Today 83 years young, Dit Panfile relates, “I always tell people that when I wake up and I’m on this side of the grass, it’s a good day.” An entrepreneur who owned an airplane, he got into the FBO business at age 41 when his VOR stopped working and he stopped in at Teterboro Avionics, which in time he would wind up buying and renaming Aero Services. Ultimately, Aero Services grew to become one of the largest chains of fixed base operations in the 1980s with 32 locations.
Panfile took Aero Services public and eventually lost control of the company. Then came ownership in four Million Air franchises, notably at Chicago Midway and New Orleans Lakefront. This year Landmark Aviation acquired the FBOs of Odyssey Aviation, with which Panfile was associated via his long-time relationship with Odyssey president Ken Allison.
airport business recently caught up with Panfile to have him reflect on his 40-plus years in the business. As in past interviews, he played up the importance of service and relationships, the latter accounting for the deep following he has earned among the ranks of FBO managers that he has worked with over the years. Following are talking points and edited responses from our recent interview ...
On the experience of taking Aero Services public ...
“We went public around 1984/85. When I took over the CSX Beckett bases I borrowed some money and went public to get cash to do that. A group in New York bought a whole bunch of my stock and tried to take over the company; we had a proxy contest and I won. They came back a year later with a lot more stock and voted me out of the company — threw me out, basically. And they proceeded to throw out all of my key people. Sandy Lockhart and all those guys. Good, solid managers.
“It didn’t take long, about a year and a half, and the company was absolutely broke and they started selling off bases to meet their financial obligations. All of the bases they sold off are doing very well now. They made a classic mistake — a guy can fly an airplane, so he can run an FBO.”
On life after Aero Services ...
“I got into my own company, Aviation Services Group, which was FBOs again. I bought the base at Midway Airport in Chicago, and the one at New Orleans Lakefront.
“I hired Ken Allison at Midway, who was really good with people. At first he was the line service manager; then GM. I bought four bases. Then he and George Kingston bought me out of those bases. The others were at Columbus and Cincinnati.
On the cycles of the business ...
“I remember Teterboro when we had three or four FBOs giving flight training and selling airplanes. At all times you could see 50 or more airplanes on the ramps there, with instructors and pilots in training.
“We never got involved in flight training. We concentrated pretty much on fuel and hangaring. It was a good business. All the other guys stayed with the other model. I wanted to create a high level of service. When customers called in I wanted somebody there who was thoroughly trained and could arrange for limousines, hotels, and do it in a professional way.”
On his Chicago experience and the changing face of airport leases ...
“I’ve heard stories about how Chicago is so crooked; I had very good relationships with the people of Chicago. They were always very straightforward; you could put together a deal verbally and then it would turn up pretty much as it was agreed on, and you could get a lease done in 30 to 60 days.
“Now it takes much longer, and not just in Chicago. It just seems like you can’t put an agreement together that hangs together for more than two or three years. People seem to be concerned that they’ll put something together that will come back and bite them.
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