Inside Track: Landing on an aviation career
New airport CEO Torrance Richardson’s interest in airplanes started as child attending airshows.
Torrance Richardson said he always knew he wanted to work in an industry related to airplanes. His father worked on avionics equipment while in the U.S. Navy, and Richardson grew up attending airshows.
His initial goal was to become a pilot, and he started training early. After high school classes were over for the day, he drove to the airport to take flying lessons.
The University of Dubuque was just a couple hours away from where his family lived in Kirkland, Illinois, and it offered a four-year degree in aviation management and flight operations.
During the process of obtaining his pilot’s license, he learned the job probably wouldn’t be something he’d want to do every day; he likes to fly when he likes to fly, he said.
Later in his college career, he realized he preferred the variety of tasks aviation management offered.
He landed an internship at the local airport and learned what it actually takes to be in an airport management role, and that’s when he knew he found the right career path.
That path has led him to his latest role as the new president and CEO for the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.
That realization came in part from a mentor who Richardson said gave him plenty of opportunities to explore. He said having a mentor in such a competitive industry can make all the difference in understanding the variety of opportunities there are, whether it’s police, firefighting, law, HR, communications, finance or something else.
“He was a good mentor to help get me focused, and we had great conversations around where I wanted to go and was there to help me make those decisions and move up,” Richardson said.
Richardson said he wanted to make sure he didn’t get stuck in one track of the business, so while there, he worked in operations, airport maintenance, airport administration, with the airlines and for the fixed base operator.
“I knew that this was going to be a very competitive proposition for me,” Richardson said. “If I really wanted to pursue and advance quickly in my career, I would need to know a lot about a lot of things.
“I wanted to do a lot of everything to really get a good feel for what was most interesting to me and built a good foundation of knowledge.”
Richardson still has his pilot’s license and has rented planes to fly as a hobby. He said his son is interested in becoming a pilot, and they have gone on flights together.
Richardson took his first airport leadership job as the executive director of the Rapid City Regional Airport in South Dakota.
“That was really the first way that I was able to hone leadership skills and really understand what that meant to have an organization that I was responsible for all the time,” Richardson said. “You're making decisions that affect people, and they are your responsibility.”
The community around the airport had about 85,000 people, and there were about 230,000 passengers that boarded planes each year. The airport is about five hours away from the next airport, so people in the area really only had one option. And that also means mail, packages, goods for businesses and more all come into town through that airport.
“You are very remote, so that is the livelihood,” he said. “You are connecting, basically, Rapid City with the rest of the world and the rest of the world to Rapid City.”
He was then recruited as the executive director for the two-airport system in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“For me, it was the next step to a more complex organization,” he said.
He then became executive vice president and chief operations officer for the three-airport system in Columbus, Ohio.
It was a step back in terms of leadership hierarchy, but he said he wanted to experience the role in a more complex environment and in an area that’s growing.
“I purposely did that for that opportunity,” Richardson said. “I went over there to advance my learning, advance my leadership, get some things done that I thought were fun and interesting to do.”
Columbus has a strong business market and has been experiencing a lot of revitalization, he said.
“It was progressive and a community that took pride in finding ways to help improve it. I see a lot of that in Grand Rapids,” he said. “People are taking pride in reinvesting in what the downtowns and what the communities have to offer, and that's attractive.”
Besides the community aspect of Grand Rapids, he said he was attracted to work at the Ford airport because it has been “known in the industry for a long time as being a great airport with good staff that is doing great things.”
Being in a CEO role once again, he said he looks forward to making decisions that will affect the airport for years to come. His latest role is for a smaller system than he worked for previously, but he thinks the variety of experiences he has gained will be useful for growing Ford airport.
“We're getting ready to ramp up pretty hot and heavy here, and staff is going to have an awful lot to do over the next many years,” Richardson said. “So just being a part of that and helping to lead and make some decisions that'll be good for the team, good for the community, good for the airport and our users.”
He said it will be important to ensure the airport’s growth is a step ahead so it can continue accommodating the growth of the community.
“We hope the community continues to grow. We certainly don't want to be the ones that limit that,” he said.
The airport is finishing some renovation projects and has more plans on the horizon, including adding gates and amenities, adding a federal inspection station to allow for international commercial flights and relocating the air traffic control tower.
Aside from physical construction, he said a goal of his is to focus on the customer service side, ensuring the airport has the amenities people expect and that passengers have the ability to be productive while waiting for flights.
In order to ensure the airport’s growth can happen, however, Richardson said it’s important for residents to use it when they can, rather than traveling to Chicago or Detroit or another city’s airport.
“Because an airline is going to make a decision around a route based on its usage,” he said. “As much as we try to go out and get new routes, if the people aren't going to actually get on an airplane and fly and pay the price to operate that route, it isn't going to stay.”
He also wants to point out that passengers can be much more productive waiting for a flight locally than they will be driving for a few hours to another airport.
“So, we're trying to figure out how to make the time that people have to spend traveling as productive as possible because then it makes the benefit for them much more valuable,” Richardson said.