“"How many leaders actively seek out and encourage views alien and at odds with their own? All too few...Who in your organization serves as your Challenger In Chief? Interrogating the choices you are considering making? Making you consider the uncontemplated, the unimaginable and that which contradicts or refutes your position? And also challenging you?"”
As a young worker at fast-food joints, Chris Holifield daydreamed about owning her own company instead of focusing on the business at hand and this led on some occasions to her getting fired. “I probably was not the ideal employee,” she admitted, adding that she couldn’t help “telling people how to streamline and be efficient and what might be better.” Now she calls the shots as the owner, president and CEO of Elite Aviation, a charter and aircraft management company based at Van Nuys Airport in Southern California.
Holifield comes from humble beginnings, having grown up in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the daughter of a Spanish housekeeper and a Cuban factory worker. As a single mother, she attended classes at Mission College, a two-year community college.
After her stints in the fast-food business, she had a job where she helped to place children in foster care. “I’ve always liked serving people, so that was a fantastic job for me,” she recalled. At St. Anne’s Maternity Home for unwed mothers, Holifield worked in an outreach program to schools, helping young women understand the challenges of teen pregnancy and how that would affect their lives.
A series of increasingly responsible positions followed. Holifield worked for Los Angeles city and county politicians, including State Senate president David Roberti, Los Angeles County supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke and councilman Ernani Bernardi. Bernardi was a general contractor, and working for him fueled her growing interest in developing properties. She started by flipping houses, then formed a development company and began constructing apartment buildings.
A few years ago, Holifield and her then-husband Charles Brumbaugh bought Elite Aviation, just before the economy started to tank. Last July, after the couple split, she ended up as the company’s sole owner, and since then she has been putting her own firm yet feminine touch on the operation. For example, she launched Elite Attache, which handles highly customized requests for charter clients, and established a West Coast Piaggio Avanti II sales center. And she hopes to grow Elite Aviation even larger, possibly by purchasing a European charter company.
Rumor says you were fired from your fast-food jobs. Did you leave thinking you could show them how to do it better?
Yes I did! And I now manage the aircraft of a plane owner whose company I was fired from.
Does he know that?
We won’t ask you who it is then. How did you first get to flex your entrepreneurial muscles?
That came through working many years in politics. I learned the basic business skills to succeed. How to manage large budgets. I had the opportunity to meet many developers. I started buying and selling homes. It was a part-time job, something that I did on my own. I’d renovate them, sell them and then move to a nicer home and do the same. I like taking something raw and building it and watching it grow and then going, “Wow, look at what I did!” Then I started a development company with a partner and we developed many units throughout California.
How did you get interested in aviation?
I reached the point in my development company that I could no longer afford to be [sitting around] at airports. I’d have three or four developments going on at the same time, throughout California. And my time was at a premium. So I started flying on private jets so that I could go to my three meetings and be home with my son for dinner.
How did you learn about business jet travel?
When I worked for the president of the California State Senate, we flew [privately] many times.
Right away you perceived the value of business aviation?
I got to a point where me sitting in an airport was [costing] literally thousands of dollars. You have to constantly analyze and plan your time and look at issues that are standing in the way of growth.
Obviously you had to be there face to face?
These are meetings with important people, elected officials, city inspectors, but not only that, when you’re in development it’s also important for you to check your projects and see for yourself how they’re coming along.
What was your impression of private aviation the first times that you flew?
I wondered why I was paying thousands of dollars and I couldn’t have little things like coffee or hand towels. Why are people rude when I walk into their FBO? Why isn’t anybody greeting me? I saw that was, from a business perspective, just bad service.
Do you think that’s fairly common?
I have flown many private jet charter companies and there was a perpetual feeling that I’m paying all this money and people aren’t meeting my needs. When you fly a private jet, it’s far beyond putting a client in a plane. You have to meet every single need and request. They’re paying you a lot of money. And when you’re meeting a client’s needs, your company is profitable and when you’re profitable and your company’s happy, you can keep growing.
