Co-founders Mary Ann and Edward M. Kilkeary Sr.

From the captain’s seat to the family board room

L.J. Aviation manages a growing fleet of 40 business jets. Mike Stones learns how family teamwork is continuing to build the business.

From the captain’s seat to the family board room

L.J. Aviation manages a growing fleet of 40 business jets. Mike Stones learns how family teamwork is continuing to build the business.

Co-founders Mary Ann and Edward M. Kilkeary Sr.

LESSONS LEARNED in the left-hand seat, as captain-in-command of a business jet, prepared Edward M Kilkeary, Junior (Jr) to take his place in the boardroom with fellow family members of L.J. Aviation.


“Learning the demeanour of what makes a good aircraft commander and mastering the procedural perspectives in the cockpit were good preparation for business life,” says Edward. “I think those experiences in the front of the airplane, practicing the discipline of flying, helped to prepare me for where I am now.” And that is President and chief operating officer of the family business.

Based at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, L.J. Aviation is a flight management and charter-aircraft operation, owned and operated by the Kilkeary family. Just as any aircraft crew integrate for the safe and efficient operation of a flight, so the Kilkeary family has forged a team dedicated to growing the business launched 40 years ago.


Joining Edward around the boardroom table of L.J. Aviation are his father Edward M. Kilkeary, Senior (Sr), co-founder and CEO, mother Mary Ann Kilkeary, co-founder and company officer of Administrative Services, sister Kellie Kilkeary, vice president of Human Resources, and brother Brad Kilkeary, vice president of Pilot Services.

In the left-hand seat is Brad Kilkeary, vice president of Pilot Services and brother of Edward Jr.

In the left-hand seat is Brad Kilkeary, vice president of Pilot Services and brother of Edward Jr.

“Working with family has allowed me to be clearer and more honest about sharing things that are on my mind.”

Other members of the executive team include: Barb Gabelt, chief financial officer, Terry Lascher, director of Operations, John Johnson, director of Maintenance and Clarence Boring, director of Line Services.


Between them they run a growing business at the company’s fixed-based operations (FBO) facility at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport. The family’s aviation connection began, like so many others in 1970s America, with Edward Sr’s pilot training at the US Army’s Primary Helicopter Centre at Fort Wolters Texas. Two tours in Vietnam as the pilot of a Bell Iroquois HU-1A – universally known as a Huey – cemented his connections with aviation.


But today, it is sleek business jets, not fat Hueys, that sit in L.J. Aviation’s hangars at Latrobe, and the company’s other bases at: Bedford, Massachusetts; Marshfield, Wisconsin; Rochester, New York; Pontiac, Missouri; and at Pittsburgh International. The company manages and operates a fleet ranging in size from the Boeing Business Jet to smaller Cessna aircraft.


Only last September L.J. Aviation added two new Bombardier Challenger 350 business jets to its aircraft management fleet. The Challengers, available for charter in the Mid-Atlantic region, boost the company’s fleet to more than 40 aircraft including: Six Challenger 300 series jets, a Challenger 604 and a Global 5000.


To fuel further growth, in August 2018 the company opened a new base at Pittsburgh International Airport. The new facility includes a reception area, private offices, a lounge and meeting rooms as well as 3,345 square metres of hangar area and shop space. The facility has 13-metre doors and can accommodate business aircraft up to a Boeing Business Jet or an Airbus Corporate Jet.


In addition to charter, the company offers aircraft maintenance, aircraft storage, FBO, and consulting services. Its Federal Aviation Authority-approved repair station employs 16 full-time aviation maintenance professionals operating a 24/7 service year round. The company also works with some of the bigger aircraft financing banks to locate aircraft and oversee assets – either on sales or leasing agreements.


So, what part does a family-run business play in delivering business growth? “We are still trying to figure that one out,” is Kellie’s immediate and playful response. Then, drawing on her long experience in Human Resources at L.J. Aviation and in previous employment in marketing, Kellie highlights the sometimes “parallax” of short communication channels, the family’s cast-iron commitment to delivering growth through excellent customer service and, somewhat surprisingly, holiday planning that stands the business in good stead.

L.J. Aviation’s fleet numbers more than 40 aircraft including: Six Challenger 300 series jets, a Challenger 604 and a Global 5000 under management.

