By Deb Smith
Ken Ross never met a plane he didn’t like.
“I think I’ve pretty much been around planes all my life,” said the 48-year old litigator turned aviation executive. “I don’t know what it is, but I just love aviation.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Ross, founder and president of North American Jet, headquartered at Palwaukee Municipal Airport (PWK) on Chicago’s north side, said his interest in planes commenced rather early in life.
“My father was an F-86 Sabre pilot in the Air Force, and owned a Bonanza V-tail, too,” he said. “Some of my earliest memories of flying were with my father; we’d go see relatives in the summer.”
Ross flew all through his college days while studying environmental conservation at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“I got my pilot’s license out there,” he recalled. “I flew a few hang gliders and ultra lights, and even did a little skydiving.”
However, his love of flying would lead him down a different path. Accepted into the law program at Chicago-Kent, Ross would now be able to combine his love of flying with a career in aviation law.
After receiving his juris doctor in 1982, Ross joined a prestigious Chicago law firm that specialized in aviation law. The firm represented the likes of such notable clients as Morton Thiokol and United Airlines. Within two and a half years, he had established his own firm with partner Jack Harrington—Ross and Harrington.
“There I continued to practice aviation law for many, many years,” explained Ross. “I actually merged that firm with a national firm. Afterwards, I stayed on as co-chairman.”
Harrington’s decision to leave the firm would be one of the major catalysts for Ross’ eventual move into aviation entrepreneurship.
“One of his good friends was Vern Rayburn, way back before Eclipse was called Eclipse,” said Ross. “Around the time when I was about ready to make a move to the aviation field as a business, Jack came in and said he was going to go with Vern to start this new company and move to Albuquerque. Within a week, I also gave my notice and moved on to establishing North American Jet here in Chicago.”
Ross admits that after 19 years of litigation, he simply wanted to return to the less complex side of aviation.
“I decided it was time to do nothing but aviation,” he said. “Representing these companies was very fast paced. I had always had a desire to create my own company and take the best of what I saw from all these other companies and clients that I had represented, and try to create something unique. I think we’ve done that.”
Less than a 30-minute drive from downtown Chicago, North American Jet makes its home at Palwaukee Airport in Wheeling, Ill. According to Ross, the company came as a bit of a surprise to many existing tenants.
To make a long story short, Ross had a former client that eventually became a business partner, and together the two established North American Jet.
“I think what we established here was quite a shock as no one believed that another FBO would ever come into the airport,” said Ross. “The airport had been owned for many years by the Priester family. Then, in the late eighties, it was sold to the municipality, the village of Wheeling, city of Prospect Heights.”
Until then, Ross said the airport had pretty much remained “closed” to outside business.
“Six months after we established our business here, Charlie Priester sold the existing facility to Signature Flight Support,” he said. “But we appreciate the competition on the field.”
Now in its sixth year of business, North American Jet provides world-class FBO services, aircraft maintenance, management, and charter and sales, all within the confines of large modern hangars equipped with the latest in climate control systems, lighting and security.
As an FAA certified repair station (#CJ6R959H), the FBO offers a complete range of maintenance services, from the smallest repairs to airframe alterations. The FBO also cuts downtime with convenient mobilized maintenance vans that are fully equipped to handle almost any maintenance or repair job.
“Our maintenance technicians carry laptop computers that are able to communicate directly with the dispatch center on behalf of the client, as well as upload information off the aircraft,” Ross said. “On board they have the equipment necessary to repair 90 percent of whatever breaks down.”
The FBO is also the preferred provider for NetJets and Flight Options.
“North American Jet has really set a standard here in the Chicagoland area that folks are now trying to emulate,” said Ross. “I think that six years ago we were one of the first ones in the area to specialize in equipment for food handling, catering and such. Within six months, NetJets and the other fractionals left the established FBO that was on the field for 20 years and came to us.”
Ross believes North American Jet’s standards of professionalism and technology set them apart from other FBOs.
“We have a fine facility with great employees, people who really care about customer service and about going the extra mile,” he said. “We are a completely wireless company in the sense of data and sophistication, which helps foster quick turnaround. Considering the size of the company, you would be amazed at the computer literacy and sophistication of our staff. For example, we understand very clearly what it costs to pump a gallon of gas, and how much it costs to operate an aircraft—-down to the penny. A lot of our fellow FBO brethren out there can’t tell you that.”
Now boasting 62 employees and two facilities—-the Palwaukee location and a smaller facility in Kenosha, Wis.—North American Jet is poised for the future.
While Ross wouldn’t comment specifically on any particular areas, he did say that many locations across the country have caught his eye.
“We’re always looking to expand in the right area, and there are a lot of locations that have piqued interest,” he said.
But perhaps the biggest news Ross shared was the fact that North American Jet plans to be one of the first organizations to fully embrace the air taxi concept.
“We anticipate, in the near future, expanding our managed chartered program,” said Ross. “We have a program put together that we’ve kept relatively quiet concerning the new VLJs.”
To support that program, North American Jet has placed a sizeable order with Eclipse Aviation.
“With this, we plan to increase our concept of opening up to middle-market, private jet transportation,” he explained. “We’re probably one of the first ones, since we were instrumental in working with Vern Rayburn way back when. It’s something we’ve looked at for the past seven years.”
Ross added that they have a very early production position with Eclipse and expects the first Eclipse 500 to arrive sometime in 2006.
So what’s their niche?
“I think our niche is that we work with emerging and developing new manufacturers,” said Ross. “We work with the companies that have the best products in the marketplace, like Cirrus and Diamond; as they grow, we continue to grow with them.”
And grow they do. Ross estimates that of the 185,000 operations that Palwaukee Airport does each year, North American Jet handles nearly 90 percent of the standing business on base.
In addition, North American Jet sales are well in excess of $16 million annually, and according to Ross, “continue to grow, conservatively, at about 18 to 20 percent per year.”
So what is their secret to success, and what does Ross see for the future of other FBOs?
“I think FBOs like North American or the major national chains need to develop unique program and partnerships with the major providers of the private transportation sect, like the fractionals,” concluded Ross. “Also establishing themselves as the ‘facility of preference’ for corporations that operate fleet aircraft, and always keeping in mind that they need to provide a very first-class operation for the general aviation public.
“We can’t forget about that. So often we hear that the GA public often feels that they’ve been forgotten, or no one cares about them anymore. At North American, we try very hard to make sure that we don’t distinguish between the two on service, maintenance and such in handling those aircraft. I think an FBO that will succeed in the future will be one that recognizes that the GA population is important and includes the piston light aircraft, not just the jet and corporate planes.”
As far as in the future, Ross cautioned that FBOs that do not keep up with technology and improved safety features will lag far behind.
With more than 22 years in the aviation business, Ross said he still enjoys flying. In fact he’s currently working on his ATP ticket and enjoys flying his current prize, a classy T-6 Texan. The T-6 is just one in a series of aircraft Ross has owned.
“I have owned several other aircraft, both individually and with my partner Jack Harrington,” said Ross. “I’ve had everything from a Piper Cherokee, to a T-34, which many years ago won reserve grand champion at Oshkosh. As for restored aircraft, I had a T-28 for a period, and for a while was co-owner of an L-39 Albatross.”
When asked which plane was his favorite, Ross chuckled, “Whichever one I own at the time.”
“I really do enjoy each and every airplane I’ve flown,” he said. “I can’t think of one that has really been disagreeable with me.”
For more information, visit [http://www.northamerican-jet.com/].