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8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

Edward Kilkeary Sr. has learned a lot about business from his clients.

The founder, president and CEO of L.J. Aviation Inc., which posted 2007 revenue of $40 million, counts some of the wealthiest people in southwest Pennsylvania and beyond among the clients of his company, which provides private aviation services.

Kilkeary calls them “old-money Pittsburgh” and says there are no better teachers for a business leader when it comes to the basics of being a good businessperson.

“There is something to be said about old money,” Kilkeary says. “They’re polite, on time and respectful. I’ve learned, from some of the families we’ve operated for in the Pittsburgh area, things like once you’ve earned someone’s trust, you should be respectful of that. It’s just a truth I’ve learned that I’ve seen over so many years.”

Over the years, Kilkeary’s clients have taught him that before you formulate a pages-long operating strategy, you first need to be sure you’re building it on a solid foundation.

Smart Business spoke with Kilkeary about how to make sure you’re focusing on the business basics.

Connect with your employees. I see everybody every day. I make it a point.

I used to watch Herb Kelleher, the former chairman at Southwest Airlines, who is retired now. He’d go in late at night, and if he’d see his workers doing a difficult job, he’d pitch in. Here is the chairman, and he walks in and asks if he can help.

It’s the same thing here. We run three shifts, 24 hours a day, and it’s not uncommon if I get home at 11 or 12 at night to just run down and see what the third shift is doing.

They get a kick out of it, that I’m going down to see how the third-shift guys are doing — ‘What are you working on; how is the night shift treating you?’

I go out every day and talk to the maintenance guys, the line guys and tell them if I think the airplane is looking nice, show my appreciation for them getting a job done so we can fly a client. Appreciation goes a long a way, and you can do that financially or just by saying thank you.

People like to know that they’re a part of the business. They’re working for a paycheck, as I am, but people enjoy that thanks from the head of the company. It means a lot.

I’ve always thought of myself as a worker. I try to lead by example from that standpoint. If there is a trip, if it was later in the afternoon or a long night, if one of my clients is out in the middle of the night and something happens, I’ll go get in the airplane and fly the trip.

You’ll never be successful if you’re just sitting there waiting for the next chip. I just don’t think that’s the way to run a business.

Associate with the right people. I want to be associated with people who will tell me, ‘No, you’re wrong, Ed,’ not someone who tells you that I’m the smartest guy they’ve ever met. Fluff doesn’t do a lot for me. A lot of times, I don’t go out on the first calls when we’re calling on a new client because I sometimes want to get some feedback from the people in the organization, to think how they fit in with our organization, our clients.

I pick my clients, it’s not reversed. If you have the money to fly privately, but you have somebody who doesn’t show up on time, doesn’t care about anyone else, I’m probably not your guy.

I want to be around nice people, and the secret to my success is I do exactly that.

If there is somebody that I just don’t want to be around, even though he has money to fly charter and can do all these things, I’m not out there flying for payments.

I can be around nice people, and generally, nice people hang around nice people. You deal with nice people, and [if] they bring you somebody new as a referral, they’re nice people, they’re not jerks.

That’s why our business has succeeded where others have languished. A lot of people look at new business, but it might not be good business. It’s not the stuff you want to have. I come to work every day excited because I’m dealing with nice people and it’s interesting.

It’s hard to be successful if you go in and you’re just clipping coupons; if every day, you say, ‘Well, I made another $10,000 today.’ I’ve never met anybody successful who went at it with no passion.

Don’t dwell on what you can’t control. I don’t dwell on things that are out of my control. I don’t view people and situations in terms of how I can effect change.

Most importantly, I don’t let successes or failures define how I lead. Once it’s done, I move on to the next deal.

I’ve always been like that, ever since I was in the military. When you’re doing a lot of complex things, some people get to the point where they just focus all the time on what happened two weeks ago. Things where I can’t effect change, I move on. I don’t worry about things I don’t have any control over.

That’s why I’ve never had any ulcers or a bad stomach. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing as a management style, but I don’t dwell on things. I just press on.

HOW TO REACH: L.J. Aviation Inc., (724) 537-0520 or www.ljaviation.com