Chad J Verdaglio Of Sawyer Aviation Group: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

As a part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Chad J. Verdaglio.

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Aviation expert and licensed pilot, Chad J. Verdaglio understands what it takes to lead during turbulent times as owner and president of Sawyer Aviation Group. Born and raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, Verdaglio started working for his family’s business at a young age. It was here that his entrepreneurial spirit first took flight. Under Verdaglio’s leadership during the past two decades, Sawyer Aviation has navigated challenging times and successfully come through. In 2020, Sawyer Aviation marked its 60th year in operation and is one the oldest private charters in the industry.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’m an Arizona native that primarily grew up in Scottsdale. My father was an entrepreneur and got me started working in the family business when I was just 10-years old. It was there that I got on-the-job training in sales, marketing and finance and my entrepreneurial spirit first took flight. Now, as the owner and president of Sawyer Aviation, I believe this same entrepreneurial spirit is what’s allowed the company to soar.

The summer before I started college, I signed up for an intro paraglide ride. Soaring through the sky was exhilarating and I knew then that I wanted more. After extensive research, I registered at Sawyer School of Aviation, a respected program that operated a flight academy at the Scottsdale Airpark since 1961. My goal was to earn a private pilot’s license. During college, I continued during weekends and school breaks to earn my instrument rating, a commercial rating, multi-engine rating and eventually an instructor certification.

After graduating from Arizona State University with a Bachelor of Science in business communications, I continued to work for the family business for a couple of years, and applied to grad school. I was accepted to the Wharton executive MBA program where I planned to go the coming fall. That summer I took the opportunity to resharpen my piloting skills that had taken a backseat to work. I saw an ad in the paper for Sawyer Aviation, prompting my return to the flight academy where I was quickly offered a position as an instructor and eventually the opportunity to buy Sawyer Aviation — it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.

During the 20 years, we’ve worked through many challenging times, but Sawyer Aviation has not only survived, we’ve achieved significant growth from those early days. Today, we continue to offer private jet charter services, aircraft management and we’ve become the largest maintenance provider at Scottsdale airport, and we operate one of the oldest flight academies in the world. With current operations out of Scottsdale and Van Nuys airports, I have future plans for more. The sky’s the limit!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

The funniest or not so funny mistake we made in the beginning was assigning the wrong passengers to the wrong aircraft. Only to realize once the aircraft was in the air that that plane was headed to Palm Springs while the passengers thought they were going to Aspen. The pilot turned the airplane around and we were able to rectify the situation. Later, we realized that there were two identical aircrafts on the runway. Our passengers were frequent customers that saw a pilot they’d flown with before and assumed that was the plane they were boarding. This was many years ago before everything was digital. Now, we check ID’s and profiles on the passengers via software so a mix-up like this wouldn’t happen today, but it was a “funny” learning experience.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am grateful for the Sawyer Aviation team, clients, and friends for their support but there is one client in particular who had a big impact on me and the company’s success. The client is a well known business leader — so out of respect for his privacy I’ll keep his name confidential, but he’s been a loyal customer and supporter. He bought the first aircraft we sold at Sawyer and he has since gone on to purchase another. He was also a regular customer on our private charter flights. For years we flew him weekly from Scottsdale to Santa Barbara and back. He lived and worked in Arizona and enjoyed his weekends at the beach.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

When I purchased the company in 2001, I knew the potential was there and I had a vision for developing it into a premier full-service aviation operation. It had all the elements, it just needed to be reignited. Sawyer Aviation was largely known for the flight academy and it always offered private charter services. Today, we provide the full spectrum of aviation services and we’ve expanded — adding SawyerMX, our airplane maintenance and repair service, along with expansion of our airplane management and charter services.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

While the company has weathered a number of ups and downs, the most challenging time was the recession in 2009–11. Demand for private airplanes or a private charter flight plummeted as people were trying to hold on to business and keep their homes. We are largely in a luxury market and during that time people were not buying luxury.

Working through challenging times forces you to get very real with yourself and your team. I believe it is important to be transparent as a leader. It’s the only way to create and maintain trustworthy relationships. I had to look at where we could cut costs and how we could generate revenues. Keeping my team informed and involved was invaluable and necessary.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

Absolutely, I considered giving up. I think most entrepreneurs have at some point. But even through the darkest times, the glimmer of hope was the upside potential. The rewarding aspects of working in aviation always keep me going. Whether it’s selling an aircraft, seeing someone earn their pilot’s license or watching a customer share a special moment with their family and friends — it is the “coolest thing.”

