With consolidation reducing the ranks of large independent FBOs in the U.S, a group of FBO owners, including some of the most highly regarded service providers, has banded together to help each other, share best practices, make recommendations and update their colleagues on business conditions. Known as the FBO #1 Group or more commonly, the Aviation 20 Group, it was founded in 1980 and meets three times a year (February, June, and September) with the members hosting the three-day gatherings on a rotating basis. The group’s number hovers around 20 active participants, some of whom have been part of it for so long that they have watched other members’ children grow up and get married. “It’s been a pretty consistent challenge in the industry to stay independent, but the ones that stay independent are fiercely independent,” noted Jim Motroni, co-owner of global consultancy Conversant Solutions, the group’s moderator for more than two decades. “They’ve got jet fuel in their veins and that’s what they want to do.”
Each event kicks off with a welcome dinner on a Saturday night, and Sunday’s session begins promptly at 8 a.m. with each member giving a brief update on their business since the last meeting, including any equipment purchases or upgrades to their locations. That is followed by a brainstorming session, where each attendee must give a suggestion for something they have done in at their FBO that might benefit one of the other members. Everyone is required to bring to the meeting an idea that if the other members implemented it, would more than pay for their trip, Motroni told AIN. “So each member walks away with 17 or 18 great ideas.” The group takes this seriously, as each attendee will contribute money to a pot, with the best received suggestion winning it. Those who don’t come prepared with an idea are fined $500, and poor suggestions are soundly booed.
Other recent discussions have included how to retain based customers and attract transients, determining the values of social media and marketing, and how to make sure the company's culture is infused through the organization. Before the last meeting, Motroni had each executive interview several of key employees, those whom they felt were nearly indispensable to their respective businesses. Among the questions: Why did you come to work here?, What keeps you here?, What might entice you to work someplace else?, What should we do to attract and retain more great employees like you?, and What do you need from me to help you learn, grow, and provide more of what you want to give? Those candid responses were compiled, categorized by theme and discussed with the group.
A guest speaker is also brought in to spur a discussion on a current aviation industry topic. An update on the drone industry was on the schedule at the last gathering. Another session involves critiques of members' websites and suggestions about how to improve them. Also intended for improving the socializing between members, a significant other-invited dinner is held that night. “One thing that is nice about being in the FBO world is that these folks are connected up to the nicest places in town,” quipped Motroni. “We always go to some spectacular dinners, not neccesarily expensive but spectacular.”
Harnessing Collective Knowledge
Monday’s agenda involves an inspection of the host FBO, including the terminal, hangars, fuel farm and ramp, where members will examine it with a critical eye and are encouraged to ask no-holds-barred questions from any staff members they meet. After the tour, the members, acknowledged experts in the FBO field, will give a full debriefing of what they saw. “It is rigorous as the group holds nothing back,” said Motroni. “The rule in those meetings is the host is not allowed to say anything, so you’re not allowed to explain, defend, justify, nothing. People have taken major shifts in their organization and their operation as a result of the other CEOs that they respect giving them very straight feedback.” The event closes with a recreational activity at a local area of note, such as a behind the scenes tour at an attraction.
The group has been vital to the evolution of Bohlke International Airways (BIA) an FBO at St. Croix’s Henry E. Rohlsen Airport, since its joining in 1987, explained company president William R. Bohlke. “Especially with our recent family succession, I am now the youngest member of the group and always walk away with lessons learned,” he told AIN. “The constructive criticism and new ideas we receive at meetings have shaped vital business decisions, which have helped grow our BIA team to more than 50 members. We have the utmost respect for fellow member FBOs and heed advice based on their tenure, experience, and success.”
People generally learn about the exclusive group by word of mouth, and to join, FBO principals must be invited to apply. They must attend two meetings and then be voted on by the entire membership, and the vote must be unanimous. “I think that’s one of the reasons the group has been around so long: because we tend to be careful about who we let in,” noted Motroni. “We want people who are in for the long haul, and we want peoplewho know why they’re there and know what they want to contribute.”
The group subsists solely on member dues, and attendees pay their share for each gathering, including meals, hotels, and travel. While the social aspect is certainly important, each member expects their participation will improve their business. “This needs to be a combination of strong personal connections, but equally strong commercial value,” said Motroni. “They don’t need to pay to have friends.”
Other group benefits include a website with a secure member-area where FBO operators can mine the group’s collective experience, with any problem or question they have. In cases where FBOs have had to deal with high-traffic events such as the Super Bowl, the members will often volunteer their own staffers to provide support.
Occasionally a member does leave the group. “There’s the old saying that every business is for sale,” Motroni explained, “it just depends on what the number is, and at some point they hit their number and they decide to move on.”
Banyan Air Services, a full-service FBO at Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport will host the next meeting in February. “I found if we need to learn the best FBO software, ask the group; want a well-written aircraft management agreement, ask the group,” said company president Don Campion, who has been a member since 1985. “Numerous ideas and procedures from the group have saved Banyan Air Service substantial time and money and formed lifetime friendships.”