“You have to have some structure, but flexibility makes it energetic, fun, and entrepreneurial. It allows you to adapt to changes,” says Precision Aviation Group (PAG) CEO David Mast with entrepreneurial enthusiasm ringing in his voice. Mast has lived his quote since graduating from Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business in the early ‘90s. The Atlanta native worked his way through college in a co-op program and simultaneously earned extra much needed money in the shipping and receiving department at AvGroup. “I’m mechanically inclined and grew up loving aviation. I still have my original Jane’s Aviation books,” he reminisces.
Upon graduation, the young man came very close to working in banking and finance. “The guy that ran NationsBank in Dallas said something to me that really changed my career path. I was very outspoken back then, and he told me that in the corporate world, 50 percent of the job is political. He told me that if I wasn’t prepared to play that game, then banking and finance wasn’t the place for me. That struck me and I realized my heart was in aviation.” After Mast realized his plainspoken, direct nature wasn’t tailored for bankers in Brooks Brothers suits uttering politically correct bromides, he returned to his first love and to the company that had helped him pay his college bills. AvGroup’s Ed Tomberlin had a job for the returning graduate that required neither political maneuvering nor silk over-the-calf banking hosiery. Nevertheless, Mast was expected to wear clothes. “He offered me $2,000 a year more than my banking job and $500 so I could buy some clothes,” Mast chuckles. “Ed was truly a brilliant man and entrepreneur. I was fortunate to learn the ins and outs of the industry under his tutelage.” Yes, Mast found employment in an industry that he loved and that fit him better than banking. Parts and components don’t care what you say or wear. Aviation is all about “mission accomplished.”
PAG’s mission statement is “To provide industry leading aviation MRO services and supply chain logistics worldwide.” When dealing with a world of differing economic and geopolitical challenges, executing such an ambitious mission takes precision planning and that fun flexibility, which is why Mast is a big believer in whiteboards and erasers. “Sometimes when you board something out it becomes much clearer,” he observes. However, an ample supply of whiteboards is not the secret key for unlocking business success. “There’s not only one key. I don’t believe in that,” he says. “Constantly evolving as a company is a key. Scott started PHP as only a parts distributor. (In 1996, Mast purchased 50 percent of PHP from founder Scott James. PHP grew into PAG.) We wanted to evolve and grow by starting a repair station.” Then, the fledgling company increased its capabilities through acquisitions.
That acquisition growth strategy was learned in Mast’s college jobs working at AT&T and First Financial Management Corporation. “I learned a lot about how to run a business and how to not run a business working at both AT&T and at the bank holding company; they were very different environments. AT&T was a very large, slow moving organization that had a lot of layers. You had to be one of the top 20 or so officers to make a real directional impact at a company of 80,000 people. The bank was much more decentralized and entrepreneurial. They were one of the first billion-plus revenue bank holding companies. The model that they embraced was having a centralized management team but a decentralized operational structure in terms of their ability to acquire businesses and set up their structure and make them part of the corporate parent company, but each business had individual P&Ls.
PAG’s acquisition strategy wasn’t the sole reason for their fast growth. “Ultimately, our success has hinged upon how we take care of our customers,” says Mast. “I know people say that all the time, but we really focus on our customers. We get customer surveys done all the time. The vast majority of our top 20 customers from 1997 remain our top customers today. I think that speaks to our customer service consistency and growth.”
Skate to the Puck’s Path
Part of that customer service is determining what customers will need in the future. “What we’re selling and servicing today is not what we’re going to be doing tomorrow. We focus on what platforms will be coming out of warranty and how we can service those in the future.” That sounds like a strategic insight Steve Jobs gave: “Skate to where the puck will be.” Mast may have indeed gleaned that wisdom from Jobs, as he is a “voracious reader” of The Wall Street Journal. He also stays abreast of aviation industry happenings by reading “all the trade publications online.” (We classily refrained in the interview from promoting RotorcraftPro.com, until now.) Still, it’s not all business news for the CEO. He decompresses with bestselling fiction from David Baldacci.
Mast needs to decompress, for his days are compressed full. “I get up at either at 5:37 or 6:07. Those are my two alarm times. I have a home gym and exercise with a workout buddy from college. We’ve worked out together for 27 years: CrossFit, circuit training, biking. After exercise, I get into the office and usually leave late. (I work better later in the day.) and have dinner with the family or eat off the stovetop.” Whew!
80 Percent’s Better Than Zero
Such activity makes it challenging for Mast to enact the best business advice he believes he received in his entrepreneurial career: “Spend as much time, if not more, thinking about the business as much as working in the business. “That means you must strategize and develop a plan to grow a business,” he says. “It was hard for me to pull away from the day-to-day weeds and discipline myself to focus on overall growth strategies. If you come up with a plan and only enact 80 percent of it, you’re moving forward. At year-end, you see direct results from enacting those plans.” Mast says the best money he ever spent was for an advisory board after PAG’s first acquisition. “It forced us to formally plan so I didn’t look like a fool in front of them,” he admits.
Not only does Mast not play the fool, he refrains from hiring them. “One of the key components of our success has been building a great team of people,” he emphasizes. What does he look for in an employee? “We look for a good roll-your-sleeves-up work ethic. Some in the younger generation want to be manager in 60 days without proving themselves. Our company culture is a pay-for-performance culture and we like to promote from within. We look for people who are eager to please, ethical, and understand the business.”
Seeing and Seizing
So, on what future is Mast planning to unleash PAG’s talented team?
When asked what he sees as the greatest challenge and opportunity for his industry, Mast starts his answer with a curious comment, “This is going to sound odd, but I think the greatest challenge and opportunity are both the same. The natural resources market, specifically oil & gas, is extremely challenged right now. A lot of the operators are right-sizing their organizations; a lot of aircraft are parked, flight hours are down. It has especially affected our Lafayette and Brisbane operations. We are looking for creative ways to partner with affected operators to lower their MRO service and component costs. I think we’ve been successful over the last year and a half at doing that. It’s a challenged market, but we look at it as our greatest opportunity. We’ve been very proactive in approaching operators to lower their annual external spend.”
It may be “a challenged market”, but Mast and PAG have proven they’re ready for hard challenges. He concludes, “Everybody thinks seeing and seizing an opportunity is easy, until you do it for real and take a risk.”
That’s when flexibility gets ramblin’ fun.