Clay Lacy Aviation has remained true to its legendary founder’s principles for more than 50 years. Senior Vice President, Business Operations Scott Cutshall says a combination of passion, professionalism and commitment is building on that legacy for future generations
After a couple of days of sensory overload and pacing the NBAA-BACE halls, I was rushing, tail between legs, apology prepared, to the Clay Lacy Aviation booth, having previously found myself 20 minutes’ walk away when I realised I was already 10 minutes late for a long-arranged half-hour meeting earlier in the day with Senior Vice President, Business Operations Scott Cutshall.
My thoughts were already turning to dinner and tomorrow’s flight home, and there was an end-of-show vibe at Clay Lacy Aviation too. Finding Scott in the crowd, I offered my humble apologies, made tentative arrangements for this very article, then expected to be on my way. But he and the team were genuinely interested to talk. A Coke appeared and there was no question of a quick getaway. As Scott introduced a variety of industry people, his enthusiasm became obvious. And then, as casually as if he were offering another drink, he said: “Clay’s here. Would you like to meet him?”
I’ve been an aviation enthusiast, avgeek, plane nerd, spotter – take your pick, they’re all accurate – pretty much forever. ‘Clay Lacy’ for me meant air racer and test pilot, a man so legendary he might have been made up in a fairy tale. Meet him? Heavens, yes!
Today, in order to properly understand the aviator and his legacy, it’s important to separately consider the intertwined histories of Clay Lacy the man and Clay Lacy Aviation, the organisation he created. Having said which, the enthusiasm for aircraft that drives Mr Lacy and continues to inspire Scott Cutshall also appears to pervade the entire company.
“Our people and their passion for making a positive difference in the aviation industry is what distinguishes Clay Lacy Aviation,” Scott says. “When an individual has a passion for something, we believe that comes through in their interactions with clients, suppliers and colleagues.
“There is a natural curiosity, and a desire to contribute in positive, substantial ways, which means we make decisions that add value for our clients, increase safety, by reducing unnecessary risks, and keep a relentless focus on improving service and the client experience. Decisions aren’t made to benefit distant shareholders or an international conglomerate, they are made by people who love what they do, who are actively involved in the business and frequently interact with our clients.”
But isn’t there a danger of this love of aviation clouding judgement, with folk losing sight of the serious business of aviation as a business? How does Clay Lacy Aviation succeed with passion? “We focus on the data, and data analytics,” Scott explains. “We don’t make decisions based on feelings or intuition. When someone in the company makes a statement, it is commonly followed up with ‘show me the data to support that’. This approach keeps our passion for aviation aligned with corporate objectives and client needs.”
So, Clay Lacy Aviation is fuelled by a powerful mix of focused avgeeks. Who’s the biggest in the company? Scott protests for less than three seconds… “I don’t believe I can possibly answer that. In fact, I think it would probably come down to a two or three-way tie between our CEO Brian Kirkdoffer, our VP Fleet Development Joe Barber and our VP East Coast Operations, Chris Hand. Although I could easily add four more names to the list.”
The combination of passion and focus promotes considerable loyalty among Clay Lacy Aviation staff and at the time of writing in January 2020, five of the leadership team had been with the company for more than 30 years, while many other employees had celebrated their 25-, 20- and 15-year anniversaries. “Clay and Brian – who celebrates 30 years with the company this year – place an enormous emphasis on loyalty and hard work.
“We also have several clients whom we’ve been serving for 20 to 30 years, or who’ve owned and placed two, three or four jets with us over many years. We are not perfect, but we have a dedicated team that strives for perfection and always does the right thing by the client.”
Headquartered alongside its FBO at Van Nuys, Clay Lacy Aviation has remained loyal to the California airport into which its founder first flew a Learjet in 1964. From there, the company manages a fleet of 45 different aircraft models from every major manufacturer and with a total value in excess of US$2 billion. Among those aircraft, individual examples of some types, including the PC-24, beg the question of how Clay Lacy Aviation is able to apply equal care and expertise to every jet it manages.
