Solairus Aviation’s Dan Drohan
Dan Drohan serves as chairman and CEO of Solairus Aviation, an aircraft-management and charter company he founded in 2008, just as the Great Recession began. Despite that bad timing, the firm has prospered and now has more than 100 aircraft in its managed fleet.
Drohan grew up in Marin County, California, and launched his first business, Sunset Aviation, in 1992. It grew from a one-airplane air-tour operation into a diversified aircraft-services provider. In 2007, Drohan sold it to JetDirect, a company that was attempting to consolidate charter operators and create a national brand. He joined that firm as a vice president, but it declared bankruptcy in 2008, leaving Drohan and many of his former clients among unpaid creditors. By then he had recruited J.W. “Jake” Cartwright and John King, former principals of TAG Aviation USA, from JetDirect’s ashes, to join his new venture.
Solairus’s decentralized management structure—borrowed from TAG, Drohan says—relies upon teams headed by a client aviation manager, often the chief pilot for the customer’s airplane. Those individuals handle operation and management of each aircraft, wherever it’s based.
Solairus—which is headquartered in Petaluma, California, about 40 miles north of San Francisco—has a charter-sales department, but outsources all maintenance, repairs, and other services. The company acts as its clients’ advisor and advocate, helping them to select and arrange the best solutions for them and using its buying power to reduce costs on fuel, maintenance, training, and other expenses.
When we talked with Drohan in New York City, he was in the midst of a cross-country trip to visit clients and prospects with Solairus colleagues. (He was piloting the group in his Beechcraft King Air 350.) Dressed in a dark suit with a crisp white shirt sans tie, the 43-year-old Drohan projected youthful enthusiasm as he discussed his company and career.
How did you get involved with aviation?
After my father passed away in 1984, a family friend who wanted to find something for me to do took me up to Schellville Airport [in Sonoma County, California] and dropped me off on a Saturday morning. There were a lot of warbirds and tailwheel airplanes, and I was mesmerized. [The next day] he drove me up there again. A guy said, “If you wash and wax my car for me, I’ll take you up for an airplane ride.” He had a Super Decathlon, and we went out and did aerobatics. I fell in love instantly. I spent the next five or six years working at the airport weekends, and seven days a week during the summer.
What’s your educational background?
I was not a straight-A student in high school. I should have focused more than I did, but there was a bigger, wider world out there, and I wanted to be in it sooner than the program allowed. I went to the University of New Mexico for a semester. [But] I wanted to be back with my family and missed my friends at Schellville, so I moved back and told my mom I wanted to do this aviation thing full steam. I signed up at Sierra Academy [of Aeronautics] in Oakland [now in Atwater, California] and got my commercial and multiengine instrument [ratings] knocked out in a couple of months.
How did you start your own aviation business?
I convinced my mom to spend the college money on a [Beechcraft] Baron, got it refurbished, and built some time in it. I got the [Part 135 charter] certificate in 1992, and Sunset Aviation was born. We did sightseeing flights over the Bay Area and wine country.
We weren’t wildly successful. But that evolved into charter, and soon people were coming to us with 400-series Cessnas [to manage], and that turned into King Airs, and they turned into CJs and Citations, and they turned into Beechjets and Hawkers. Over 15 years we built a pretty good regional presence on the West Coast and had four bases when we sold the business: Santa Rosa, Concord, Sacramento, and our home base, Novato.
Why did you sell Sunset to JetDirect and join that company?
I was 33 at the time. I wanted to be part of something big in the business, and I wanted the people with me to experience that, too. I met great people—people who are on the masthead at Solairus now. Jake [J.W. Cartwright, Solairus vice chairman, and former TAG Aviation USA president and CEO] was at the core of that. I approached him and said we would love it if you joined and brought some former TAG people with you. That’s how Solairus got going.
Do you think a charter-service-consolidation company like what JetDirect was trying to achieve could succeed?
JetDirect was ultimately trying to pull together a fragmented service-delivery business, and it’s been done in other market sectors successfully. The problem in my opinion is that it’s such a relationship-driven business. There are so many important personal relationships that happen between the leadership of the management company and the client that you can’t possibly pull together multiple operations without having the different leadership entities [remain] in place.
