Failure Is Not An Option

Abe Padilla, founder and President of AP Enterprises, an airline equipment and vehicle repair company, takes us on a thirty year journey in the ground support equipment repair and maintenance industry - writes Karen Reinhardt

May 2004

Abe Padilla, founder and President of AP Enterprises, an airline equipment and vehicle repair company.

Without a doubt, almost everyone in the aviation industry has a story to tell regarding what brought them into the fold. An interest grew after joining the military, great grandparents passed the business down through the generations, or there was a fascination with planes and aeronautics in one's youth. Not so with Abe Padilla, owner of AP Enterprises. With him, it's more like a genetic pre-disposition.


Many of you know Abe, and most of you who know him like him, but one fact is certain, all of you respect him?and for good reason. His work ethic, which he learned from his parents (some would say he is obsessive) is simply, "failure is no option." The word "no" does not exist in his vocabulary therefore, it cannot be used by anyone who works with him.

Steve Eldridge performing a PMI procedure with precision. Steve Eldridge performing a PMI procedure with precision.

With a touch of serendipity and an incredibly strong will, Abe developed designs for his future and his positive work habits at an early age. Before his teens, he hustled papers at the racetrack at night and worked at a bar in San Mateo, from four until eight in the morning before going to school. "I'd fill up the ice, the liquor bottles, clean the floor and get the place ready for the day. Then I would come back after school to help out before the rush. Because the owner, who was my uncle and a friend trusted me, I chose to never drink," stated Abe with pride.

With San Mateo being a hot spot for individuals who worked in the airline industry, during the next five years he met many whose lives were synonymous with aviation. However, it was one person in particular, who at the time was the vice president of United Airlines, who told him, "the day you want to work at the airport I will help you out." That was 1974, Abe had just turned 18. He was the youngest person on the GSE mechanic shop floor.

Being the type of person who cannot sit still, Abe's adrenaline not only had him working double shifts as a line mechanic at United, he found a small ground handling company known then as Service Air, and began working on their GSE equipment.

Then John Gregory, who was the Cargo Manager with Continental Airlines, needed a mechanic as a subcontractor?it wasn't long before word got out at San Francisco Airport about "this mechanic" who would work on anything at any time of the day or night. "People caught wind," said Abe. "Out of the back of my 67' Ford van I started doing work for Rusty Arnold and Terry Westeroff from Southwest Airlines, then I picked up the Post Office, then Philippine Airlines?I had to hire a friend to help because I was still with United full-time too." United started cutting back shortly thereafter, Abe took his furlough, started working for himself and within five years he was responsible for all of SFO.

Shop Foreman, Jorge Ayala is shown performing a final inspection of an engine before installation.

Abe didn't stop there. He purchased a small, 2,000 gallon fuel truck to pump his own equipment and within two weeks he had ten customers, airlines who were not satisfied with the service they were receiving from the fuel company. Over three year's time he had acquired ten fuel trucks and proceeded to expand to other airports on the West Coast.

Another partnership that developed was handling mail for Southwest Airlines, Braniff and America West Airlines. Southwest was shipping mail at that time and knowing Abe's "never say no" attitude, he picked that business up as well. It was a win/win arrangement. Abe explained, "I hired a couple of college kids so when the planes came in during the early hours of the morning, all they'd have to do is throw the packages into the carts. The old school was, 'Get it done. I don't care how you get it done. Do what it takes. I just want it here in the morning. Do what you gotta do.'" He did the mail for Southwest for 18 years, everyday, 24 - 7, around the clock.

According to Abe, he didn't take one day off (Monday through Sunday) for the first ten years. Now, after landing in the hospital two times in the last ten years, he's learned to slow down (still without saying the word 'No'). He sold the fueling subsidiary of his company in the mid eighties and let go of the mailing business five years ago.

Today, AP Enterprises is strictly maintenance and repair. His shops number seven up and down the west coast with managers at each; SFO/George, Oakland/Raul, SMF/Doug, San Jose/Robert, SNA/Murphy, PDX/Jim and SEA-Tac/Eugene. Currently, he is looking at setting up new shops in Alabama, Reno, and San Diego. In fact, the type of work AP Enterprises does is in such demand that they have been offered work on the East Coast as well in the New York, New Jersey area. When all is said and done, Abe is expecting to have between ten and twenty shops across the US.

His clients are multifarious. "A lot of people came to us. I've never advertised in a newspaper," says Abe. "I've been following Southwest around a lot. Gate Gourmet, which are the flight kitchens. America West, UPS, Airborne Express, Host, ACM, Yomoto, US Air, Lufthansa, Mexicana, Jet Blue, United, DHL, Matheson, Continental, Delta, Sky Chef, Flying Foods...I do most everybody. I don't want to leave anybody out."

