Andy Priester, the third generation of his family to run Priester Aviation, is proud of the heritage his company has, but is also keen to look to the future.
ANDY PRIESTER, president and CEO of Priester Aviation, does not only work at the company his grandfather founded. He is based at the airport – Chicago Executive – that his grandfather built. A true aviation pioneer, George Priester soloed for the first time in 1928 and launched a flight training school in 1945. In 1953 the family bought what was then Gauthier's Flying Field, a military training airfield. They renamed it Pal-Waukee Airport (now Chicago Executive). Charlie Priester, George’s son (and Andy’s father), also started working for the company that year.
At the time the airport had a cinder runway and a few hangars. The family built a 5,000 feet runway in 1960 and added an FBO and started offering private jet charter. In 1983 they sold the airport to the local community to secure its future as an airport against rogue property developers. In 2001 the FBO and maintenance business was sold to Signature Flight Support and Priester Aviation refocused on charter and aircraft management. George Priester passed away in 2006.
Andy joined the family business in 1997 after five years of teaching high school science. He started out in charter management before becoming president of the company in 2004. He took over as CEO from his father in 2013, Charlie. Priester managed seven aircraft when Andy joined 20 years ago. The company now has a fleet of more than 70 jets.
CJI: Do you think the business has lived
up to your grandfather’s vision?
Andy Priester: I would believe so. My grandfather George really was a visionary. Back in 1945 he recognised that flying was going to be a business tool. Everything that he did was in pursuit of how businesses may end up using aviation. In the early days we actually flew around John Cameron Swayze in the Camel Caravan [a must watch 1950s news programme], when he would be flying around the Midwest of the US to really scoop story and beat everybody to the punch. Priester has been tied to business aviation for a long time.
CJI: Do you agree with all the decisions that your predecessors made to focus the business? Would you still like to own a flying school, FBO or airport?
Andy Priester: I absolutely agree with the decisions that we've made so far. The corporate jet industry continues to get more complex and with more complexity you have to have more specialization. I don't know if any company can be successful if they are trying to manage lots of different service lines. We’ve made the decision to specialize in aircraft management and aircraft charter and that's all we do. That's all we want to do. That's one of the value propositions that we really bring to our owners.
We believe we're aligned with our aircraft owners’ interests because we have no conflicting business lines. We're not selling gas or selling maintenance or running a flight school or anything along those lines, our only focus is how can we provide for our aircraft owners and charter clients, how can we serve their best interests in managing their airplanes in the most efficient way possible.
CJI: What is it like running a third generation family business?
Andy Priester: I'm very, very fortunate. You know there's a lot of family businesses where there's a tremendous amount of conflict. For us there's a tremendous amount of support. When we have important things going on, I am very happy to give my dad a call. Even at 81 years old he comes into the office and he’ll help either with special projects, or when we think about strategy together collectively.
My dad has forgotten more about aviation and has lived through more things in corporate aviation then I'll probably ever experience. So being able to refer back to him and get his thoughts and his guidance and his input is hugely valuable. I'm very thankful for that.
We’ve built a vision for how we want the company to move forward. It’s my job to execute on that vision.
“At the end of the day our name is on the side of the building.”
CJI: Do you feel extra pressure from your family’s legacy or is it in your blood?
Andy Priester: Yes it is! Absolutely I feel extra pressure. You know, there is a tremendous amount of heritage. There's a tremendous amount of pride. I have the responsibility to make sure that the business continues to perform and continues to move forward. And at the end of the day our name is on the side of the building. I have three sisters and a brother; I have parents and I have 12 nieces and nephews that all share the same pride that I have with respect to what my grandfather and my dad built. It is my job to keep that going and my job to make those guys proud as well. I do feel the incredible responsibility, but I'm very happy to carry it.
CJI: Do you think your clients appreciate the history of your company? Do you think they understand everything that's gone into it, all the effort and love?
Andy Priester: I think that one of the differentiators for our business is the legacy and history. Family pride creates a culture that translates through to the customers and our customers feel part of that. Any one of our customers know they can call me on my cell phone anytime of the day. At the end of the day the buck stops with me and my last name is Priester. It is my responsibility to make it right.
But all that being said, a good story does not make a good business. We have tremendous infrastructure and tremendous people that I get to work with every day.
Priester's operation rooms
CJI: What part of the business most excites you?
Andy Priester: For me it is the customer service aspect. I think that's what we excel at. Aligning ourselves with the aircraft owner and private aviation clients.
CJI: How do you want to grow Priester?
Andy Priester: Thoughtfully! When we look at our growth opportunities, we're not simply looking at the dollar value that that potential opportunity brings to us. We're looking at the right fit. We're looking at what services can we can deliver. There's absolutely the possibility that some people come to us and they love our story, but we know we’re not the best fit, we are perfectly happy to direct them to a solution for their individual needs.
CJI: What do you want your Priester Aviation legacy to be?
Andy Priester: We want to be seen as a company that, first, does right by our clients and, second, is a meaningful contributor to the industry. If we can achieve those two things. Then I'm going to be a happy guy.
The Priester family in 1953, including Charlie and George