Solairus has an unusual service model, with management largely overseen by a client aviation manager [CAM] and his team, operating from the aircraft’s home base. What type of owner does this model appeal to?
People seeking a very individualized, decentralized model. It’s so much about the pairing of the CAM and the aircraft owner. We put a lot of faith and trust in our client aviation managers to manage the accounts in a tenor and tempo that is consistent with the owners’ desires, while we provide significant backbone, infrastructure, leadership, and guidance. We believe that people want to do it right, and if we provide the support for people to go out and make good decisions on the client’s behalf, 9.9 times out of 10 they will exceed expectations.
How do you select CAMs?
We try to find a CAM for each aircraft who not only meets our leadership and flight-operations experience standards, but who we think is going to be a good fit from a personality and style perspective with the client. There’s no manual that tells them how to run the relationship. We spend a lot of time and energy finding the right guys and gals, and building them up to be better managers and better leaders. That person is largely responsible for building the team with our guidance.
We do leadership and personality-assessment profile testing to see if they fit into our environment, culture, and how we operate. It’s been a very successful tool, and we’re still adapting it. On paper they are all stellar candidates, but it’s neat to have a tool that is so detailed that [it lets you see differences] that you would never see in an interview or in a resume. That has been critical in several occurrences where we chose [one candidate over another] purely because of [the personality assessment].
How do you spend your working hours?
I’m probably in the office 50 percent of the time, and the rest of the time I’m out meeting the people who influence where we’re headed as a company—current clients, prospective clients, employees. I love the people side of the business.
When I’m in the office, I’m on the phone constantly. We’ve got pilots who are at their base or traveling the world and administrative employees who show up five days a week at the same desk. Communication is a big part of how we manage those two different groups of people.
Your headquarters is in downtown Petaluma. Why not at an airport?
That was a big decision we made in the Sunset days. It’s reflective of where we place priorities. We’ve created a really neat work environment for folks who live locally and want to work at administrative jobs and have a professional career but still be tied to a small town. I live about a mile from the office so I can walk to work.
With our decentralized model, a lot of our client-services people and flight coordinators work from home. Obviously, that creates some relationship challenges because we want that human interaction. [But] if we’ve got a great flight coordinator who wants to live in Montana or Chicago or Texas, we don’t need them to be in an office in Petaluma. It’s pretty easy to measure whether they’re continuing to be a great flight coordinator through surveys and client interaction. Ninety-nine percent of the job is over the phone and the Internet anyway. Why do I need them sitting in an office so that I can walk out and look over their shoulder? The results speak for themselves.
You call the Solairus decentralized management model unique. Why haven’t other companies adopted such precepts?
I think on a philosophical level that’s a very difficult thing for people in aviation to do, because it’s such a command and control business, and the industry is so heavily regulated and there are so many rules around how we do things. The notion of letting go on the people side and allowing them to thrive and do what they feel is right in a certain set of circumstances is hard.
What lessons from your Schellville days stick with you?
In addition to learning the airplane side of it, I learned the money side of the business. [Solairus president] John King likes to say there are people who sign the front of checks, and people who sign the back of checks, and you learn business and being an entrepreneur by signing the front of checks. You’re only an entrepreneur if you almost didn’t make payroll.
Secondly, at a very early age I realized that while the airplanes are really cool, the real passion here is the people that make this business up. It’s at my very core level, my DNA. I love airplane people, and I’m an airplane person. I’m just drawn to that, so that’s why I’m here.
Has your business philosophy changed during your career?
None of what has happened [to me] in a little over 20 years in the aviation business has been part of a grand plan. It’s all just been a passion pursuit. [But now] we’ve got several hundred people, and while at a gut level I’m [still] running my little aviation business and enjoying it in a passion pursuit, one wrong turn could have a very big impact on a lot of people’s lives, and I take that very seriously. That’s a maturing process. That is good.
James Wynbrandt is a private pilot and longtime BJT contributor.