Perhaps the most important factor according to Abe is -- "the equipment is the heart of the business." "We're workin' on tugs, belt loaders, pushbacks, conveyor systems, we do some work on some jetways once in awhile. The provisioning trucks - anything that supports the aircraft, anything these airlines own, we basically can work on it," says Abe. It's simple. You can't unload a plane without a belt loader, you can't put food in the plane without the catering truck, you can't move the plane without the tug, the plane "ain't leavin'" without being deiced, etc. He also pointed out how important it is to do whatever it takes to a GSE vehicle to make it operationally safe with a clean appearance.
"Think about it", he says, "When you're on the plane lookin' out the window at the equipment on the ramp and it looks all banged up, what are you gonna think? If it looks that bad can it really be safe? Listen, if the passengers are happy, all of us got jobs. Right? Without a passenger, none of us have jobs."

Over the years Abe came to the realization that by specializing in one area, he could provide optimal service expeditiously. "I do not do baggage handling, I do not do fueling no more - I do one thing. Sometimes when you don't specialize in one thing and you're spread all over the place, it's not the best quality." And after thirty years, in a small community like the GSE industry, it's like being part of a family. Clients come to AP Enterprises because they know from working with him over the years, he will "take care of them."

A large part of the success at AP Enterprises is due to the sacrifices and contributions from Abe's wife, Darla Padilla, not to mention Abe's ability to identify, recruit and lead quality employees. He runs his business with the efficiency of the military. He's got it down to a science; the managers at each shop operate with routine and precision. The same management style, same billing, same training for the mechanics and the same floor, the one you could eat off of if you had to. "The whole thing is the service," declares Abe. "Our goal every night is to get everybody's equipment out, everything is gonna go out. If we don't have a part for it, that's the only reason it's gonna stay, cause we don't have a part or we had to order something. But if it's fixable, repairable, it's gone." With the help of his long time friend and right hand man, Operations Manager Andy Gomez, whose specialty is electrical hydraulics, he feels they can figure out anything. "There's nothing between all of us we can't figure out, hey, we've never said no to anybody. One way or another, it's gonna get fixed. We're not tootin' our horn, but we don't miss. My goal is not to miss."

Alex Faynleb is shown using the right tools to get the job done on a United Airline pushback. Alex Faynleb is shown using the right tools to get the job done on a United Airline pushback.

The way Abe sees it, he's giving back what he has received. Everyone in the industry has been good to him over the years, gave him work at the start and put him where he is today. They are friends and mentors?Herb Kelleher - Southwest Airlines, Ralph S. Barger - Oakland, Marcel Lazzareschi - SSFairway and many others, far too many to mention. "A lot of guys I've met who've just started stuff from nothin' and built it up to somethin'. Friends who were baggage handlers and now they're managers. Friends who are just as down to earth as they come."

Darla, Donna and Denise, Abe's office "backbone," will tell you that it's not just his clients who are important to him; he takes care of his employees in the same way. "I've never been in a company, even with the larger and smaller companies, where if the guys can't speak English well, they will send them to school. If they want to obtain citizenship, oh yes, that's what Abe does for these guys," commented Denise.

Like everyone, Abe has seen and dealt with a lot of change in these thirty years. Not as many people flying, airlines cutting back, downsizing, not as much equipment in service; flight kitchens retiring many of their trucks and the significant increase in security. Especially since 9/11, a trickle down effect in the industry has been felt by all, including AP Enterprises. Instead of losing business though, it has meant changing the types of service they provide. For example, with not as many flight trucks in use, his mechanics are servicing the appliances in the flight kitchens. And, where they nevAbeer serviced them before, now they deal with conveyor systems.

The team at SFO, ready to put their various skills to work! The team at SFO, ready to put their various skills to work!

Other changes Abe has seen; in an effort to be more cost effective, airlines are standardizing equipment purchases, which in turn, cuts costs for his business because now he can buy in volume. And more good news for Abe, according to him, most of these airlines are starting to turn to the contractors like AP. "A lot of big airlines today, they're farming everything out," he claimed. "It's cheaper, you don't have to supply the building, or the employee benefits?I would say someday it's probably going to be all contracted out?or some kind of leasing program."

One of the biggest problems for AP today is hiring people. Due to the heightened level of security, background checks for mechanics to obtain badges to go out on the ramp are very stringent. An individual could be the best mechanic that side of the Mississippi, but if anything appears on their record (there are approximately twenty items that can be cause for disqualification), he/she cannot be hired. However, in keeping with his pervasive positive attitude, Abe comments, "But it's good. I think it's excellent. It makes it a little more difficult hiring people, but the security's the best I've ever seen it."

Abe will be the first to tell you he's heard it all over the years. With the airlines? everyday it's something new. And he's learned to live day to day. Whatever happens tomorrow, it happens tomorrow. "Cause I don't know - I cannot tell the future," he says. "Nobody can. I learn to live day by day to the fullest. I've been through a lot in my life." But don't let him fool you, though it seems his life is all work and no play, he will never miss an opportunity to hop on his Harley with his GSE buddies from far and wide to go cross the country.