While it’s quite a task to keep it clean, acknowledges Ed Kilkeary, the company’s founder and president, the reflective surface makes it easier for the maintenance technicians to see when working on the aircraft. And, it sends a message to clients, says Kilkeary.
“When I walk in, I want it to look perfect because I think our clients deserve that, plus, it’s a representation of L.J.,” says Kilkeary.
Kilkeary’s attention to the image his company projects, from the condition of its aircraft to the cleanliness of its facilities and personalized service that includes, at times, Kilkeary himself or one of his two sons who are pilots at the stick, has earned the 100-employee company industry accolades and a handsome client list that includes corporate bigwigs, professional athletes and powerful politicians.
“He’s very hands-on and direct and focused,” says Kilkeary’s daughter, Kristen Rullo, who handles the company’s marketing.
A combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam, Kilkeary built L.J. Aviation at first on handshake agreements with his clients, many of whom are still with him after two decades. He has eschewed any notion of being a low-cost provider in favor of offering the highest level of service and safety to his clients. That approach has helped to place the company among the top 15 charter operators in the United States for the past 10 years.
Kilkeary talked with Smart Business about how he built his business by being selective when it comes to clients and why no deal should be a make or break for your business.
How did you get into the air charter business?
When I got out of the military, there were so many helicopter pilots that you couldn’t find a job as one. I got into the trucking business because I had been around equipment with my family; trucks, bulldozers, things like that. So I did that for a few years and did very well.
I met a gentleman who was in the coal business. He said, ‘You’re a helicopter pilot, I’m going to buy a helicopter. I said, ‘Great, good luck,’ and assumed that was the last time I’d ever see him.
About a year later, he bought a helicopter and I was faced with a dilemma. We had a brand new house and I was doing very well. Actually, we had three or four kids by then and I was really kind of torn about going back to aviation because I heard so many horror stories about guys who had gone to the airlines and, of course, it was great for awhile, then they would have these layoffs.
This was even worse, because it was working for a private individual. I went to work flying the helicopter. I started flying these guys and they were saying, ‘Boy, it’s a shame that you don’t have an airplane, we could go farther.’
So we bought a Learjet in 1981. I leased the plane to a guy who had some money. Unfortunately, he didn’t have as much money as I thought he did. After a period of about two years, he couldn’t afford the airplane.
So here I was, I had this Learjet, I have no use for it, zero, none, and at that time a fairly significant payment. I kind of got into the charter business because I had no use for the airplane.
I really wish I could say I had this great vision and I thought, if I do this well, really, it was just I’ll do the best job I can do all the time. I’ll do what I’ll say I’ll do and I’ll run impeccable equipment and, hopefully, by word of mouth, we’ll build a reputation.
How did you attract the level of clientele that you serve today?
I decided a long time ago, when I was really just kind of building the business, that I really want to be around nice people. So even if someone had the price of the ticket but they were someone I didn’t enjoy being around or I didn’t want to be with, I decided life’s too short, I didn’t want to be there.
There were always people you had to chase around, they were looking for the best price, not really the best quality. I just decided nice people, generally, if you hang around nice people, most of their friends are nice people.
When we go to see people, we tell them the truth, and a lot of times we don’t get the deal. If you lose the deal, so be it. I learned something from this gentleman I worked for in the coal business, and I’ll never forget what he told me: Don’t ever go into a meeting having to have the deal. I never walked into a room thinking I got to have this.
How have you built your business?
We’ve grown the business from the referrals and being fair. If someone called me up and said ,‘Gee, Ed, I got another price on this trip and yours is $1,000 more,’ that was never negotiable. We’ve never gone there.
We just thought our service is better, our equipment is crme de la crme, the best. The oldest airplane we have is a ’95. Our fleet age is 2002. There’s not a charter operator in the U.S. who can say that.
To have that costs money. That was just my philosophy.
What do you offer clients that sets you apart from your competitors?
Here’s an example. I did a charter last night, 4 o’clock in the morning. The operator that called me they do business out of California they had a mechanical (problem) on their airplane.
They had two big clients they had to get to New York. He called me and said, ‘You’re the only company from Chicago east that answered their phone at 2 o’clock in the morning.
I called eight companies. You’re the only one that answered the phone.’
Have you ever fired a client?
Yes, and that’s always difficult. Never for not paying. I had a gentleman who didn’t have a watch. He’d tell you he’d be back at 5. You didn’t know if he meant in the afternoon or the morning.
I just said, ‘Hey, you need to go find somebody else to fly with.’ It’s too difficult. A lot of times, the airplane has another booking within a couple of hours. He shows up four hours late ... I’m not going to let the other client down, even if I have to upgrade him to a bigger piece of equipment.
After a couple of those times, I just decided really, this is too aggravating.
How to reach: L.J. Aviation Inc., www.ljaviation.com