By Reggie Paulk
On Feb. 7, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Junior Achievement-Rocky Mountain Inc. inducted five outstanding businessmen, including two aviation entrepreneurs, into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame. The five men selected were Louis “Lou” Clinton Jr., founder of Clinton Aviation; Samuel D. Addoms, founder of Frontier Airlines; William Volbracht, founder of Land Title Guarantee Company; Harry Frampton III, former president of Vail Associates; and J.K. Mullen, founder of J.K. Mullen and Company flour mills.
“These individuals are shining examples of the entrepreneurial spirit and dedication required to become a successful business leader in Colorado,” said John Ikard, chairman of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. “The example they’ve set will undoubtedly be modeled by generations to come.”
Robin Wise, president and CEO of Junior Achievement-Rocky Mountain Inc., said each of the individuals’ contributions to Colorado underscore the importance and value of the free enterprise system.
“This honor serves as a true testament to not only their vision, but their character as well,” Wise said.
Anyone who flies in or around the Denver metro area knows Centennial Airport. What many may not know is that Lou Clinton played a pivotal role in establishing the airport. In the 1960s, Clinton, already a successful fixed base operator running out of Stapleton Airport, teamed up with George Wallace, founder of the Denver Tech Center, to bring a state-of-the-art fixed base operation to the fledgling Arapahoe County Airport. Primarily due to their efforts, Arapahoe County Airport—now Centennial Airport—opened its doors in 1968.
Today, Centennial Airport ranks among the top 25 busiest airports in the nation. Among general aviation airports, it’s the third busiest airport in the nation. And it’s due to a man with a vision and the courage to see that vision become reality.
Among Clinton’s friends at the ceremony were three fellow Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame inductees who know Clinton well: Emily Howell Warner, Ed Mehlin and Nick Nichols. All three honored Clinton in video tributes.
Emily Howell Warner was the first female captain of a U.S. scheduled airline (Frontier), as well as the first woman to become a captain at a commercial airline. Her first uniform now hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Warner got her start in aviation at Clinton Aviation, where she learned to fly and later taught others.
“I really owe it all to Clinton Aviation and the opportunities it gave me along the way,” she said of her distinguished career.
She recalled the passion Clinton had for aviation.
“He was very caring about his employees, the company and his customers,” she said. “It was a happy company.”
Ed Mehlin’s 18,000 flight hours have involved him with nearly every major aviation enterprise in Colorado. Now a salesman for Centennial Airport-based Aviation Sales Inc., Mehlin worked for Clinton in the 1960s. He moved with the company to Centennial Airport in 1968, staying with Clinton until he retired in 1976 and sold Clinton Aviation.
He recalled that Cessna handpicked Clinton to be its first distributor. Clinton Aviation responded by becoming the best-selling Cessna dealership in the world at one time.
Nick Nichols worked for Clinton Aviation for 30 years as a mechanic and salesman. His memory of the grand opening of the Arapahoe Country Airport reveals how much has changed in the 50 years that have passed.
“I think we had more jackrabbits and antelope out there then we had customers,” he said. “The opening day was on Mother’s Day. Cars lined up from the Brown Palace all the way down Highway 25 to Arapahoe Road to come down and watch the crowd.”
Clinton’s video-recorded recollection of the opening made the crowd laugh.
“It was a great publicity stunt!” he said. “Everybody wondered where all the other people were going, so they followed each other.”
Clinton’s innovative thinking even brought an airplane to the National Western Stock Show. When he hung a Cessna 140 from the rafters, the event coordinator was skeptical about the strength of the cable.
“He said, ‘That little bitty cable will hold an airplane?'” recalled Clinton. “I said, ‘Here’s what we’ll do—if my cable breaks, I’ll pay for it; if your cable breaks, you pay for it.’ And he said ‘Shake hands,’ so we shook. We hung it up there and everybody could see it. Of course, we had our name on it.”
Rob Clinton, who accepted the award on his father’s behalf, talked about how Lou Clinton chose aviation over the tractor business.
“Dad’s father was probably the first Caterpillar tractor dealer in Denver, a business he began in 1915 at 16th and Wazee streets in lower downtown Denver,” he said. “So Dad had the opportunity to join his father and pursue the tractor business. But it was the magic and freedom of flight in the clear blue skies of Colorado that captured Dad’s imagination and his heart, not tractors and farm implements. As a young man, Dad made the decision to pursue his passion for aviation, his dreams of flying small planes and his interest in sharing his love for the skies with so many others. Tonight is indeed an affirmation that as a young man some 70 years ago, he made the right decision to take a risk and follow his passion.”
Sam Addoms founded Frontier Airlines in 1993. Although the Frontier animals, in their farewell tribute, confused him with the beer brewer, Addoms was the driving force behind what has become Colorado’s favorite airline.
“He’s brilliant,” said longtime friend Royce Clark during a video tribute to Addoms. “He’s a man of high integrity and he’s a very caring individual.”
Fresh out of Wesleyan University, Addoms became a junior trainee at the Continental Bank of Chicago.
“He was on the fast track for them and became one of their young vice presidents,” said Clark. “He was very smart, and they recognized that.”
Addoms would also serve as president of Denver National Bank before becoming CEO of Monfort of Colorado, Inc., at the age of 36. He later became Monfort’s CFO.
Once Addoms’ children were grown, he and his wife, Cathy, decided to try something new.
“Our kids had gone to school and spent all of our money,” he said. “Cathy and I agreed that we would become entrepreneurs. By living small, we were able to take the risks that other people have a reluctance to overcome. To start an airline is one of the craziest things you can do.”
During Frontier Airlines’ pre-startup phrase, from 1993 until 1994, Addoms provided financial expertise and helped develop a comprehensive business plan for Frontier. He served as executive vice president, treasurer and a director during that period.
From September 1994 until August 2001, Addoms served as the airline’s president. In January 1995, he was named CEO. He served in that role until his retirement in 2002 and served as the chairman of Frontier Airlines’ board of directors until 2007.
During his acceptance speech, Addoms was humble.
“I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for what I know is a very significant honor,” said Addoms. “Tomorrow, I’m going to go out and try to earn it.”
To make a point about how far aviation has come, Addoms shared an anecdote that began with the Wright brothers.
“Aviation started in 1903—Wilbur and Orville Wright, Kitty Hawk,” began Addoms. “By ’08, they found themselves a plane they could sell. Twenty years after aviation began, you could actually fly as a passenger, if you climbed between the mailbags. Forty years after that, we landed on the moon. Twenty-five years after that, we started Frontier Airlines.”
Addoms gave credit for Frontier’s success to the people who work for the company. As a startup, Frontier lacked the financial resources that would have made building the business easier, so they had to have a different approach.
“So, we said ‘We’ll hire great people, and we’ll give them great training,'” he recalled. “And we followed that creed, so today you see the product of great people and great training. And it made us Denver’s favorite airline.”