When I’m flying a client, I want to pay attention to every detail. If my client said, “I want a turkey sandwich with peanut butter on it”–I’m not saying anybody did–I wanted it to be there because for me as a business person it was important to make a good impression.
What led to buying Elite Aviation?
My interest came from not being able to find anyone that was meeting my needs or my clients’ needs. I remember once being on a redeye to New York. I’m a simple girl and I don’t ask for a lot, but starting a 7:30 meeting with no coffee was very problematic for me. I have had other trips where there’s no soap, the glasses are stained, there’s lipstick on them. I found those things appalling. It doesn’t have anything to do with being in a private jet. That kind of service is appalling anywhere.
How did you find out about Elite Aviation being available?
I was a client. I found out that it was up for sale. And I thought, “I could be really good at this.” Because I’ve flown everybody else. I’m detail-oriented. And most importantly, I am the client. I know everything you shouldn’t do on a plane and I know everything you should do.
What kind of research did you do?
You have to come in with your corporate counsel, the accountants, and review profit-and-loss statements, the whole accounting division, balance sheets and so forth. And look at audited financials. For me Elite was a company that I could fix. I have the same feeling about this company that I had when I started my first real estate company, and everybody told me, “Don’t do it, you can’t compete. First of all, you’re a woman–it’s a guy’s world–and you can’t compete in L.A. because there are too many developers.”
You purchased Elite in 2007, just before the economy tanked.
This company was in the hole millions of dollars, and within 24 months of the acquisition, it was revenue neutral. That is a very difficult thing to do.
How is Elite doing now?
We are in total profitability mode. We are flying twice as much as we were last year. I’m proud to say that I’m looking at expansion abroad. We manage 13 aircraft here and we fly globally. We are a one-stop shop. We have our own maintenance and repair facility, catering, sales, acquisitions, charter.
What sets Elite apart?
Do you have five hours? Number one, I am the client. I am very, very, very detail-oriented. I want to make sure that every client need and request is met, be it for that vintage champagne that’s hard to find or for an exclusive shopping excursion for the wife while the husband’s doing business. Whatever my client needs so that his trip is successful, that’s what we do.
What happens when you fall short?
If you’re flying at 2 or 3 in the morning and [call about] a problem, you will get a live voice from an Elite Aviation employee. I tell all of my pilots, the flight attendants, whoever is onboard the plane with a client, if there is a problem, we own up to it, we fix it. I want to receive a phone call myself about the problem and I’ll be the first person on the phone with the client saying, “I’m very sorry. This was the problem. We apologize. I want to assure you it will be fixed when you board your flight.”
Was that a marked change from before you bought Elite?
I changed everything when I bought Elite. Van Nuys is extremely competitive and my clients aren’t going to call and say, “I’m not flying you again because your front-desk person was rude.” They’re not going to call me and go, “Your flight attendant didn’t pay attention to details.” I have spent time doing a lot of training with my team about service and how important it is to pay attention to detail.
You’re careful about who you hire?
I have been involved in every single hire since I took over the company. I have very high expectations for my staff.
You don’t see a lot of woman-owned aviation businesses. Was it a surprise to you to see how much of a boys’ club aviation is?
I was in the boys’ club in politics, I was in the boys’ club in my real estate development company. I’m very comfortable in the boys’ club. The boys’ club likes me. I’m about business, I’m practical, I’m to the point and I’ve had no problem whatsoever.
Would you like to see more women involved in aviation?
Very much so. Two of my top executives are women. I tried desperately to find a woman corporate counsel. They do exist, but unfortunately I’ve not been able to find someone that fits me. When I say “fits me,” I mean someone that pays attention to detail.
Would you like to build Elite Aviation into something big?
Big doesn’t even begin to describe it. Having started my first company from nothing and having a track record of establishing a successful business, I know that Elite will be successful beyond anything anyone can possibly imagine.
Résumé: Chris Holifield
Position: Owner, president and CEO, Elite Aviation
Education: Some college, planning to complete a degree program.
Personal: Two sons. Hopes to learn to fly along with younger son. Favorite aircraft are Piaggio Avanti II and Gulfstream GIV.