invest themselves in the success of our company by consistently providing extraordinary service in the communities we serve.”

Gary Donald also ties Avion’s success to their service to the community. “Your reputation is the main thing you’re responsible for,” he says, and that reputation is well-earned by Avion’s philanthropic work. The founder implemented a strong message of giving as a part of Avion’s business model. The Corporate Giving Board, established in 2019, oversees corporate philanthropic donations to non-profit organizations important to Avion’s employee owners. These include organizations such as Bearded Warriors, a non-profit suicide prevention for veterans, Horsepower Therapy, a non-profit aimed to help veterans get involved in automotive-related activities, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Junior League of Huntsville.

Since its inception, the Corporate Giving Board has awarded more than $135,000 to worthy causes. Avion also gives through Avion Takes Action, which is an employee-led charitable giving fund established in 2021. Its goal is to support non-profit organizations in the local communities of employee owners, and it will award three or more $5,000 grants each quarter. Recipients from the inaugural October 2021 awards include 305 8th Street, Kids to Love - Davidson Farms and National Children’s Advocacy Center.

The company has also hosted volunteering events and service work days prior to the pandemic, which they hope to resume in the coming year. These efforts are all part of Avion’s mission to “provide visionary ideas and versatile solutions for the communities we serve.”

This focus on service, Chad Donald says, comes from his father’s spirit of giving and the desire to share the wealth. “We’ve been fortunate enough to have success in our community. We live in Huntsville and want it to be the best it can be,” he says. He also notes that Avion strives to extend this support to their employees in the hope of creating an optimistic, fulfilling workplace.

“We strive to have empowered employees make a difference!” Chad Donald effuses. “When someone does their job with excellence, we can focus on their career growth and the business growth. When employees have financial security, they can apply themselves. How much more can one do when one feels secure and fulfilled?” That ideology is evidenced by Avion’s 97% employee retention rate and its six wins in the Huntsville/Madison Chamber of Commerce Best Places to Work® Large Employer category. Both Gary and Chad Donald emphasize that employee satisfaction and finding a purpose in one’s work is more important than just a paycheck, and their values of loyalty, integrity and service are more than just words. “Monetary rewards are only part of the equation; belief in what you do is a big piece as well.” Chad Donald explains. “You still have to look at yourself in the mirror every day and be excited for the day to come.”

These core values connect to those of UAH, say both Gary and Chad Donald, which is why they chose to give to UAH. “UAH is a part of our community, and UAH has helped us grow.” Also significant, they say, is that UAH produces high-quality students and graduates. “We’ve had students intern for us in the past and we hate to see them move on. We’d love to keep them!” Chad Donald says.

Gary Donald adds that Avion employs over 20 UAH alumni, some of whom are on the executive team. “They’re highly motivated, effective professionals who are doing great things,” Chad Donald reports. He highlights his father’s strong feelings about a good education, saying, “We asked ourselves, how can we honor someone who has given so much and do something he’d be proud of? What a wonderful gift to provide students opportunities in perpetuity with this scholarship! I hope to one day meet a Gary Donald Scholar and hear about their experiences.”

Gary Donald retired as President from Avion in 2014 but continued to serve as Chairman of the Board until 2020. However, his retirement doesn’t mean he has stopped finding ways to contribute and give back to his community. He’s an active Rotarian, where he builds ramps for people with disabilities and packs lunches for hungry children to eat on the weekends.

That’s just who he is, says Chad Donald: someone who wants to give back and help those who need assistance. “If you want a strong community, you have to participate in it and give back to it.”

Dr. Karr links this ethos with that of UAH: “Avion is a forward-thinking company with loyal, supportive employees. This endowed scholarship will provide many outstanding UAH students the opportunity to get the high-quality education necessary to realize their dreams. We are very thankful and honored to receive this gift.”



Helen Lien

Jenn Memolo