“Embrace complaining customers. They are the key to your success. Studies say only 5% of clients take the time to complain , the rest just leave. Complainers are providing “free” consulting and if you respond well (quickly, boldly and fairly) , your relationship will be better and more intimate than it was before they complained.”
I had the pleasure to interviw Bob Seidel. Bob is the chief executive officer and managing partner of Alerion Aviation, an aviation services company providing aircraft management, charter, maintenance and FBO services to owners and operators of private jet aircraft. With bases in Long Beach CA, Farmingdale, NY and Palm Beach, FL, Alerion operates fourteen business jets. The company is a licensed Part 135 air carrier and Part 145 repair station and holds the highest safety ratings from ARG/US (Platinum) and Wyvern (Wingman). The company is certified to stage three of the International Standards for Business Aviation Operations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I am a former naval aviator and private pilot with a passion for aviation. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in Industrial Engineering, I became a Naval Flight Officer and was stationed in the western Pacific Ocean tracking Soviet submarines in a P-3 Orion aircraft. After two tours of duty I retired as a Lieutenant Commander and joined civilian life. My first civilian job was with a high- tech California company called Raychem which used radiation chemistry to make specialty products for industrial, military and aerospace applications. My first job was senior buyer, where I used my engineering education to oversee the procurement of exotic materials and scientific tools and equipment. After two years I was promoted to group manager for a procurement team. After four years the company moved me into technical sales and sent me to Chicago. By this point I was married and had three children. After two years of sales experience and a total of six with the company, I entered a two year Executive Master’s Program at the Kellogg School of Northwestern University. Two years later I received my Master’s degree in Business and was promoted to national sales manager for one Division of the company. Two years later the company was restructured and I was asked to move to Houston. I was not really interested in that offer and instead decided to go back into aviation. I was offered a position selling business jets in the upper Midwest for Gulfstream Aerospace. Four years later I took a position with Jet Aviation as a National Sales Manager for their charter business. Later that year, I was promoted to senior VP and the division General Manager. When I joined Jet Aviation it was a large, privately held company with about ten thousand employees world-wide. After two years the company was sold to a European private equity company called Permira. Then three years later the company was sold to General Dynamics , a publicly traded Fortune 200 corporation. After seven years at Jet Aviation I left to join a privately held aircraft management and charter company called JFI Jets. I have been the CEO here since 2012. In 2015 we acquired another similar sized company called ACP Jets. We merged the two companies and called the resulting firm Alerion Aviation.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Shortly after joining JFI Jets I learned one of the company’s planes, a Gulfstream II jet was in a dire predicament. It’s engines were in need of overhaul due to time limits and it required an airframe inspection which was two years overdue. As a result the airplane was no longer legal to fly. Overhauling the airplanes engines would cost about $1.2 million and completing the airframe inspection would cost as much as $500 thousand. The airplane was worth maybe $500 thousand. Adding to the dilemma was a federal law which was to go into effect in two years which would effectively ground the airplane permanently due to noise restrictions on its turbo-jet engines. It was pretty obvious the airplane would need to be retired — but how to do it. Firstly, this was no ordinary airplane. It had been owned by Frank Sinatra and later by Harrison Ford. How could I preside over the dismantling and destruction of such an historic asset? Because it was not legal to fly , I had to find a solution there at the field in Farmingdale New York. Fortunately two institutes of higher education had aviation programs based at Farmingdale. The State University of New York ( SUNY ) has a flight training and maintenance degree program based at the airport. I approached them both and ultimately donated the airplane to BOCES, a vocational training public high school, for their students to study and practice performing maintenance work on. I did keep two of the passenger seats for my partner and me. After all these were owned by Sinatra!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I often ponder this question. I think the answer is we have assembled an experienced and talented team of people who really care about doing a good job, being safe and taking care of our customers. One example was when we had an airplane go down for a mechanical problem in St. Maarten on Christmas Day. One of our mechanics, Joe, who was responsible for this airplane was informed of the problem on Christmas Eve. Joe has a wife and at that time two young children — but he insisted on flying at 10:00 am Christmas morning to repair the airplane in time for a flight that evening for a famous entertainer. Joe fixed the plane and got home on the 26th for a late celebration of Christmas.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
For years I have known that a major frustration for airplane owners is the lack of readily available — real time — data and schedules for their plane when it is managed professionally. We have been working hard on this problem and this summer will launch an online “owner portal” which will provide a customizable dashboard for owners providing details on airplanes schedules , crewing , revenue , maintenance and expense management. Now owners will be able to manage their airplanes like their brokerage accounts and other assets. It seems like an easy task, but managing an airplane involves lots or “moving parts” and often multiple software solutions , which must be tied together to make such a portal. We are very excited to be bale to empower owners with this new technology.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I think the most important thing as a leader is to provide clear, unambiguous communications . Let people know the plan, provide feedback on their progress, remove all impediments and stay out of their way. Also, roll up your sleeves and help. I have one employee who often reminds me that she really came to respect me when she saw me washing a sink full of dirty coffee cups. I wasn’t making a statement. I wanted a cup of coffee and all the mugs were dirty — the sink had been filling up for two days — so I washed them and just as I was finishing up , my employee walked in and she was just blown away. In the Navy I was taught to always lead by example. I guess it applies to everything , including washing coffee mugs.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many people who have influenced me and helped me along the way. I am grateful for them all. My Dad taught me to be self-reliant and introduced me to aviation by taking me to a couple of airshows. When I told him I want to be a Blue Angel he encouraged me to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy. Most of my leadership ability derives from my education at USNA and as a Naval Officer leading aircrew on independent operations around the world.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When I was at Jet Aviation one of my salesmen introduced me to a new non-profit which had been formed to help victims of serious spinal cord injuries by offering flight training with the goal of achieving a sport pilot’s license. The company is called Ableflight and becoming a supporter has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I serve on the advisory board of Ableflight and over the last eleven years the organization has grown and has provided flight training scholarships for about eighty people with disabilities ranging from quadriplegia to deafness. Nearly seventy pilots have earned their wings through Ableflight , including some very amazing wounded warriors. Seeing these people overcome enormous disadvantages and achieve incredibly difficult objectives has been truly inspiring. My wife and I support Ableflight scholarships and my company provides support as well.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Listen to customers, listen to employees, then listen to your heart and take action. Make things happen.
Hire slowly , fire quickly. Be thorough with interviews and do not blow off checking references. Too many times I have thought I could “fix” a problem employee and let the problem fester and metastasize.
If you make your numbers it doesn’t matter what you spend; If you don’t make your numbers it doesn’t matter what you save.
When an employee leaves, move on quickly. No one employee should be key to life or death of the company including the CEO.
Embrace complaining customers. They are the key to your success. Studies say only 5% of clients take the time to complain , the rest just leave. Complainers are providing “free” consulting and if you respond well (quickly, boldly and fairly) , your relationship will be better and more intimate than it was before they complained.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Because the job of CEO is sometimes very challenging and emotionally draining, I think the most important quote I try to remember is the Serenity Prayer, “ Lord, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference “
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
There are so many clever and interesting people I am curious about and would love to meet. For instance, I’d like to talk with Elon Musk to understand how he thinks and where he feels tech is headed.
But the guy I’d really like to hang out with is Richard Branson. In my view he’s a guy who has won the game of life. He seems to have it all and he chooses to do good things with his wealth and celebrity. Mostly, he seems to be very happy . I’d like to figure out how he manages to accomplish so much and yet seem so at ease. To me that’s success — being totally secure in your own accomplishments and being able to make others feel great and become successful.