Posted 7 years 116 days ago ago by Admin
Paul Daigle, the CEO of multi-service aviation company AAL USA Inc. based in Huntsville, Alabama, has been breezing through this profile interview for almost an hour. His answers and observations have been delivered with insight, confidence, humor, and without hesitation. He’s offered a plethora of quotes and the end of the conversation is now near. Only a softball question remains—lobbed slow and high. It should be right in his wheelhouse:
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Daigle stops talking. A long pause follows. The silence continues. Apparently the softball was a knuckleball. Finally, he hesitantly attempts an answer: “I don’t know; that’s a hard one. I can talk about almost anything else, but I really don’t like talking about things that I’ve done well.”
What? Every facet of the interview so far has touched on things Daigle’s done well. It’s been one freakin’ success after another. However, the victories discussed have been ones that mostly involved teamwork. This last question had the word “you” in it, and perhaps that has thrown Daigle into focusing on himself in a prideful way. He doesn’t like to do that. Such introspection means he may see the shadow of inner demons he’s fought to conquer.
He eventually answers in depth with an honesty that is simultaneously humble and bold. But to gain proper perspective, we first go back in time….
Paul Joseph Daigle was born in South Carolina and grew up in Florida, the oldest of seven siblings in a large Catholic family of Celtic heritage. The family’s neighbor was a Delta Airlines pilot and a mentor to Paul’s younger brother, who became a Delta Airlines pilot himself. The neighbor regaled the boys with stories from “back in the airline glory days,” says Daigle, “so I was aware of aviation growing up.” Still, in the late 1990s Daigle joined the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) in high school with the goal of eventually becoming an infantry officer. “I wanted to kill bad guys and blow up their s--t. I thought that was like the American dream,” he says.
After high school, Daigle next attended Clemson University on an ROTC scholarship. It was during his junior year that an Army captain convinced the student that he could inflict even more damage from the air, so he pursued a new goal and was eventually selected for training as an aviation branch officer. The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened while Daigle was still on campus. “I knew what I was going to be doing with my life,” he says.
Two days after graduating in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Daigle showed up for flight school, and next went from there to Fort Hood, Texas. “It was 2004 and my first wife had just found out that she was pregnant,” says Daigle. “I was only at Fort Hood long enough to get her a house, and then I was off to Taji, Iraq, with my unit.”
Now a platoon leader and air mission commander, his first combat tour was eight months. “Combat is 90 percent boring, just flying in circles, and 10 percent of the worst that could ever happen, but I had the opportunity to fight in some cool places (including the Battle of Fallujah). Being an air mission commander of a team of Apaches is probably the coolest thing that anyone could ever do.” He also gained knowledge that would later serve him well in his future civilian career. “I was very tied into aircraft maintenance. I’d go fly with my warrant officers for up to eight hours, and then I’d go spend the rest of the day on the flightline. I valued my maintenance guys and I developed a very sound understanding of maintenance operations.”
He returned back to the States just in time to see his first son born. “Two weeks after his birth, we started training again,” he says. “We were back home for 18 months, but I think I was actually at home with my family for four of them.” In 2006 he deployed back to Iraq a few months prior to the surge. He didn’t return until early 2008. “I got divorced during that one,” he observes. “It happened to a bunch of us.”
He then bounced around bases in Texas, North Carolina, and Alabama, before being deploying to Afghanistan in 2009 with the 82nd Airborne Division. After being there four months, he was sent home on emergency leave and medically discharged a year later.
Daigle tallied up about 1,500 combat hours during his tours, but logged almost 22,000 hours in a battle captain chair. He insists, “I was definitely better at that than I was at actually flying.” The combat veteran earned multiple valorous awards during his time in service, including an Air Medal and an Army Commendation Medal, each with “V” device, as a result of his heroism on the battlefield.
Home in Huntsville
Return to civilian life began for Daigle with a job at an Army program office in the “Rocket City” of Huntsville, Alabama. Before long he was program integrator for all non-standard rotary-wing aircraft programs supporting the Afghan Air Force and their U.S. Air Force mentors. “I walked in there with zero contracting background and zero understanding of the specific aircraft, but I had an understanding of how to work with people—basic human being stuff.
Surprisingly, that can make you very successful at your job.” He demurs when asked if his international experience in the military and multilingual skills helped him succeed in Uncle Sam’s program office. “You basically have to know how to get along with others. If you learned how to read at an eighth-grade level (the level for military manuals), you can do strikingly well as a government employee or contractor,” he says with good humor.
Daigle does eventually admit he worked at more than just getting along with others. If a call came in from Afghanistan at 3:00 a.m., he took it without complaint. “They’d apologize for waking me up, but just by my answering the phone and talking to them, they trusted me more. I also put in the extra time to learn.” Furthermore, he volunteered to travel overseas to see issues in the field.
Frustration with government bureaucratic inertia ultimately pushed Daigle into the private sector. He signed on with AAL Group, a privately held company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that had pursued him for some time. They finally won over their target when they agreed to set up shop for him in Huntsville.
