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SPECIAL REPORT: A savvy pro is sought for Jackson airport's CEO

Dirk Vanderleest is retiring as the Jackson airport CEO

Dirk Vanderleest is retiring as the Jackson airport CEO

The aviation executive search firm hired to find the next CEO of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority is likely to focus on an airport pro skilled in economic development.

“You need someone who can make that happen,” said  Doug Kuelpman, founder and president of ADK Executive Search, a Jacksonville, Fla., company the Airport Authority selected Monday to find a CEO to replace Dirk Vanderleest, who is retiring after 25 years in the post.

As a draw for economic development, Jackson Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport has some infrastructure in place with more to come and ample available property, Kuelpman said. Land is an asset airports like Jackson around the country have used to replace revenue from airlines that either died or departed the market, as Southwest Airlines did with Jackson in June, taking with it about $800,000 a year in revenue.

But some airports are hemmed in with few options for economic development expansion, Kuelpman noted.

“There are airports that would die to have the kind of land you have there,” he said. “They would love the opportunity to expand and develop that revenue stream.”

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Considering Jackson Evers’ long odds in landing another major airline, the Airport Authority board needs someone who can lure new businesses and their dollars onto airport property, Kuelpman said, and cited Melbourne (Fla.) International Airport’s success drawing aeronautical and aerospace companies to its industrial park component.

“They would like to have more airline service but they are not hurting financially because of their park.

“As you grow the economic base, which is what they are doing in Melbourne, there will be a lot of travel requirements” that will help drive the air passenger business, Kuelpman said in an interview several days ahead of ADK winning the $33,000 executive search contract from Jackson.

The Airport Authority expects the search and final selection to take around four months, Chairman James L. Henley said.

Vanderleest steps down Sept. 30. Henley said the need to find and hire a CEO promptly precluded doing a request for proposals to find a search firm.

Skills needed by an airport’s chief executive have evolved significantly in the year since airline de-regulation in the late 1970s, noted Kuelpman, a former airport planner with the Federal Aviation Administration and business development executive with several airlines.

“Back in the ’70s, a lot of guys were coming out of the military and becoming airport directors,” he said, describing the typical manager as someone who had overseen a military airfield and could keep things running smoothly, essentially “someone who could keep the lights on.”

The airlines and the federal Civil Aeronautics Board decided on air carriers, fares and passenger polices, with airports and their communities left to be bystanders.

Fast forward to today’s free-for-all-industry. “It’s a sea change,” Kuelpman said. “Today, airport directors are business people who are CEOs of a multi-million-dollar industry.”

Many have business degrees, he said, and a knack for promoting their communities.

Kuelpman’s firm has done 53 airport executive searches the last three years. “Twenty-four of those have been for Dirk’s level,” he said of Vanderleest, the Airport Authority CEO.

Meeting individually with Airport Authority board members is akey first step the 18-year-old company will take, its founder said. “We’ll talk with all of them to find out what their hot buttons are what they are looking for.”

ADK distributes a brochure that sells the community to executive prospects and details the needs to be filled and skills required.

“That will be out there for about 30 days or so,” Kuelpman said.

After that, the whittling starts, he added. “We’ll take the top 10 or 12 and start the interview procedures.”

Eventually, a short list of a half dozen candidates is prepared. These are the candidates who will go through the reference and background checks, he said.

Finally, three or four will be invited to final interviews, according to Kuelpman.

As an entity governed by an autonomous Airport Authority, Jackson Evers International will have an advantage on the salary side, the head hunter said.

Airports run by cities and counties — including Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson — must stick to salary scales that pay their CEOs in a range equal to their other department heads, Kuelpman  noted.

As an example, the CEO of Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s largest airport, makes around $240,000 a year; the head of Dallas-Fort Worth International, an airport governed by an independent authority and the world’s fifth biggest, earns $500,000 a year, according to Kuelpman.

The chief of Tampa International Airport, which is run by an authority, left to take the top job at the much larger  Hartsfield-Jackson. He took a $40,000 pay cut, Kuelpman said.

Airports that find a CEO with the range of skills required to effectively run an airport today and broaden the revenue base are wise to put a pair of “golden handcuffs” on the executive, Kuelpman advised.



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