Fully Fuelled Ambition

posted on 8th October 2018
Fully Fuelled Ambition

Avfuel President & CEO Craig R Sincock

 

Craig R Sincock bought Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Avfuel in 1985. Today, it boasts in excess of 5,500 flight department customers, 650 branded FBOs and more than 3,000 fuelling locations globally, supplying fuel to passenger and freight airlines, corporate flight departments, FBOs, helicopter operators and the military. Through 28 further acquisitions, growing sales and marketing alliances, Sincock has not only expanded Avfuel into a worldwide fuel supplier, he’s also grown it into other, sometimes loosely related areas…
Avtank, for example, designs, engineers and builds fuel storage systems and refuelling equipment, while Avlease manages and leases that equipment. Avsurance procures insurance cover for pilots, airports, equipment manufacturers, distributors and other facilities, and Avplan is a full-service flight-planning and trip-support company. Meanwhile, Sincock’s sights are set firmly on the future, through the Avfuel Technology Initiatives Corporation.
Even more remarkable than this extraordinary success is the fact that Sincock barely left home to achieve it! A graduate of the University of Michigan, located in Ann Arbor, he still lives in the city and says: “Ann Arbor is my home and I’ve lived in Michigan most of my life. Avfuel was in Ann Arbor when I acquired it and there’s never really been a reason to move. We built a new office, but the city continues to be ideal for Avfuel for a number of reasons. We’re right next to the city’s general aviation airport, Ann Arbor has a thriving economy, which is good for business and our employees – as well as for attracting and retaining them – and it’s where our long-time employees have established their families. We have several off-site employees in key territories around the US and Europe, plus an office in Texas, but the vast majority of Avfuel employees are in-house, right at home in Ann Arbor.”
Sincock says he bought Avfuel because he intended “…to do something significant with it. I’ve always had big plans for Avfuel and believed in what the company could do from the very beginning. Stagnation is not an option – Avfuel will always grow and adapt. I’d like to think Avfuel’s growth was slow and steady, but when I look at its history, we really have covered a lot of ground in a relatively short time in the fuel business. We’ve never had a negative year and there’s a lot of reliability behind that statistic that our customers – and employees – can count on.”
Taking on a company with such grand plans for success inevitably meant accepting risk, but Sincock reckons that’s just part of the business. “There’s no growth without risk, but you should only take smart risks. We look at a potential acquisition from every angle and consult with experts inside and outside the company to make sure what we’re doing best serves our customers and employees.”

I’ve been flying since college and relish every moment I have in the cockpit. It is the most unique way to see the world

Fuel and more
Fuel supply accounts for 90% of Avfuel’s business, yet the company actually does so much more. Services, including Avsurance and Avplan, are perhaps unlikely offerings for a fuel supplier… “Our customers’ needs have always and will always drive the direction of our business. Listening to their pain points and finding an opportunity to fill that void in the market is the way Avfuel has grown.
“That’s exactly the mentality that went into the acquisition of Avplan and Avsurance, as well as the development of numerous programmes: Avfuel Contract Fuel, AVTRIP loyalty rewards, Avfuel Network Referrals, Avfuel Network Rewards, in-house marketing specialists, an in-house tax department, 24/7 quality assurance, FAA-approved training systems and more. We’ve learned that it’s not enough to supply fuel – we’ve spent 45 years adding to and refining such solutions to become an all-round aviation facilitator providing the best service possible to our customers. We work nonstop to be the one-stop shop for the aviation community.
“These additional offerings are just as important as the fuel we sell, because they differentiate us from our competition. Fuel is fuel, but no other fuel supplier manages such an array of services from one collaborative location. When a customer chooses Avfuel, they’re not just buying our fuel, they’re buying into our suite of services, from back-of-office solutions to fuel handling and customer care, and the support that comes with it all. It’s comprehensive and it has helped us maintain loyalty among customers. It also means it’s necessary to hire and retain a much larger staff, so it’s great for our local economy, and it means we have a large breadth of diverse expertise to draw from.”
Examine the Avfuel operation at a more fundamental level and it’s clear there’s also an ambition to facilitate connections between aviation professionals, something like an aerospace-specific LinkedIn. It seems a great deal of effort for no direct return, so why bother? “Because when our customers win, we win. Everything we do is with the customer in mind. With a plethora of operational support, if our customer is succeeding, it means we’re succeeding too, and it makes for a stronger Avfuel network.”

