At Richmond Jet Center and Aero Industries’ annual shareholder meeting, the documents President Michael Clark hands out will likely end up with rings from water glasses and dinner stains.
That’s because the annual meeting that state law requires is also a family reunion.
It’s hosted by the third-generation Clark’s parents, Michael and his cousin Robbie, who now run both companies.
The Clarks, both the second and third generations, have managed to overcome an obstacle that often defeats family businesses. They do things the way multi-generational family businesses should: finding the right way to blend family ties and business responsibilities.
The Clark family style includes an annual meeting that looks like a night out at a restaurant enjoyed by any close-knit family—and looks a lot like any other Clark family gathering, even when shareholder formalities aren’t on the agenda.
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“Most family gatherings, we’re talking standard anyway,” Michael said.
The shop means working on airplanes. Richmond Jet Center and Aero fuel and provide on-call maintenance checks as well as de-icing and restroom services for Richmond International Airport’s airlines, including American Airlines, Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit and Breeze.
They do the same work as all scheduled maintenance required by federal regulations for corporate jets and small private jets.
The companies date back to 1946, when Michael and Robbie’s grandfather, John H. Clark, heard there were opportunities in Richmond from a son-in-law who was posted by the Federal Aviation Administration to then-small Byrd Field in Henrico County.
Since then, Richmond Jet Center and Aero has twice gone through one of the biggest problems family businesses face: what to do with the kids.
“The majority of family businesses do not survive the third generation,” said Isabella I. Szymanska, who teaches management at Saginaw Valley State University and was a consultant for a major global study of family businesses by Big 4 accounting giant KPMG International.
“The main challenge is first to make sure that there is genuine and genuine interest in the family business that continues from one generation to the next,” said Mark Green, co-founder of the Pacific Family Business Institute and a business professor at Seattle University.
The challenge is especially heightened when moving from the second to the third generation, he said.
“Our world today is full of choices,” he said, and that’s often different from what the second generation may have experienced, when “You did what your parents did in the past because you didn’t have opportunities’.
For the Clark family, the question of interest did not arise: third-generation cousins, like their fathers and grandfathers, were really interested in aviation.
John Clark, whose fascination with airplanes had led him to work at the Beechcraft plant in Wichita, Kansas, headed east with a plan to sell and install radios on light aircraft—still a novel idea at the time, even though they had made the flying airplanes and military aircraft are much safer than they have ever been.
From that, it wasn’t a big leap to think about installing autopilots, or a type of constant-speed propeller that increases the plane’s lift by allowing the pilot to change the angle at which the propeller blades chew up the air on small planes.
In the 1980s, when Michael’s father, John Michael Clark, and Michael’s uncle, Robert Clark, took over the “fixed base operator” business they had developed, aircraft servicing in Richmond looked so lucrative that major national players moved.
At one point, the Clarks were vying for business in competition with a subsidiary of CSX, a subsidiary of Piedmont Airlines, and Figgie International, an Ohio-based Fortune 500 conglomerate.
“There were lean times,” Michael said. “But we stayed and they left.”
Big reason: While Richmond Jet Center and Aero are profitable, it’s likely a more modest gain than Fortune 500 shareholders expect.
“For us, it’s about the legacy we want to continue,” Michael said.
Interest started early in third-generation cousins.
“I started out here probably when I was 10, sweeping sheds, you know, in the summer,” Michael said.
As an older teenager, he worked on airport ramps refueling planes. After college, he returned to work on a team of 10 at the time.
“You’ll have a truck sheet, and that truck sheet will lead to the lot sheet, and the lot sheet will lead to the daily sales sheet, and that will lead to the sales ledger, and that will lead to the general ledger,” he said.
And all those numbers had to match and add up correctly.
“It was a lot of reconciliation,” he said.
“My father was the mathematician; my uncle was more active,” he said. “Now I’m the numbers guy and Robbie is the hands-on guy.”
At the time, the companies had two offices, one in the northern part of the airport and the other in the middle of the field.
After Michael’s first few years with the company, his father asked him if he would like to take over as general manager of one. His father was still the boss, with clear ideas about how the business should be run.
“I had my own ideas and I would tell my dad,” Michael said. “He can say, ‘Well, I did that, but go ahead and try it and see what happens.’
It’s a lot more complicated than the gas station that Michael and Robbie’s grandfather worked at in the Midwest.
Airlines insist on a cushion of at least three days’ worth of fuel on hand – the Clarkes usually aim for four or five days – but the family needs to be able to quickly bring in more fuel when an airline might call and say it’s low on supplies elsewhere and plan to compensate for this with unscheduled loadings in Richmond.
The answer isn’t just a matter of calling the fuel terminals in Richmond and Chesapeake. Finding drivers and trailers configured for jet fuel can be a challenge. Sometimes terminals also have to ask Richmond Jet Center if it can accommodate additional fuel due to unexpected movements in the interstate pipeline.
“Usually the older generation is looking for some clear sign that a person is ready for the next level of responsibility. … From the perspective of the younger generation, the main challenge is that mom or dad is not willing to let go of the reins,” Green said.
That’s why lots of communication and trust make the transition smoother.
But it can also be a problem “not getting a clear picture of why the next generation is working in the family business in terms of ‘they want to be there’ versus ‘they have to be there’ versus ‘they feel obligated to be there versus ” this is their only option,” he said.
For the Clark family, performance is anchored in a tradition that saw their grandfather show up to work even when their grandmother had to drive him, or the way their fathers came after a 2 a.m. call for fuel or another service. That means handling flammable fuel, maintaining safety information, doing maintenance checklists and meeting tight deadlines that airlines need, Michael said.
“If they’re a minute late, that’s a problem for them,” he added.
The focus on legacy means the third-generation cousins haven’t seen the tensions that often strain businesses, such as when operations managers clash over grain counters or when one wants to invest in equipment and the other doesn’t.
“We know the state of the business. … We talk about what new equipment might mean for the store, we talk about how much it will cost, we discuss it and come to a decision,” Michael said.
So when Breeze said it was starting service between Richmond and San Francisco, they knew they would need some changes. A flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, is an 800-gallon trip — “San Francisco, you’re talking 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 gallons,” Michael said.
That meant deciding to buy a bigger fuel truck, “and they’re not easy to come by,” he said. This meant working closely with Breeze to understand when its aircraft might need Clarkes’ support team on call: shifts and schedules for some of the 50 or so staff had to change. Some have worked for the company for decades.
“There are guys here that have known me since I was 6 years old,” Robbie Clark said.
Above all, this meant good news for the airport.
“We were here when it was just Bird Field, and we watched the airport grow,” Michael said. “We want to be here as it continues to grow.”