“It was an accident,” Jean Raines says, reflecting on how she began her journey into the ground handling profession.
“I guess when you get into aviation, it gets in your blood and you can’t keep it out.”
Raines’ career in aviation began with a FBO and a charter business she and her late husband owned in Mobile, AL. Later, when her husband passed, Raines assumed the role of chairperson at GAT Airline Ground Support. She has led the company from a FBO operation to a well-respected ground handling company with locations at 37 airports across the United States.
For her accomplishments, Raines has been named the recipient of Ground Support Worldwide’s 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Leon and Jean Raines built their FBO in Mobile, AL in 1967 to complement Leon’s hobby of flying and to help support their home building company throughout the region. The FBO was recognized as one of the top 20 in the United States. During the late 1980s, Leon sold the FBO portion of the company so Jean could pursue opportunities for ground handling operations in Mobile and Pensacola, FL.
However, six months later, Leon passed away, and Raines found herself flying solo and launching her first two locations without Leon by her side.
“After he passed away, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” recalls Raines, who became chairperson at GAT in 1989.
However, with a determination to make good on her promises, she launched her first locations seamlessly. The airline partners recognized her passion for success, and approached her with more opportunities throughout the United States. Raines accepted the challenge and gained five cities in 1995.
While the company expanded, she learned everything she could about loading, cleaning and dispatching aircraft.
“I attended all the courses the airlines offered about ramp handling so we knew what had to be done,” Raines states.
“It was a different time in the aviation industry. Back then, it was really something because females were rare in this business,” she adds, reflecting on those early days. “It was seven days a week, though. It was challenging work.”
Raines partnered with Jim Baggett, a long-time family friend, to maintain the momentum and continue the company’s growth. Baggett, who started with GAT in 1975 as an aircraft mechanic helped teach Raines the ins and outs of ground support equipment and how it all was used.
“Jim was a great help to me, we were on the road constantly visiting our stations to provide support and communicate with the customers,” she says. “He encouraged me.”
Raines knew it would be important to focus on safety and to understand potential issues her employees may be facing. GAT has been honored with numerous awards for their safety performance and reliability.
Although leading a ground handling company came with a steep learning curve, Raines worked hard as chairperson. And, over time, it became second nature to her.
She recognized early on that the business was a “people-centric” industry. Building relationships with others allowed the company to thrive and expand.
“I guess the biggest thing I learned is after you get the contract, you’ve really got to service it. A lot of people forget about the customer,” Raines says. “You have to make sure you’re providing the services you said you would.”
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry provided its challenges, but Raines notes it wasn’t quite as big of an issue as some might think.
“It had its advantages and disadvantages. You just had to go with the flow,” she recalls.
Initially, favorable word-of-mouth allowed the business to develop, and soon, an opportunity to expand to Sacramento, CA, presented itself.
“That seemed like the opposite end of the world, as far as GAT’s southern roots were concerned. I had no idea if we could even do it,” Raines says. “I stayed out there two or three months to make sure. We did it, and it ended up being one of our biggest cities we have to this day.”
Presently, GAT has locations all across the United States, stretching from Portland, ME, to San Diego, CA, and from Dickinson, ND, to Sarasota, FL.
That success has been possible due in large part to Raines’ focus on relationships and following through with her promises.
“The industry, in general, is a close-knit group that is built on mutual trust and respect,” Raines notes. “Our customers had to have a sense of confidence that placing their business with GAT was the right decision. This involved considerable time investment in ensuring that we delivered on our commitments.”
Raines’ focus on relationships is not confined to customer dealings. She has applied the same attention to her employees.
She often helps those who work at GAT with the problems they are facing – whether at work or at home.
“We have people on this ramp that have been with us over 20 years. I recently had the fortune of attending a celebration with one of our employees that has been with us for 30 years,” Raines says. “The key to being a success in this business is treat your people right, and treat them the way you would want to be treated.”
GAT’s philosophy is “people make the difference.” Raines takes that to heart, frequently offering open positions to current employees and promoting from within.
In fact, Richard Thiel, President; Dian Lensch, Chief Financial Officer; Carl Schouw, Chief Operations Officer; and Brian Heard, Executive Director – Corporate Safety, all moved into corporate roles at GAT after working in other capacities first.
“When we get somebody who is dedicated, and demonstrates that commitment, we want them to move up the ladder,” Raines says.
“We started and gained a lot of experience with GAT,” notes Lensch, the company’s CFO. “That’s really what’s helped me in my role – is having done that job out there on the ramp, knowing what they do and knowing what challenges they face.
“It translates to every aspect of what we do.”
Providing opportunities to employees is just one aspect that Lensch admires about Raines.
Lensch notes there are several examples of Raines taking a personal interest in the employees who keep the company running successfully.
“When traveling, she would meet with the crews and tell them how much she appreciated them. It was something they didn’t hear all the time. They were very glad to know the owner of the company took time to spend with them,” Lensch says.
One specific example took place while visiting Fort Myers, FL. Raines was in the bag room and experienced firsthand how hot the facility could get.
“Her and Mr. Baggett went out the very next day and got them two gymnasium-sized fans to cool it off. The employees were so appreciative of that simple act of kindness,” Lensch recalls.
“A lot of people can run a business, but to run a business with heart takes a certain personality. And she definitely has it,” she continues. “She’s still teaching me to this day.”
Lensch says this attitude has given Raines a sterling reputation with both her employees and GAT’s customers.
Recently, that reputation was proven accurate when the company was recognized by Delta Air Lines for servicing 5,000,000 aircraft approaches without a single incident of aircraft damage at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL).
After decades of success, Raines is retiring this year.
After a recent sale, she will still own a small interest at GAT Airline Ground Support, which was acquired by private equity firm Atlantic Street Capital. However, Chief Executive Officer Boe Strange will assume Raines’ role within the company.
Raines is confident she is turning over her business to the right person.
“He’s a quick learner and I don’t think he ever sleeps,” Raines says, applauding Strange’s work ethic. “Everybody knows him. He’s been a strong leader in our community and has worked closely with our airline partners.”
Remarried and ready to retire, Raines plans to spend more time with her family and travel with her husband, Don.
She is ready to step aside and let the company continue to keep its reputation in tact within the industry.
“I wish I was younger, and I could keep doing it,” Raines says.
Of course, if GAT ever needs her, she says she is always willing to help.
“GAT Airline Ground Support has been an integral part of my life for over 50 years. I have been blessed to meet some truly outstanding people that have touched my life in so many positive ways,” she says. “I sincerely thank all my friends, co-workers and acquaintances for all that you have done to make GAT successful.”