“This is where our unique approach creates greater value for our clients,” Scott explains. “First, our maintenance division includes 95 employees and provides complete MRO services to managed and non-managed aircraft. Providing MRO to non-managed aircraft enables us to employ more technicians, invest in training and tooling for a wider variety of business jet models, and maintain cooperative working relationships with OEMs and major MRO providers.
“Second, our personalised flight department approach to managing aircraft affords clients the option to either have a dedicated, full-time director of maintenance, or a shared director of maintenance. If they elect for the shared model, the person assigned to oversee the maintenance on their plane is probably managing other similar makes and models. Therefore, in short, our diverse set of management, charter, maintenance, avionics, interiors and FBO services allows us to invest in equipping, staffing and training our team on a wide variety of business jet platforms.”
As a result, the company’s MRO offering is surprisingly broad. Scott explains: “IFEC upgrades and cabin refurbishment capabilities exist primarily at Van Nuys. Our experienced team is capable of a wide variety of installations and upgrades, but the most popular are Wi-Fi connectivity with the Gogo AVANCE L3 and L5, and Honeywell JetWave installations. Other routine upgrades include lighting conversions to LED and cabin management system updates to more modern components and systems. We complete interior reconfigurations and refurbishments through several on-site vendors whom we’ve worked with for more than 20 years.”
Clay Lacy Aviation has remained loyal to Van Nuys throughout its 50-year history, but Scott notes: “We have three FAA Part 145 repair stations in Van Nuys, San Diego and Waterbury-Oxford. We also have mobile response teams at these location in addition to Orange County/John Wayne Airport and Boeing Field/King County. Our tooling, training, and capabilities vary by location, but coordination and standardisation runs through headquarters.” To date, the Van Nuys facility has remained Clay Lacy Aviation’s only full-service FBO but, Scott confirms, “We are pursuing several strategic FBO locations and hope to add two to three more sites in the coming years.”
Providing opportunities through sponsorship and scholarship for young would-be pilots and mechanics has always been of particular importance to Clay Lacy, and it’s a policy Clay Lacy Aviation embraces enthusiastically. In Scott’s opinion: “Clay set a very good example, one that our current CEO and leadership team firmly believe in following. We are passionate about aviation and would not be where we are if people had not helped each of us along the way in our careers; it is just makes sense to help those that will follow us.
“Aviation is expensive and the biggest hurdle to becoming a pilot, mechanic or cabin attendant is often the cost of training. We’ve decided to focus our giving on helping develop the next generation of aviation professionals not only through scholarships, but job shadow days, internships and participation in industry organisations and committees.
“Joe Barber, our VP of Fleet Development, is a prime example of this commitment. He was named to NBAA’s first class of ‘40 under 40’ and is co-chair of the NBAA Leadership Conference in 2020 and 2021. The themes of those conferences are based on recruiting and retaining talent to grow the business aviation workforce.”
Few in the industry would deny that sustainability is equally important as nurturing the new generation of professionals that will be responsible for step changes in how business aviation operates. Indeed, Scott confirms: “We believe a focus on sustainability will be one of the largest areas of focus for the worldwide business aviation industry over the next decade. We are active in this space and preparing to make some announcements very soon.”
The enthusiasm pervading Clay Lacy Aviation’s booth appears endemic to the company as a whole. “There’s an overwhelming sense that we can achieve anything if we focus our time, talent and determination,” Scott reports. “It’s a great mix of tenured aviation professionals and younger, up-and-coming talent that combines for a wonderful dynamic. Personally, I enjoy working for a private company where people are committed to building something that makes a difference in the world and our industry, not just pleasing the shareholders.
“Clay was a thought leader and commentator, especially through his many years of writing for Professional Pilot magazine. We are encouraging and fostering individuals within Clay Lacy Aviation that have the passion, knowledge and ability to continue his example.
“We focus on doing the right thing, being thoughtful, proactive, accountable and paying attention to the details, while realising there is always room for improvement. Clay has done quite a job on building his own legacy. Our part is to continue to build a company that bears his name, while upholding the values he exhibited throughout his hall-of-fame career.”