Bob O'Brien (head of table) talks with the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Commission Friday about his experience in airport management.
The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport could have an interim airport manager step in after current manager Jeff Wig takes off for a new position on Feb. 14.
Wig is taking a position as vice president working in the area of economic and business development for the Initiative Foundation and the Airport Commission has already began the process of finding his replacement.
Friday, the commission met with Bob O'Brien, a longtime airport manager who came recommended by the airport's engineer, Paul Strege, and Kim Kenville, a University of North Dakota professor in charge of the school's aviation management program.
O'Brien, 58, has spent 34 years in the airport management industry at various airports throughout Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and more. He also served in the military for 20 years, mostly in the National Guard and Army Reserves.
Throughout his career, O'Brien said he wondered if he could do the No. 1 job at a big airport.
"At a small airport, you're the marketing manager, you're the finance manager, you're the operations manager, you're the public safety manager," O'Brien said. "And that's not a bad thing."
O'Brien said he isn't a political creature and prefers to focus more on business. He retired in 2011 because he wasn't having fun anymore, he said.
"I told people, openly, that if I get to 55 and I'm not having fun anymore, I'm gone," O'Brien said.
Commission member Gary Scheeler said he was concerned about that, as not every day in a job is fun.
"I don't want to work where I'm not appreciated," O'Brien said. "So that's the heart of it and I'm serious."
O'Brien could serve as interim manager and help with the search for a permanent replacement at the same time, he said. He's done it before, he said, it just depends on if that's what the commission wants him to do. But if the commission does use a search firm, he said he'd recommend ADK Executive Search.
The airport presumably wants its search for a permanent manager done quickly, O'Brien said, but also efficiently. He briefly ran through a potential timeline, which could result in about a 10-week search period, depending on how quickly the commission wanted to move. He recommended the advertisement for the position should run for three weeks in order to maximize coverage.
"A lot depends on how you roll it out and how you play it," O'Brien said.
Wig said he spoke with three airport commissioners at the Columbus Metropolitan Airport in Columbus, Georgia, where O'Brien most recently served as an interim manager in 2012.
"I don't seek these out, they find me," O'Brien said.
Wig said all three commissioners were overwhelmingly positive about O'Brien, who came into a situation where a previous manager had been fired and steadied the situation. ADK Executive Search handled the search there, but O'Brien helped guide the commission on vetting candidates.
O'Brien said he'd be willing to come to Brainerd for three to four months in winter because he enjoys the airport industry and because Brainerd is very scenic.
"You guys live in God's country," O'Brien said. "I love God's country. I live on the Wisconsin River in southwestern Wisconsin."
The commission approved a motion for Wig, O'Brien and vice-chair Don Jacobson to meet and develop a contract which can be presented to the commission for reviewal at its Jan. 15 meeting.
Scheeler asked what the typical turnover was for airport managers, because conducting a search becomes a budgeted item for the airport. O'Brien said he'd be surprised if the airport found someone who would finish their career in Brainerd, as most tend to stay in one place for three to five years.
"If your goal as an aviation manager is to grow with the industry," O'Brien said, "then you're not camping out, you're there for the experience."
O'Brien's fee in Columbus, before expenses, was $17,000 per month. The rate he proposed to the commission is $10,000 per month. Wig said his salary including benefits was $8,625 per month.
One or two other people have inquired about the interim manager position, Wig said. He's told them the commission won't be considering the interim manager for the permanent position and the airport is looking for someone who can help with the job search as well as serve as an interim manager.
The interim manager won't be an airport employee, Wig said, but instead be a contracted consultant. Because of that difference, the airport doesn't have to follow the same process as it would if it were hiring an employee.
"I know airports, I know how to do the job," O'Brien said. "I don't know you folks, but you're human beings and reasonable people can agree. I'm certain I can meet your expectations."
Search firms discussed
Wig provided the commission with information on two firms that could be hired to conduct the search for a permanent airport manager. David Drown Associates works extensively with city and county governments in Minnesota on executive searches, Wig said. The commission could contract their services at a discount, because of an agreement the city of Brainerd has with the National Joint Powers Alliance, he said.
The fee for the commission would be $7,500 plus expenses, which would make it one of the least expensive search firms options, Wig said. However, he said he is concerned the firm doesn't mention placing someone in an airport management position, so its advertising and recruitment network might not fit for the airport.
"This firm would have a lot of work to do on one of the most critical pieces, and that is identifying candidates," Wig said. "Finding out where candidates are, working informal networks."
Wig has served on job search committees before, and he said expenses usually cover travel costs, which is standard in the search industry. The firm's proposal does not cover finding an interim manager.
The most highly recommended search firm Wig contacted was ADK Executive Search, with three different people Wig spoke to recommending the firm. The firm focuses almost exclusively on airport needs, he said, and offers two different levels of assistance.
The HR Assist product covers the entire search process up to the interviews, Wig said, and costs $16,900. They will identify, contact and vet candidates, he said, and perform all duties remotely.
"They basically develop a shortlist and then hand that shortlist over to the airport," Wig said.
The full service search covers everything including on-site interviews, Wig said, and costs $28,000 plus expenses for two site visits. Those expenses would be less than $3,000, he said.