More than fuel
When it comes to fuel, simply supplying product was, predictably, not enough for Avfuel. It has developed a range of fuel-focussed services, managing, leasing and building aviation refuelling equipment and offering a variety of retail and loyalty cards. Sincock confirms: “We’re a leader in leasing refuellers, with expertise in designing, assembling and maintaining a fleet of 700+ vehicles out of a designated building next door to our headquarters office. We take a personalised approach to business, which means our employees develop relationships with customers and understand their unique operations.
“This way we learn more about their needs and desires, then look to satisfy them. It’s one of the most successful ways to grow a company; it fosters loyalty and helps us stay at the forefront of innovation. Through this process we became the first fuel supplier to develop a loyalty programme for pilots, the first and only fuel supplier to develop a loyalty programme for FBO staff, and the first and only fuel supplier to develop its own online FAA-approved fuel handling and supervisor training.”
Considering fuel is its major business, Avfuel places critical importance upon training to ensure safe operations. But training is also essential to the wider Avfuel network, including the many FBOs globally that carry the Avfuel logo. It’s branding that reassures customers they’ll be receiving top quality, fairly priced fuel, and, by association, that the FBO’s services will reach a similarly high standard.
“Pilots absolutely have expectations for quality service when they see the Avfuel sign and we help our branded FBOs by offering training tools to assist with the customer support side of their business. The online Avfuel Training System [ATS] includes lessons on proper fuel handling and safety, front counter operations, including how to efficiently use Avfuel’s programmes, and customer service training to help FBOs stand out from the competition.”
And when it comes to the more prosaic principles of fuel safety, Avfuel offers multiple training options to its branded FBOs. Its online Line Fuel Service and Supervisory Fuel Service Training lessons are FAA approved, satisfying safety regulations outlined by 14 CFR 139.321. They’re part of the online ATS, which includes ramp safety, customer service and the front counter training.
The ATS also offers branded FBOs free regional Quality Assurance and Fire Safety Seminars (14 CFR Part 139 Approved) at select locations throughout the year, backing these and its online lessons up with an expert, fully-staffed quality assurance department. Available 24/7/365, it responds to branded FBOs’ needs on fuel handling and safety. “It takes any question. Any concern. Anytime. Anywhere. All our customers have to do is pick up the phone to get a real person for immediate attention.
“And considering our own employees, I think it’s crucial for them to be highly trained and engage in ongoing professional development too. Avfuel has a programme where its employees can elect to take classes for continued education.”

Fuel is fuel, but no other fuel supplier manages such an array of services from one collaborative location

Education for the future
Evidently a man who appreciates his success rather than taking it for granted, Sincock works a variety of educational and philanthropic interests, with aviation education key among them. “It’s no secret our industry is experiencing a pilot shortage and struggling to attain new talent to aviation careers – fostering a passion in the next generation of leaders should be high on the priority list of all aviators. If we let that passion show and share it with others, whether during a tour, at a school, or at fly-ins, like EAA AirVenture, we can maybe ignite the aviation spark in another person.
“Further supporting the next generation of pilots, this year Avfuel created the Pilot-in-Training Scholarship, supporting students who aspire to become aviators, in addition to its AVTRIP Scholarship, which is now in its 20th year. Avfuel is also active with and on the boards of trade organisations that have in-house initiatives to bring new people to the industry.”
While many in aerospace bemoan its apparent inability to attract new talent, even some of those companies actively trying fail to appeal to half the population. The ‘employment radar’ of girls and young women who might otherwise seek aviation careers rarely even detects the industry’s signals. Sincock, quite predictably, has strong views on the issue.
“With any young person it’s about awareness, education, role models and encouragement. We need to help young folks realise the opportunities available in our industry. At Avfuel we have a breadth of roles from accounting to marketing. We have a good mix of employees who began their careers in aviation, and others who hadn’t previously realised it was an option for them and have since become immersed in the industry. There is something for everyone.
“In terms of role models, over the years Avfuel has had the pleasure of sponsoring a number of women aviators specialising in aerobatics, and a number of women have been awarded the AVTRIP Scholarship.”

Driven by passion
There are successful aerospace executives who are very good at business, but it might just as well be in the automotive or pharmaceutical industries, they’re just great at doing business. Others, those who leave a lasting impression and somehow change aerospace through their efforts and legacy, add something indefinable to their business acumen, and it’s clear Sincock has that in abundance.
“Aviation is not just my business, it’s my passion. You have to do what you love! If you’re going to spend your life working, it better not feel like work. And that’s what being a part of aviation has done for me. I found my passion. I thrive on being an integral part of the industry. And I fly regularly.
“I’ve trained with FlightSafety for 30 consecutive years and fly the company’s Cessna Citation XLS+. There’s no better feeling in the world. I’ve been flying since college and relish every moment I have in the cockpit. It is the most unique way to see the world. It empowers me and the Avfuel staff to be personally in front of more customers than could be imagined using airlines alone.”
Sincock has created today’s Avfuel through determination, well-judged acquisition, care for his employees and a little risk. It’s a recipe that’s worked but, blessed with three decades’ of hindsight, is there anything he’d do differently?
“There are numerous small things I may have changed along the way, but I think the real question is: What have we done right? And that’s building our staff and having faith in their judgment.
“One of my favourite roles is mentoring our younger leadership team and one of our golden rules is: ‘Build the job around the person, don’t fit the person to the job’. We’ve found that once you’ve built up a person, they can be successful. It’s so important to develop and invest in team members. We celebrate what makes each person unique and capitalise on what they bring to the team as an individual.”
Going forward, Sincock expects Avfuel to engage in: “A whole lot of listening, adapting and doing. That’s been our secret and it’s not going to change. In the more immediate future, we have many exciting developments. Of course, we will continue to expand geographically and be best in our class in supplying fuel.
“But beyond that, in January 2012 we formed Avfuel Technology Initiatives Corporation to further industry advancements, including those in bio and renewable fuels, on several fronts, plus no-lead avgas replacements, domestically and internationally. You can expect Avfuel to take a lead in the supply of sustainable alternative jet fuel [SAJF] and alternative avgas. We’re rolling out prototype locations for the immediate supply of SAJF, in an exciting advancement to integrate the product into the market.” It’s a typical Avfuel programme – listen to the customer to establish the need, then set up a quality, dependable, supportable solution, and invest in the people and facilities to
achieve it.