Short chains of communication can be a real plus, agree Kellie and Edward. It facilitates family members’ active customer involvement. Customers have a direct link to the owners of the business and management knows personally the vast majority of our customers. “I think that does matter and that's certainly what has helped propel the growth of our group,” they agree.


It also means family members have the confidence to address difficult areas directly with a frankness and directness that could sometimes be difficult to achieve with non-family members. “Perhaps, you find it easier to say uncomfortable things to relatives,” says Kellie.


Edward agrees: “Working with family has allowed me to be clearer and more honest about sharing the things that are on my mind. Because that is in the best interest of all of us.”


But it can be difficult to see family members sometimes under pressure, concedes Edward. “Sometimes the message you hear from a family member can be more difficult than the message you hear from someone else.”


“Communication is something I think all businesses struggle with but it is especially key for family businesses,” continues Kellie. “It is much easier said than done.”


What is beyond doubt is the strong commitment to customer service that the family unit provides – and has provided since childhood. “Ever since we were children, we have seen the tremendous effort and sacrifices that our parents made to get the business started to be able to create the brand that we have now,” said Edward Jr. “I don't know if sense of duty is the right term, but we have always had a strong respect for what our parents have created and we, as a family, are determined to continue building that.”


Kellie also believes family bonds help to build a stronger business unit. “Growing up in this family, there is a personal service that family members feel they want to deliver for our customers. That sense of engagement is unique to each of our employees, for example, in comparison to working for a public company.”


That personal knowledge of customers’ likes, and dislikes is a key to the business’s growth, according to Edward and Kellie. They highlight the L.J. Aviation’s values of: Truthfulness, transparency, and a sense of urgency about customer service. The aim is: “When our customers call-in, it’s like talking to an old friend.”


The means of delivering that service is their recruitment policy dedicated to hiring and retaining the right service-orientated staff. It’s not an easy task – reflecting L.J. Aviation’s discerning recruitment needs and the continuing buoyancy of the US economy, which ended 2019 with near record levels of full employment.


“Finding labour is a struggle right now, not just in aviation,” explains Kellie. “And we're selective about the type of candidate who does well. It's a thoughtful process.”


Assessing a candidate’s attitude is “a big, big part” of the interviewing and selection process. “We look for someone who wants to create a memorable experience for our customers,” says Kellie. “Our pilot’s interaction is very important but the experience begins well before the flight. The initial outreach, special requests and the presentation of the cabin are all important. It’s a group effort.”


Top-quality service is a key part of how L.J. Aviation judges its business success. “Beyond the financial metrics that all organisations in business need to pay attention to, we really focus heavily upon how well we are retaining our customers and how willing customers are to make a referral of L.J. Aviation to their friends and associate companies,” says Edward. “We track those metrics very closely at the end of every year and those are two really important things that we focus on because it usually tells an accurate story about the positioning of the company.”


Looking ahead, premium service will remain the hallmark of L.J. Aviation – despite the growing competition from new entrants determined to commoditise business aviation by making it as cheap as possible. “Our customers have really high expectations,” explains Edward. “Businesses like ours must be willing to continually invest in the company to make a better product for our customer and to continue to grow the legacy that our parents have started. We intend to hold true to the principles that have made L.J. Aviation the quality brand that it is today.”


And holiday planning? What contribution does that make to the successful running of L.J. Aviation? Kellie smiles. “Take vacations separately.”


Meanwhile, both Edward and Kellie remain grateful for the support of L.J. Aviation’s co-founders – their mother and father. Edward says their father “doesn’t really give advice – it’s not that sort of relationship” whether about operating business jets or running the company. “But he has a way about him that has rubbed off on all of us in our own individual ways,” says Edward Jr. “We are not trying to be like him; but he has become a part of all of us in the way we handle things.”

“Growing up in this family, there is a personal service that family members feel they want to deliver for our customers.”

Edward M. Kilkeary, Jr learned valuable lessons in the captain’s seat of business jets, including Learjets like the one pictured below.

L.J. Aviation in numbers

40

Years established

5

Family members in top management

40

L.J. Aviation aircraft fleet

2

New Bombardier Challenger 350 business jets added to management fleet last autumn

40

Years established

5

Family members in top management

40

L.J. Aviation aircraft fleet

2

New Bombardier Challenger 350 business jets added to management fleet last autumn

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Mike Stones,
Group Editor,
Corporate Jet Investor

image

Mike Stones,
Group Editor,
Corporate Jet Investor