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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Captain Speaking

Brian Kirkdoffer Title: Chief Executive Company: Clay Lacy Aviation Born: 1966, Tacoma, Wash. Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, University of Washington Personal: Married with two sons. Met his wife Natalie on a blind date to the Clay Lacy Aviation holiday party. Most Admired Person: Clay Lacy, the late Margaret Thatcher Career Turning Point: Being hired at Clay Lacy Aviation Hobbies: Family; skiing and travel Brian Kirkdoffer’s career embodies the adage that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. As chief executive of Clay Lacy Aviation, the aircraft charter and management firm at Van Nuys Airport, Kirkdoffer can indulge two passions in his life – aircraft and business. It was fortunate the firm’s founder, aviation pioneer Clay Lacy, gave him the opportunity to pursue those passions by hiring him. A native of Washington State, Kirkdoffer came to Clay Lacy Aviation out of college, starting as a pilot of Learjet and Gulfstream aircraft before moving on to sales and marketing positions and then starting the company’s aircraft management division. He became owner of Clay Lacy Aviation in 2012. Loyalty to Lacy himself and the company that bears his name has kept Kirkdoffer there for nearly three decades. Even as it has grown to more than 500 employees with locations in a dozen states, the company maintains a family feel to it, Kirkdoffer said. “You have to be loyal to your family,” he added. Kirkdoffer took time to sit down with the Business Journal to discuss his company, the general aviation industry’s pilot shortage and a round-the-world trip he took with his family. Question: What did you learn from him about running a business? Answer: There is a story that typifies (what I learned from Clay). I was learning to be a co-pilot in the Lear 24. We were flying from Seattle to L.A. It was one of the first times I had been in a corporate jet. I was flying it and I was having such a hard time maintaining altitude. I thought, “Wow, this is really difficult. I’ve got to really work hard to do a better job.” I just wanted the opportunity to show Clay I could do better. So, a month or two later we had another flight back up to Seattle. I am flying the airplane and I am keeping right within 20 feet of altitude for an hour. I was so proud of myself. We get on the ground and Clay goes, “What the hell were you doing?” And I thought I was going to get a pat on the back. He was like, “You were 20 feet high the whole time. You should always be correcting for perfection.” I never thought that would be the result of that flight. What did you come away with from that experience? It really seeded in me that as a pilot I’m never perfect, but I am always going to work to get perfect. I take that same thought into how we operate Clay Lacy Aviation. All of us can be better tomorrow than we were today. There is something I learned early on that was more from a pilot standpoint, but I took it and I feel it is a significant reason why Clay Lacy Aviation is successful. How involved in the business is Clay these days? In the day-to-day business, not as much as he used to be. It’s always wonderful to see him and it’s always wonderful when he’s here. What motivates you? I love happy clients. I love working with great people. I love seeing great people grow within Clay Lacy Aviation. I’ve been here 29 years so I kind of started at the bottom and worked my way through the company. It has provided me with a lot of wonderful opportunities to meet wonderful people. I like being able to do that for the next generation of Clay Lacy Aviation. What is the direction of Clay Lacy Aviation? We are growing. We are a 50-year-old company, so we have a spectacular foundation and heritage that has a unique entrepreneurial spirit that is much like a startup. I think you are going to see Clay Lacy continue to improve the services that it provides today, and I think you will see Clay Lacy Aviation continue to grow those services and add new complementary services. Can you be more specific on the growth areas? Four areas are big focus points: aircraft management, worldwide aircraft charter, aircraft maintenance and asset support and airport location FBOs (fixed-base operations). We are growing rapidly in each of those areas. We run a complete turnkey amount of support services to operate these aircraft anywhere in the world. Was it challenging to take over from Clay? Clay is a fabulous mentor. He leads by example. Like my father, I learned honesty, integrity, hard work, dedication to team. All of those were part of the culture. I had run the company for a few years before I purchased the company, so I knew what I was getting into. How did you come to be the majority owner of the company? I’ve been with the company since early 1990. Sometime around year five, Clay and I began to have discussions about what my potential future with the company would be. In 2012, I was fortunate with the help of my financial partner Wells Fargo to get the controlling shares of the company. What do you think Clay saw in you? It’s a better question for him than for me. I think I am extremely fortunate. I think for my whole professional life my two biggest passions, other than family, would be business and flying. I took two of my passions and made a career out of it. I’m probably one of the few aviators that liked aviation but enjoyed the business aspect of it every bit as much, if not even more as I matured as an individual. My focus is I love business. I engaged and grew and learned and worked hard to get as involved in the business of Clay Lacy Aviation as I possibly could. I did that probably more than any other employee that Clay has had. It certainly was the right place at the right time. I had some of the required skill set to help the company. With a great team around me, it has been very successful. How is the general aviation industry? It’s strong. The asset value of pre-owned aircraft took a huge decline ever since the economic downturn