Interview: Brian Kirkdoffer, president of Clay Lacy Aviation

By Alexa Rexroth

A flight in Clay Lacy’s P-51 Mustang for then-15-year-old Seattle resident Brian Kirkdoffer solidified the now-president and CEO’s passion for aviation and marked the onset of a career with Clay Lacy Aviation. In the company’s 50th year of operation, Kirkdoffer is steering it into the future after serving for almost 30 years. From washing airplanes and sweeping hangars to spearheading new facilities, Kirkdoffer has donned almost every hat at the company. Had it not been for direct influence from Clay Lacy himself, however, Kirkdoffer may have followed a very different career path. AIN got the chance to ask him about different phases in his career and aspects of his management style:

On early days in Seattle:

“I was fortunate that Clay Lacy was flying out of Seattle for United Airlines. He got me started with flying and soloed me. We kept in touch as I [attended] the University of Washington. My degree was in business administration with an emphasis on finance, so I was going to go to Europe for a little while and travel and then come back and work in finance in either New York or San Francisco.”

Lacy suggested that instead of spending his money traveling, Kirkdoffer could come to California and Lacy would train him to be a Learjet copilot. He took the bait.

“Around 1990, he wanted to see if he could get Clay Lacy Aviation Seattle going. The plan was for me to come to Seattle to be copilot of a Lear 35. I’d be head of getting new business, the hangar sweeper, the airplane cleaner, whatever it took.” But Kirkdoffer recognized the opportunity in California was better because “they were so busy there it didn’t make a lot of sense to fly less in Seattle. So, I stayed, and have been there for 29 years. That’s how I got hooked in with Clay Lacy Aviation.”

On “paying it forward:

“I like to be a coach more than I like to be a boss. I love recruiting great people. I love empowering and training great people to do great things. I enjoy seeing their successes. People did that with me, and nothing makes me happier than seeing team members enjoy what they are doing and feel fulfilled in doing so. People have to want to do a good job. As management, we need to make sure they are empowered and have the resources to do so.

“When I flew a trip, I never felt it was 100 percent perfect. There was always something I could have done little a bit better. I try to instill that to management at Clay Lacy. Every day, try to be better than you were yesterday. If all 500 people are doing that, then spectacular things happen.”

On focus:

During one of their early flights together, Lacy imparted wisdom and a lesson upon Kirkdoffer that continues to echo throughout the company’s operation today.

“We were up in the air with the autopilot on, but I was worried about another airplane that was in maintenance. Clay looked at me and said, ‘You’re not thinking about this flight right now. Listen, when you’re flying these airplanes, it’s the only thing that should be on your mind, getting from A to B safely.’ I thought, he was absolutely right; and it’s an example of the infrastructure at Clay Lacy designed to make sure pilots are focused on getting from A to B safely—and exceeding client expectations—without other distractions. Our three things are safety, service, and value. In that order.”

On meeting the workforce challenge:

“We are fortunate in that Clay set a foundation to hire great people, empower them, and have them do great things. We need great people providing exceptional aviation experience for our clients. That is the vision that was held when Clay started the company and we are still doing that today.”

Clay Lacy Aviation is in its third year of offering maintenance technician scholarships through L.A. Unified School District’s North Valley Occupational Center (NVOC). The scholarship provides financial assistance with funds for tuition, tools, and FAA exam fees at NVOC’s Aviation Center located at Van Nuys Airport. The scholarship helped to support 46 students in the first two years and 29 of those students have continued with careers in aviation.

“We want to keep the aviation ecosystem as strong as possible, and it starts with making sure bright young minds get passionate about aviation. We’ve helped a lot of students continue their careers in aviation that otherwise couldn’t afford to do so.”

On taking the reins in the mid-1990s:

“The economic conditions were such that we had a couple of hangars that were sparsely occupied or empty. I had to go out and find people to rent these hangars. I [recommended] trying to get clients that would use all of our services. We now have over 100 aircraft that we manage, and I still have some of the same team today that was with me then.”

“Clay is a bit older than me, so there needed to be a transition. We talked about it for years, and that became my focus; how do I make that happen? I felt it was best for our employees and clients, so that was the thing that motivated me to take over majority ownership of the company.”

On expansion and the future:

“What’s very exciting for the future of Clay Lacy Aviation is that we have this foundation of 50 years but we have energy and enthusiasm like a startup. We’re focusing on how can we do innovative things to make a significant positive impact on the aviation industry.”

After clients repeatedly asked why the company was not doing more in the Northeast, Clay Lacy Aviation acquired Key Air, an aircraft charter and management firm in Oxford, Connecticut, in 2016.

“We don’t acquire much. My preference is for more organic growth, but that opportunity has been great.”

On FBO industry consolidation:

“I think it’s good in many aspects for the industry but we offer a distinct competitive advantage because we are not part of that consolidation [financed by] financial investors. A financial investor is making a decision to invest based upon a financial return. Sometimes, the shareholders are looking for a financial return instead of a superior client experience that is not always aligned with what is best for clients.”

On taking risks:

“We’ve never acquired another company that was the size of Key Air. It had a great legacy, people, and culture that really fit into us, but it was a huge risk. I’m a very conservative person and you want conservative people running aviation assets.”

On career-life balance:

“My biggest passion outside of aviation is my family. I have a wonderful wife and two boys. When I was flying, I was gone a lot. So, you have to find that right kind of work-life balance.”

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