The new office started with Daigle, his new (and pregnant) wife Melissa, and another employee managing a handful of government contracts. Their revenue grew so steadily that in 2014 AAL Group’s impressed board of directors met with Daigle to ask if he could increase their Huntsville business even more. He explained they were handicapped because AAL Group was a foreign-owned company, and that was shutting them out of new contracts. He believed the office had hit its apex.
Upon hearing this, the board began speaking to one another in Russian. They then turned to Daigle, “We’ve got two Americans in this company. We would like to offer you two the opportunity to buy the U.S. office as a franchise, so that it will be 100 percent American owned.” Needless to say, Daigle and his partner were stunned. It was uncommon for Eastern Europeans and Russians to cede control. Surely, there was a catch? The board explained that, from their perspective, AAL Group would benefit much more from diversification and teaming arrangements with a U.S.-owned franchise, rather than retaining ownership of Daigle’s small programmatic office. As the new “AAL USA” grew itself under Daigle’s leadership, the value of AAL Group would likewise increase. It would be a win-win for everyone. “They told me to get my own contracts, make my own money, and best wishes,” says Daigle. “I accepted the challenge.”
So far that challenge has been met on a scale William the Conqueror would admire, and with a speed that would challenge sprinter Usain Bolt. AAL USA opened in 2014, clearing approximately $6.5 million with 15 employees. Today, over 450 work for the company, and just two government contracts alone provide over $100 million annually. To achieve such explosive growth, Daigle and his team have taken risks, including entering into a long-term lease for a 62,000-square-foot hangar certified to NFPA 409 standards at Huntsville International Airport. It allows for full GFRC approval to service all military and commercial aviation assets, and is designed as a mixed use helicopter and fixed-wing maintenance, repair, and overhaul facility. They also have acquired facilities in the UAE and Afghanistan.
Furthermore, just last month the company received another accolade. AAL USA is now the Huntsville Technology Small Business of the Year. For an area brimming with technology startups and stalwarts, that is no small feat.
AAL USA strives to be “fearless, competent, professional, tireless, rewarding, and fun.” The company culture encompasses four qualities:
⦿ There are no unnecessary restrictions.
⦿ Innovation is encouraged.
⦿ Success is recognized and rewarded.
⦿ Those at the top work the hardest.
Daigle’s normal daily routine underscores that last point. Now with three children in the house, the couple’s 9-month-old daughter usually awakens her parents between 5:30 and 6:00 every morning. After fixing his kids breakfast, Daigle begins checking email. It’s a task he better jump on early—he normally receives 400 to 500 emails throughout the day that require his attention. He then arrives at company headquarters around 8:00 and works nonstop. “I’m a very active CEO,” he says, and in addition to holding at least one senior staff meeting a day, he also creates spreadsheets, writes proposals, and composes contract letters, placing special emphasis on writing well. “I tell everyone in the company that everything we do has to be “sexy,” meaning that it has to be clean with good punctuation and grammar. It always matters how things look.”
While Daigle hasn’t taken a lunch hour in five years, his assistant eventually comes into his office around 2:00 “to remind me to drink water and breathe,” at which time she also brings him calories so he can continue being a computer commando until he leaves the office around 7:30, in time to put his kids to bed. Next, he exercises. Staying fit and participating in sports (The company employs nearly one-third of the Huntsville rugby team.) are a priority. Afterwards, he collapses on the couch, eats, “and passes out,” he somewhat jokes. He reads a few minutes of fantasy fiction in the genre of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones before sleep. “It’s Celtic man-porn,” he laughs, but it relaxes him. The next day is rinse and repeat.
In addition to fiction, another escape for Daigle and his family are international vacations. My wife and I want our kids to see how other cultures live; we think it will make them better people. The first time I went outside the country is when I went to Iraq. When you’ve been deployed as much as I have, first-world problems really don’t mean anything.”
The reason those problems don’t rattle Daigle brings us back to the beginning of this profile and that struggle to talk about his proudest accomplishment. Acknowledging that achievement requires him to also acknowledge personal suffering, as the stands of accomplishment and suffering are intertwined into one cord. For too many of his friends, the strand of suffering prevailed and strangled them in despair. However, Daigle managed to climb the combined cord to a more hopeful place. This is his answer:
“After what I’ve been through on my multiple (military) deployments: losing friends and having some burden of killing people—or, worse, not being able to save people—seeing the consequences of war, and spending time with widows, what’s important to most people is not important to me. I don’t really judge myself by accomplishments or things I’ve done. For guys like me, and other veterans who have been through some of the darkest places in their lives, just getting through the day can be hard.
“The reason I was medically discharged from the Army was because I was diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). It happened after my first deployment, and I hid it. Then they figured it out when I started experiencing panic attacks again in 2009. Getting through the day was a struggle. I thought I was making my condition better by staying focused on the mission and fighting, pouring all of my resources and soul into the mission. Professional counselors later told me that I was just making it worse, that I instead had to address my feelings. I’ve lost a lot of friends and colleagues to suicide … a lot of them. So the fact that I’m still here, with a great job and an amazing family, I think is a pretty big accomplishment.
“I know I’m still pouring all of my life into other people and into this company, but this is what I do to survive. If I can share my struggles and make an impact on one person’s life, that’s an accomplishment right there.
“Every day is an accomplishment.”