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Understanding the gravity of the situation and reacting accordingly. In business, in life, or in the air- wishing the cards dealt to you were different- isn’t going to fix the problem. You need to be willing to do what needs to be done and make the tough decisions.

A leader needs to be there for the team, evaluate the situation and determine what’s the next right thing to do.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

Remind everyone why they are there- focus on the common goals and mission. The team needs to feel that they have a purpose and there is potential for light during a dark or difficult time. Whether it’s an in-flight emergency or a personal matter, losing is not an option.

The great Michael Jordan once said “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.” Jordan’s words and example represent the work ethic and purpose I strive to instill in our team. Essentially, leaders must always keep learning and never give up.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

I have good news and bad news: which do you want to hear first? The answer is bad news. When you are delivering difficult news, it will require a follow-up action or decision — something must be done to rectify or improve the situation. Good news doesn’t generally require action.

Communicating bad news comes with leading, which goes back to what I said earlier about facing reality and being transparent. It is during difficult times that you can really earn trust.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Adapt your tactics, not your goal. Be willing to be flexible. There is always something you can do, even if it doesn’t go your way, you can always affect the outcome.

“If there is a will there’s a way.”

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

When things are going bad, options are more limited. Whatever the situation, it is vital to remain focused and stay on your path — go back to your core and what you do best.

As a pilot and President of Sawyer Aviation group, I have definitely had my fair share of turbulent times but taking the route less traveled is what has seen us through and made us into the reputable and innovative aviation company that we are.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

It’s great to approach a business with a fresh set of eyes and try to innovate but certain fundamental aspects of the industry can’t be overlooked. In the aviation industry, I have seen people try to come in and make the most over the top luxury private charter experience but in the process they fail to set themselves apart because they overlook the basics. For example, having a dependable crew that is consistently on time delivers greater impact than luxury flights offering a red carpet experience. I call this approach “all frosting, no cake.” Better to nail down the basics and then add the frosting.

Another common mistake people make is getting ahead of things during the growth phase. Businesses will rob from tomorrow to pay for today. While it can work, it is not a smart approach and will often leave companies in a financial hole.

Most important is to maintain integrity. During difficult times, people will resort to desperation. But if customers and staff trust you, they will stick with you through the most challenging times. You must earn and retain the trust of customers and employees before anything else.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

In terms of growth traction, I’ve learned it is best to focus on our core business, focus on what we do best and what is profitable. Don’t spend time on things that don’t bring return.

I continuously ask myself and the company this question- what are you doing right and what are you doing wrong?

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Focus
  2. Communicate
  3. Don’t sacrifice integrity
  4. Accept reality
  5. Take action

These 5 strategies or leadership attributes helped me bring Sawyer Aviation through the turbulent times of the recession. I remained focused on what I could do to keep business going. We adjusted prices to make flights available where we could and still be profitable. When there were no other airplanes out on the runway, Sawyer Aviation airplanes were still there and operating. This kept us visible and working while many of our competitors accepted defeat and sat on the sidelines. We rolled up our sleeves and did what we could to keep planes operating. We accepted the reality that we were in, stayed focused, communicated internally with our staff and externally with clients. And we took action to continue to generate revenues where we could.

More recently, we pushed through the challenges of the pandemic and created opportunities. When everything came to a halt in March 2020 — there were photos of the airport looking like a ghost town with only a Sawyer Aviation airplane on the runway. Again, we approached the pandemic used the same tactics — facing this new and immediate reality. Travel came nearly to a halt and people were afraid to go anywhere. At that same time there were essential workers that still needed to travel and they did not feel comfortable or safe traveling commercial airlines. When demand for travel was down, we reduced our private charter prices to meet the demands of those who still needed to travel. This helped bring in customers during those slower months and kept our planes and pilots in the air.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite life lesson quotes is “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.” — Sun Tzu

This quote really captures my own experience and philosophy as an entrepreneur. When I was presented the opportunity to buy Sawyer Aviation I made the decision to seize it and forgo grad school and I’ve never looked back. When challenges arise there are always opportunities as well. The pandemic is a good example — we pushed through and seized the moment. Today, Sawyer Aviation is in expansion mode — adding flights and services to its thriving operations.

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