Learning the Business from the Ramp to the Boardroom

Taking GAT Airline Ground Support from a local company to a thriving multi-state enterprise, Jean O. Raines didn't let obstacles like gender or lack of knowledge stop her. With determination and her positive attitude, she became skilled at doing...

Taking GAT Airline Ground Support from a local company to a thriving multi-state enterprise, Jean O. Raines didn't let obstacles like gender or lack of knowledge stop her. With determination and her positive attitude, she became skilled at doing business from the ground up.

"Our business is about partnerships - working together - networking," says Jean Raines, CEO of GAT Airline Ground Support, a ground handling company offering service to airlines in eight states. As primary owner since 1989, Raines views the company a little differently than her male counterparts might, referring to the ideas and successes of the employees while remaining modest about her own accomplishments in ground support as well as business.

Determination to succeed

GAT began in Alabama as an FBO called Mobile Air Center and was eventually sold, leaving only the fueling and maintenance services. Six months later, Raines' husband, a homebuilder and private pilot, died, leaving the company to her and personal friend James Baggett, an airframe and powerplant mechanic. He knew Baggett would be a great friend and loyal employee to Raines.

"That was in 1989," recalls Raines. "We had 53 employees at two locations. When I was at that first meeting with the airlines, I didn't know what they were talking about," she says. Delta, one of the first airline contracts for the company along with American Airlines, offered to step in and assist with the services, but she declined the offer. Instead Raines said, "I'm going to learn!"

Raines put her determination to the test, learning the ground support industry from the ground up. "I wanted to know everything there was," she laughs. Baggett recalls the time Raines wanted to know how to read inoperable fuel gauges, so they took a class and she came out tops. "She paid attention and asked questions and there were even A&Ps in the class listening to this," he says. "That's Jean, she always did well."

She learned to drive the tugs, belt loaders and other equipment, so no one could say she was doing it wrong. Studying the finances and working to understand the art of doing business, she made GAT's philosophy one of working with airlines, not for them, promoting people from within the organization and giving them the responsibility and freedom to become good managers.

Now, 16 years later, GAT employs more than 800 people at 17 airports in 16 cities. It's won three consecutive Safety Awards in Atlanta from Delta Airlines, Delta's Woman Owned Business of the Year 2004 and this year took home the Blue Print Award from Women Looking Ahead Inc.

Viewing gender as an asset

Does a female CEO change the dynamic of a company? For Raines, the answer is yes, although gender was not the obstacle one might expect in a male dominated industry. Instead, being a woman, in Raines' view, gave her an edge in the business world. People respond to her sincerity and trust that she cares about their business. "People pick up on my caring," she says. "They know you really want this to work. They mean a lot to you."

"I find females do better in a high role," adds Raines, "[better] than they do on the ramp." In these positions, females are more productive and the corporate world accepts them more easily than in physical jobs.

"They seem like they have a little bit more to prove when they're on the ramp," agrees Baggett.

For both Raines and Baggett, a superior female manager comes to mind, Robin Delahoussay. On the ramp, she was a good worker and enjoyed her job. It took them a long time to convince her they needed her as a trainer, but they finally did and she's been "terrific."

"We'd put her as a manager anywhere," says Raines, although Delahoussay is content to live in California and work at the second Orange County location at Santa Ana.

Currently, there are five female managers at GAT, Raines; Delahoussay; Diane Lensch, vice president; Dawn Middleton, human resources, financial oversight and planning and Val Gray, corporate communications (and photographer for this article).

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