Building on Experience

MEMPHIS — The Wilson Air Center based here at Memphis International Airport was recently voted the No. 1 Best Small Chain of fixed base operations by Professional Pilot magazine. The award follows a nine-year run as a top U.S. FBO in Aviation...


MEMPHIS — The Wilson Air Center based here at Memphis International Airport was recently voted the No. 1 Best Small Chain of fixed base operations by Professional Pilot magazine. The award follows a nine-year run as a top U.S. FBO in Aviation International News surveys. For Wilson Air Center president Bob Wilson and general manager Dave Ivey, the awards are in essence certification of the goal they had when they started the FBO group — to be a leader in customer service.

That mission comes from the roots of the organization. Wilson Air Center was founded by Bob Wilson’s father, Kemmons Wilson, who was renowned as the founder of the Holiday Inn franchise, which revolutionized the hospitality industry in the 1950s.

Explains Bob Wilson, “Execution and people are everything. Period, end of story ... I think what we have done, what Dave and his folks have done, we have raised a bar in this industry. We push and demand excellence. There’s not anybody in any of our facilities that says, ‘I’m not going to go out and help.’ Everybody’s expected to leave what they’re doing immediately. Our CFO will be out there wing-walking if we need it or what-not.

“We’re like a family. If somebody hurts, everybody hurts, and from that side I think we have a family value here.”

GM Ivey relates that the industry has significantly changed since he came on board in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, when FBOs typically were expected to offer a full slate of services, from flight training to aircraft sales to maintenance, which led to them focusing on balancing one profit center against another. The advent of a changing regimen in which fuel sales and customer service became primary drivers, driven by the changing business aviation sector that was led by the fractionals segment, brought with it a need for a change in how FBOs operate, says Ivey. Such an environment, he says, fits well with what the Wilsons were attempting to bring to the marketplace.

He explains, “Coming to Memphis in ‘96, Bob hired me to start the facility, and back in the ‘90s FBOs were a little bit different. My first FBO I worked for, we had a hundred employees; we were a full-line Cessna service center, avionics, parts, aircraft sales, flight service, charter; and so at any given time, if avionics and service were slow one month, charter and aircraft sales picked it up; and if line service was slow selling fuel, maybe avionics and service picked it up on that month. Well the industry’s changed considerably since. Instead of offering a wide variety of services, FBOs just offer a very specific product — fuel.

“So that’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in our industry. The consumer doesn’t necessarily want to go to a small maintenance shop anymore; they want to go to a factory-authorized shop, they want to go to a full-service [Part] 145 repair station.

“And we’re still winning awards. Part of the matrix on how we win those awards is we’re being able to deliver the service — what we call fair and equitable pricing. How do we do that is, we try not to over-extend ourselves on acquisitions. If we did, Bob would’ve bought probably three, four, five other FBOs, but we just did not feel it fit the business model from the point of, if you overpay, you’re going to have to increase prices, cut capital out, or decrease service.”

Besides its headquarters base at Memphis International, Wilson Air Center also operates FBOs at Charlotte and Houston Hobby, and will open a new fixed base operation later this year at Chattanooga, TN.

Management contracts, and controversy

At Memphis and Houston, Wilson Air Center owns and operates the FBOs. At Charlotte and now Chattanooga, it operates them under management contracts with the airport sponsor.

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