The Man Who Builds Airports

HOUSTON — At college at Sam Houston State in Huntsville north of the nation’s fourth largest city, Ron Henriksen decided he wanted to be a pilot — corporate or airline. He wound up making a fortune in the telecom business, but never lost his roots in aviation. He’s decided to invest in the industry he loves, without a defined return on investment. To leave his mark, or in his words make his contribution, he built the Houston Executive Airport some 35 miles west of downtown. His success there led general aviation interests in the state capital, Austin, to seek him out for relief to their plight — a lack of adequate facilities since the opening of Austin-Bergstrom International, which led to displacement of hundreds of GA aircraft with the closure of the previous commercial airport, Mueller. He’s now on airport number two — a different airport, a different challenge.

Henriksen comes across as a very unassuming man. He also comes across as quite methodical, which is perhaps an attribute necessary to build an airport from scratch in modern America. What is not readily evident is that this is a self-made millionaire looking for someplace worthwhile to make a contribution. For Henriksen, a lifelong pilot, building an airport seemed the right thing to do.

When asked if he’d like to get back the $30 million or so he has invested at Houston Executive in Brookshire, he answers, “I’d like to get it back but it’s not necessary to get it back. I know that’s an odd way to answer the question.

“I was very successful in the phone business, which was probably good because it allowed me to recycle it into the economy by getting into the airport business.

“Let’s say I’ve got $50 million. What am I going to do with it? One is you can spend it before you die; the other answer is you can spend some of it and pass a lot of it onto your kids, your wife, or whatever. Well, from everything I’ve read, future generations don’t particularly appreciate the hard work and effort it took to get the money. I guess their job is to spend it.

“If I leave my kids $5 million and they can’t figure out what they want to do, the $5 million isn’t going to make them happy. So I’m on the other plan — spend it like I think it ought to be spent. So if I get paid back, great. But then, if I get my $30 million back, what do I do with it?

“Airports are much more likely to go away than be built. As a pilot, I’d like to see more airports, not less. So, by building an airport, I sort of accomplished two things. One is, I got a chance to turn the trend around; and I also got a chance to get back into the FBO business, which is a leftover missing void in my life. That’s the reason this airport got built.”

Henriksen, 61, got into flying while a student in college, and contracted with a friend to manage FBO services at the Huntsville airport while also working his first stint as a corporate pilot. He got out of the FBO business to finish school.

“In a way, I’m trying to get back to my aviation roots. I was successful on the pilot side of things, having flown for different corporations. But I missed the FBO part of it.

“As I flew airplanes through the years, I always thought how neat it would be to own an airport someday and, as they say, do it right — or, do it the way you think is right. Providing the services that pilots want and would like to get; and have the airport meet certain expectations.”

Ironically, it was his free time as a corporate pilot that led him to find something else to do. A friend told him about the telecom business, which in the 1980s was just beginning to blossom following the deregulation of the industry.

He formed a company, American Telco, and set up shop in an apartment in Houston. Some 14 years later, with 300 employees and offices across Texas, he sold out — for 26 times earnings. The new owners in turn took the firm to bankruptcy. Recalls Henriksen, “I bid on it in bankruptcy court and bought it back for maybe 20 cents on the dollar. I spent the next year and a half getting it profitable again. I still own it.” He remains chair of LOGIX Communications, but focuses today almost exclusively on airports, he says.

Out of a rice field
Henriksen relates that the airport site in Brookshire was not his first choice. He had attempted to build one south of the current location near Fulshear in a part of Greater Houston that is heavily residential. The experience, he says, taught him much about the politics of airports.

“First, you go to the FAA and file a notice for developing a new airport. And they do a study and look for reasons that building an airport in that location might not be a good idea. There are basically three different answers they’ll give you after the study is done. The first being, that no hazards are found at all and this is a great idea and go right ahead. The second answer is, we’ve found some objections and this is what you have to do if you want to build the airport. The third is, that location is not safe, for whatever reason.

“Most of the time you’ll get the second answer; we got the second answer. There was a list of things wrong with this location, but as a general rule this property had been rice farmed, so we had to stop farming. There was a lot of water on the land, so the drainage had to be changed. The drainage for a rice farm is different than that for an airport.

“In Fulshear, I got a lot of political pushback. All the landowners around there had the idea of selling off their property to homebuilders. They didn’t want an airport anywhere near any of this land they were going to sell for homes.

“So I sort of put that project on hold, even though I had spent about $1 million on studies, and started looking for more land. That was a learning experience.”

Much of the 2,000 acres that now encompass Houston Executive are former rice fields, which led to a significant drainage investment prior to laying down concrete. But, says Henriksen, that investment was worth it because of the tract’s location to the city.

“The most important thing is location,” he explains. “I firmly believe that an airport has to be a reasonable distance from where the people are that are going to use it.

“One of the things I was looking for here on the west side of Houston was the biggest piece of property I could get, as close in as possible. That was a balancing act. I was pretty lucky to find this piece of land.”

Once Houston Executive was operational, Henriksen had expected that would be the end of his airport building, although he admits he had toyed at looking at similar opportunities around Austin, the state capital, which had seen general aviation displaced with the opening of the new international airport, Bergstrom.

“As quickly as I got this one built I was going to go to Austin and look around and see if I could build one. One day some pilots from Austin called, and they’ve been trying to get another airport built in Austin. Evidently, they were down to one airport. For some reason, they focused on Bird’s Nest, and put together some financial projections of what it would take to buy the airport and surrounding property, and put in a runway and hangars. Their estimates on cost were pretty close — it was somewhere between $30-50 million. Based on my experience here, it was about accurate.”

Bird’s nest airport
While the plan in Houston was to build a business aviation airport, the 134-acre Bird’s Nest Airport will have a GA focus, says Henriksen. Once an active flight instruction facility, Bird’s Nest saw an outflux of aircraft through the years. When Henriksen bought it, via a corporation Bird’s Nest Aviation, Inc., there were 15 based aircraft remaining; a dirt road that is actually an easement through a neighbor’s property; and a main house that has been refurbished to serve as temporary FBO facilities. The runway has been realigned and paved since he took over last fall.

While technically Bird’s Nest is already an airport — which makes the initial paperwork less burdensome, says Henriksen — he is essentially building the airfield from scratch.

“I now have enough property to build the runway that I think Austin needs,” he explains. “If a guy has a Gulfstream V and wants ILS, he can land at Bergstrom.”

In time, Henriksen would like to make Bird’s Nest a bizav airport with an instrument approach; but he says that discussion is for another day. Now the focus is on new T-hangars; a new terminal; and access to the highway system. He’s already spent $2.1 million on the land; another $350,000 on asphalt; and $75,000 for an engineering study for the road, which he estimates will cost $1 million.

He relates that initially he thought Austin-Bergstrom might view him as competition. What he found instead was open arms. “I could take these general aviation airplanes that they would just as soon not have and give them another place to land,” he says.