While business aviation as an industry has existed for more than seven decades, there are still some family-owned companies that have bucked the trend toward corporate consolidation and trace their lineage back nearly that long—or even longer in some cases. They have seen their share of ups and downs over the years, including this latest Covid pandemic, but these companies have grown and thrived and are passing their legacies to a new generation.
Duncan Aviation is a well-known name today as the largest privately-owned business jet service provider in the world, but that wasn’t the case in 1956 when Donald Duncan—a private pilot who had made a living purchasing, flying, and selling surplus U.S. government aircraft—became a partner in a Beechcraft dealership in Omaha, Nebraska.
After selling hundreds of airplanes, the company expanded to a second location in Lincoln and soon became a Learjet distributor, selling approximately 450 of the new and used twinjets before all dealership agreements were canceled after Learjet was sold to Gates Rubber. Instead, Duncan was named as the first authorized Learjet service center. Donald’s son, Robert, joined the company in 1965 and became president a few years later. In 2007 he retired, and his son Todd, long a company member, was named chairman.
"I do think it is unique in this part of the industry that we have so many family businesses, and I think a real strength,” he told AIN. “For us, it’s enabled us to control our own destiny and really control our own culture.”
Today, that culture spans three major repair facilities (in Lincoln; Battle Creek, Michigan; and Provo, Utah); 26 satellite avionics and engine rapid response locations at major airports across the U.S.; and company staff of 2,342 employees. Duncan credits his grandfather’s and father’s mindset for keeping the business family-run.
“I think our customers and our team members really identify with that long-term vision of how we look at the business, that we're going to be in this for generations and have been,” said Duncan, adding that the company lineage will be extended to a fourth-generation as his twin sons have joined the staff as well—one as an A&P mechanic, and the other in the accounting and auditing department.
Duncan noted that the company’s financial stability has allowed it to fund much of its growth using its own capital, but like most companies in this space he still fields a number of purchase inquiries. “I think that’s just the natural private equity environment that we all live in now that there are only a finite amount of companies that are available I suppose at a certain size or in a certain market,” he said. “That's just never been a need of ours or an interest of ours and we don't see that changing.”
As far as 2020 is concerned, Duncan noted that while the Covid pandemic has pumped the brakes on the company’s international clientele, which normally accounts for up to 20 percent of its business, it has done “OK” this year and is seeing signs of recovery.
The start of Sheltair, which now operates 18 FBOs and more than four million sq ft of aviation-related real estate, came by accident in the early 1980's, when company founder, chairman, and CEO Jerry Holland, already a renowned construction company owner, purchased some aircraft hangars in Fort Lauderdale from an acquaintance and then later acquired a plot of airport property which included an FBO. While that FBO business tanked at first, Holland studied the industry, turned it around, and continued to build hangars and add locations.
Earlier this year, the company named Lisa Holland, Jerry’s daughter and a successful businesswoman in her own right, as company president. “I think I built the company in a way that I wasn’t looking to sell it and make a fast return on the money,” the elder Holland told AIN. “I was looking for something long term. He added that, like many, he’s turned down some lucrative offers for his company.
“Obviously we know through the last probably 15 to 20 years it’s become more hedge-fund operated, more public-company operated, so, fortunately, we’re one of the larger independent companies out there still. This gives us an opportunity to do things the way we feel they should be done and not the way somebody up the ladder tells you how to do it.”
Jerry’s grandson, Kai Seymour, with a newly-minted business management degree from the University of Tampa, also just joined the company to provide its third-generation succession.
No discussion about family-owned business aviation companies could be considered complete without mention of Cutter Aviation, which was established 92 years ago as an aviation service provider and likely pre-dates the term FBO. Founded by William P. Cutter in 1928 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the company provided flight training, aircraft fueling, maintenance, and charter from a rudimentary dirt-floored shelter.
Nowadays, the Phoenix-based company, which is the longest-tenured Phillips-66 branded fuel distributor, has become a regional powerhouse in the Southwestern U.S. with 234 employees spread over four FBOs and three maintenance centers. The company is also a leading sales dealer for several aircraft manufacturers, and according to president and CEO Will Cutter, the pandemic has actually had a positive effect on the business, as he expects this year to be the best in its storied history. “We’re selling all the planes we can get our hands on and our shops are all full,” he told AIN. “Charter is doing quite well, and fuel is doing good, too.”
Being one of the oldest companies in the industry means more legacy to live up to, according to Cutter. “I think the difference between me and the bigger boys is my name is on the building and I've got to earn it every day,” he said. “The other guys, they're there for now, but they may be moving on.”
And Cutter plans for that name to stay on the building through its fourth generation of family ownership. “Certainly we could sell out but I don't know that I'm able to do anything else, other than get a little cash, have some money in the bank and go do something else. But now that two of my kids are in the business, and a lot of people have been here for 30 and 40 years, it is kind of like it would be selling out on your family.”