Brian Kirkdoffer

Clay Lacy Aviation CEO Brian Kirkdoffer

At age 15, he took a flight with the company’s founder that kindled his love of bizav. At the time, he couldn’t have imagined what would follow.

Beckoned to aviation by a flight in a P-51 Mustang fighter bomber when he was 15 years old, Brian Kirkdoffer now runs the business named for that airplane’s pilot. The Seattle native, who joined Clay Lacy Aviation in 1990 to fly charter missions, became its president in 2003 and has been its CEO and majority owner since 2012.

Kirkdoffer has certainly come a long way, and so has his company, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.  Founded at Los Angeles’s Van Nuys Airport as the first jet-charter operation west of the Mississippi, it currently manages more than 100 corporate aircraft, employs about 500 people, and operates facilities at nearly two dozen airports nationwide. In addition to charter, it provides sales, acquisitions, maintenance, avionics, interiors, and FBO services. Revenues in 2018 were around $215 million, a 45 percent increase from the figure five years earlier.

We spoke with Kirkdoffer at Seattle’s Boeing Field—the airport where he first took off with Lacy.

How did you stay connected with Clay Lacy after your first flight when you were a teenager?

He got me started with flying and soloed me, and then we kept in touch when I was at the University of Washington. My degree was in business administration with an emphasis on finance, and I was planning to go to Europe for a little while and then work in finance. Clay suggested that instead of spending money traveling, I could come to California and he would train me to be a copilot in a Learjet. So I stayed there and have been there ever since. That’s how I got hooked in with Clay Lacy Aviation.

What led you to buy a majority ownership?

Early on I loved business. I had a lawn-mowing business, I started a windsurfing business, and in college, I started a business that provided custom-made t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats to fraternities and sororities on my campus. I have an entrepreneurial spirit. And then I have a passion for aviation and felt I was fostering two passions.

I had so much fun and fulfillment at Clay Lacy Aviation that I wanted to keep it going. Clay is older than me, so there needed to be a transition. The thought was for me to continue the company when Clay no longer wanted to. He took it to a certain phase, and I wanted to take it to the next phase. We talked about it for years and that became my focus. I felt it was best for our employees and clients, so that motivated me to take over majority ownership.

How would you describe your management style?

I like to be a coach more than I like to be a boss. I love recruiting great people, and I love empowering and training them to do great things. People did that with me, and nothing makes me happier than seeing team members enjoy what they are doing and feel fulfilled doing it.

Whenever I flew a trip, I never felt it was 100 percent perfect. There was always something I could have done a little better. While you’re never going to be perfect, you should always be trying to get to perfect. I try to instill that attitude at Clay Lacy. Every day, try to be better than you were yesterday. If all of us are doing that, spectacular things happen.

What unique perspective does your background working in all aspects of the business bring you and your team?

I’ve done most of the jobs at Clay Lacy that people are doing there today. I’ve washed airplanes, fueled airplanes, dumped lavatories, flown airplanes. I’ve been the flight attendant, I’ve done maintenance and troubleshooting with our mechanics. I’ve done everything on the finance side, so I understand operational costs.

When I was a crewmember, especially as captain, I had high expectations for our team. I took it as a challenge to figure out how we could serve clients better than they had ever been served before. Customer satisfaction is very important to me. I have that expectation across all product lines on the service side.

On the pilot side, I was flying one time with Clay and worried about another airplane that was in maintenance. Clay looked at me and said, “You’re not thinking about this flight right now.” He said, “When you’re flying these airplanes, it’s the only thing that should be on your mind—getting from A to B safely.” He was absolutely right. Our focuses at Clay Lacy are safety, service, and value, in that order.

What are your growth plans for the company? 

Two years ago, we acquired Key Air [a Connecticut-based aircraft management and charter company], and that has been a wonderful addition. We don’t acquire much, though, and my preference is for more organic growth. We operate out of about 21 airports and feel strongly that regional support—with immediate access to all the services required by aircraft operators—is a big competitive advantage for us. So that’s probably where you will see us continue to focus.

How difficult is it for you to find and keep qualified employees?

We are fortunate in that we have a 50-year-old company. Recruiting and retaining great people has to be something you’ve invested in for many years. To me it all comes down to the company culture. Do people enjoy being there? Is there room for them to grow? Is someone looking out for their career path? We have that culture and we cherish it.

Our partnership with North Valley Occupational Center [a Southern California school for adults that offers courses on aviation mechanics] is part of the DNA of Clay Lacy Aviation. We want to help the industry, help the local community, and keep the aviation ecosystem as strong as possible. It starts with making sure bright young minds get passionate about aviation. We’ve helped a lot of students continue their careers in aviation—people who otherwise couldn’t afford to do so.

What kind of financial and brand risks has the company taken?

We added land at Van Nuys and spent a lot of money to do that, but it’s fulfilling our vision. Key Air was another risk—we’ve never acquired another company the size of Key Air. It had a great legacy, great people, and a great culture that really fit into ours but it was a huge risk.

We also changed out all of the computer software systems at Clay Lacy when I purchased the company because they needed to be upgraded. It was very expensive, and we had to adapt them for our business and our industry. It took us three years and millions of dollars to do it but it’s paying off.

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What are your thoughts about the continued consolidation of the FBO industry?

It’s good in many aspects for the industry, but I think we offer a competitive advantage because we are not part of that consolidation. We consider our clients, our employees, and our vendors to be our shareholders, and our decisions are made to improve safety, service, and value to all three of those groups. We are fortunate that we have enough size and scale to be able to acquire some things along the way that make sense. The barriers to entry in this industry keep increasing, and you need a certain size and scale to compete. We provide an intimate flight-department experience but we have the size and scale and power behind it.

What’s your favorite aircraft to fly?

That’s like asking who is your favorite child. I love them all. That being said, I have to go with what I have the most experience in: the [Gulfstream] GIV. That was the latest and greatest when I was flying. I have been all over the world in that airplane and it never let me down. It’s the aircraft I have the fondest memories with.


Name: Brian Kirkdoffer

Birthdate: Oct. 21, 1966, in Seattle

Position: President of Clay Lacy Aviation since 2003 and CEO and majority owner since 2012

Past positions: Hired by Clay Lacy as a charter pilot in 1990 and became the company’s first director of aircraft management five years later.

Boards: Serves on customer advisory boards of Boeing Business Jet, Bombardier Aerospace, and Embraer Executive Jets and on the Leadership Council of National Business Aviation Association

Education: B.S., Business Administration, 1989, University of Washington

Personal: Lives in Los Angeles with wife Natalie. Two teenage sons. Hobbies include travel, skiing, fitness activities.