While most FBO chains go to great lengths to emphasize their branding and the extent of their network, one marches to the beat of its own drum. Denver-based Ross Aviation has quietly assembled a portfolio of 14 locations, but not a single one has the name Ross in its title. “Lots of people, including some of our best customers, don’t know that we do have 14 FBOs sprinkled around the United States,” said Jeff Ross, the privately owned company’s president and CEO. “We don’t intend to be a stealth FBO chain, but what we have is a philosophy that we firmly believe in and that is FBOs are local businesses and are best run by local managers.”
Sadly for sign makers around the country, that philosophy extends to maintaining the names and identities of the acquired FBOs as is. “We keep the existing name because that is part of what we purchased,” said Ross. “We want to take advantage of the customer relations and the favorable interaction with transients and based customers and we don’t think that’s benefited by having a single national name.”
In selecting an FBO for acquisition the company looks for locations in “a large enough market,” with a good reputation, whose owners are seeking to either exit the aviation service market or scale back their economic commitment. “What we’d like to do is capitalize on the 10 to 30 years of customer service that our predecessor at the FBO has successfully delivered, Ross told AIN. “If he hadn’t done a good job, we wouldn’t be interested in going there and we wouldn’t be interested in acquiring such an FBO.” Prior to an acquisition, the company speaks with the long-tenured employees of the FBO to learn everything about the location and the market. After an acquisition, Ross Aviation brings its marketing and financial resources to the table along with its leverage in areas such as insurance purchasing.
While most of its locations are owned 100 percent, the company says full ownership is not necessarily a criterion for its decision to acquire a location. “We are happy to let the existing owner maintain a meaningful equity piece and continue to run the operation,” said Ross. “If you think about it, presumably the owner-operator has lots of personal relationships with customers, with the airport and with businesses and charities in the locale and we want to continue all of those.” To that end, the FBO’s management is usually maintained and, in cases where the operator wishes to exit the business, the company seeks to promote from within the FBO.
Ross Aviation has locations sprawled all across the United States from Trenton, N.J. (Ronson Aviation at Trenton Mercer Airport) in the northeast, to Miami (Miami Executive Aviation at Opa-Locka Executive Airport) in the southeast, and from Anchorage (Great Circle Flight Services at Ted Stevens Anchorage International) in the northwest, to Scottsdale, Ariz. (Scottsdale Air Center at Scottsdale Airport) in the southwest. The company’s purchase of the Bradley Pacific chain approximately four years ago gave it six locations throughout Hawaii (although the Lanai site offers customer service and parking, it does not sell fuel).
The company was started six years ago after Ross, who had assembled a previous small portfolio of FBOs, sold it to one of the major chains. He then began accumulating another group under the Ross Aviation umbrella. Like most in the industry, the company rode the economic roller coaster over the past few years. “The first six months of 2011 were our best six months ever,” said Ross. “We enjoyed a good recovery in 2010 from the challenges that everybody in the industry faced in 2008 and 2009.” While Ross noted the company’s fuel volume has recovered considerably, he said it still remains approximately 20 to 25 percent below the peaks set in 2007 and the beginning of 2008.
According to the company, each of its FBOs is an individual stand-alone entity responsible for maintaining its own financial statements.
The chain’s most recent acquisition was Stevens Aviation's share of the fueling rights at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, which Ross merged into its existing Denver Air Center in April, making it the sole fuel provider on the field. Stevens continues to run its maintenance facility at the site and even plans to expand the operation there.
The chain has two other instances where it has acquired a competitor at an airfield. At Santa Fe Municipal Airport in New Mexico, the company bought the former Million Air facility in 2006, which it operated as Capital Aviation, independently from its existing Santa Fe Air Center, for three years before finally merging the two FBOs during the sputtering economy of 2009. This past January, Ross Aviation acquired the former Atlantic Aviation FBO at California’s Fresno Yosemite International Airport and merged it into its Corporate Aircraft facility. For those keeping score, it means the company has successfully acquired 17 FBOs in its existence, though it lists only 14 on its website.
According to Jeff Ross, the company is actively seeking to expand and expects to add more locations by the end of the year. As the company continues to grow, Ross believes good service and internal referrals will draw customers to the chain’s other locations. “Most of our lobbies have a big map showing the location of the other FBOs,” he said. “Every so often one of our customers will come up and say, ‘Oh, you’ve got a facility in Scottsdale? I’ve been using your competitor.’” Ross usually replies, “Our competitors are great people, but I wonder if you would give us a chance?”