in 2009, and I think it is starting to strengthen. The aircraft manufacturers are putting out spectacular aircraft these days. You are not going to make a bad choice in choosing a new airplane now. In a global economy, business leaders and successful companies need to travel. As long as that continues, it makes for strong demand for our industry. What are the challenges facing general aviation? The biggest challenge that we see, and the industry sees, is the lack of a next generation skilled workforce that has an education and passion for aviation. There is a pilot shortage that looks to be getting worse. There is a shortage of mechanics. The military is not putting out as many of them, pilots or mechanics. It is a challenge and it’s something that we work on every day in how we recruit and train. How are you addressing the pilot shortage? One of the things that is a competitive advantage for us is we have a culture that attracts great people. We are fortunate in that we get first look at great employees. That being said, we still have to do the career fairs. We still have to promote the aviation industry and still promote Clay Lacy Aviation. This is a great place to work, it is a great field, it is highly paid. We spend a lot of money training and educating our employees so that they can grow up in the company like I did. What is a typical day like? I start pretty early. One of the things I have learned is preparation is critical to success; as a pilot I learned that. I do a lot of my thinking the night before the next day. I will think at dinner and the night before what needs to be accomplished the next day, who do I need to see, what things need to happen for it to be a good day. Then it kind of rolls from there. I have meetings set up with my team. I try to see as many of my clients as possible. I am involved in some customer advisory boards for some of the manufacturers. I want to make sure I put a good portion of my focus on the industry and not just Clay Lacy Aviation. Anything in your career that you would have done differently? No. I look back and it’s easy to think what if he had gone to this college instead of that college. I would get job offers while working for Clay because he was so well known. People would try to steal me away at significantly more compensation than what I was making here. I didn’t bite on any of them, but I tracked them. What happened to that job that someone offered me a year ago or two years ago or five years ago. None of them turned out to be what this has turned out for me. What was your career turning point? I came out of the University of Washington thinking I would work on Wall Street. Three months before I graduated, I had dinner with Clay Lacy. He listened to me about why I was going to go to Wall Street. I was going to go to Europe first with money I saved with some other businesses I ran while I was in college. He said, “Instead of going to Europe and traveling around and spending your money, why don’t you come work for me and I will pay you to travel. I will pay you to fly a private jet.” I was a flight instructor, so I looked at a Learjet and thought, “You’re going to pay me to fly in this Learjet?” I thought it would be a fun phase. I didn’t know at the time it was going to be a career. Who are the people you admire? It starts with my father. Certainly Clay. I flew around (late British prime minister) Margaret Thatcher for three weeks. I was so impressed with her as a kind and mild passenger. Then I took her to an event and I heard her speak. I think she was the most powerful speaker I ever heard. I couldn’t believe it was the same lady I had been flying around. What is the last book you read? I am finishing up a book about the University of Washington men’s crew called “Boys on the Boat.” It’s spectacular. It was the Olympics, but it was crewed by the University of Washington men’s crew team in Berlin and Germany under Hitler. I am enjoying that very much because I have two boys and I went to that school. What are your hobbies outside of work? My biggest interest is my family. I have a wonderful wife and two wonderful boys who are 13 and 15 (years old). The passion revolves around the three of them, mostly. Outside of that I love snow skiing. I never do enough of it though. I have done a lot of different sports over the years and that one has kind of endured. Have you taken any big trips lately? I did a trip around the world. We traveled for a total of over nine months. But I would do it where I would go for about a month, then I would come back for a week, and go for a month and come back for a week. I did that eight times. I went to all seven continents. I went to 38 countries. How did this trip come about? The original idea was I have quite a few friends who tried talking me into getting a large airliner and do round-the-world trips in less than a month. They would ask where I would go, why would I go there and find the best places in the world if you had a private aircraft where you would take us. Not where the airlines go, but where you would go. I have been to over 100 countries, so I have some idea. As a pilot you go in and out and don’t get to dive in to a lot of places. So, this time I did a deep dive in 38 countries and basically looked at the best countries to go to, the best things in the world you could possibly see. I took my family on most of it. What were some of your favorite places? If I didn’t live in the United States, certainly New Zealand and Japan would be highly attractive if you had to reside somewhere. Antarctica is like no other place on earth. To me, it is as close to going to another planet as you can get. Any place with animals. I saw whales and rhinoceroses and birds with blue feet. There are only two islands in the world where you can see Komodo dragons and I went and tried to steer clear of these 9-foot dragons as they pretty much own two islands in the world. I went on 28 scuba dives. I could talk for hours about wonderful things to see.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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