Inside Track: Ford Airport leader leans on experience

Tory Richardson sees aviation facility as the ‘front door’ to West Michigan.
Tory Richardson started his career in aviation as a maintenance worker for an airport in Iowa. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford International Airport

Tory Richardson is leading Gerald R. Ford International Airport during an unprecedented time.

Just a year into his tenure, the president and CEO has helped to lead the airport’s achievement of increasing passenger travel in 2019 by 9.88% from 2018. But despite that success, Richardson has spent the past few months leading efforts to create and implement health and safety strategies for passengers and airport staff after airport traffic dropped by more than 96% in mid-April due to the pandemic and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order.

Albeit this pandemic is unlike any other challenges he has faced in his long and storied aviation career, Richardson has been the driving force behind the success of other airports and that can only be attributed to and rooted in his passion for aviation.

“I have always had an interest in airplanes, especially fighter jets,” he said. “That was always intriguing to me as a child. I had the bug of wanting to know more about them. I had a shelf of different books on aviation and airplanes. My dad was in the Navy and he worked on the electronics on airplanes. He always knew about airplanes and he shared information with me to help me understand aviation and how planes fly and what the various instruments do and what he would do when he was fixing them.”

Richardson thought he wanted to be a pilot for his professional career.

“I enjoyed flying but by going to college and doing that, I realized that I liked to do it when I wanted to do it but I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do that every day for a job. And at the time, it was pretty challenging because when I was ready to graduate from college a lot of the military pilots were coming out of the military and taking up a lot of those civilian flying jobs and becoming pilots for the different airlines, so there weren’t a lot of opportunities back in the late ’80s and early ’90s coming out of school.”

Richardson began exploring different tracks in aviation, such as accident investigations, aviation law and airline operations. He eventually settled on pursuing a bachelor’s degree in aviation management and flight operations at the University of Dubuque in Iowa because he said it was an opportunity to do something different every day.

Gerald R. Ford International Airport
Position: President and CEO
Age: 51
Birthplace: Belvidere, Illinois
Residence: Rockford
Family: Wife, Lisa; children, Zach, Logan, Kyra
Business/Community Involvement: Member of Experience Grand Rapids Board
Biggest Career Break: “My mentor who hired me directly out of college and sat down with me and made sure that I focused and planned for my career and exposed me to additional opportunities, which includes landing the CEO position here in West Michigan and also serving as the chair of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) this past year. It represents over 9,000 members across the world. Having a great mentor to start the path and have me really understand it and lay it out was a big break for me.”

In his final year of college, Richardson earned an internship at Dubuque Regional Airport and was later offered a job opportunity after graduating.

At the time, the airport had three airlines that offered commercial services and because it was a small airport, Richardson said he was able to learn to do a lot of different things from a lot of different people.

He started out as an airport maintenance worker. He did lighting, field, asphalt and concrete repairs. Richardson later was promoted to become an airport operations specialist. He reported directly to the Dubuque Regional Airport manager and airport commission. Richardson conducted and documented safety self-inspections of the AOA, field condition assessment inspections and fuel handler inspections.

While he was in that role, he also worked as a line service agent for Crescent Aviation and became a ticket agent for American Eagle/AMR Simmons Airlines. He also worked at the Supplementary Aviation Weather Reporting Station — reporting weather conditions back to pilots, and later as a data acquisition specialist.

After five years, he headed west to Rapid City Regional Airport in South Dakota. The area was filled with tourist attractions such as Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Black Hills.

“One of the big things that I am proud of while I was there was that we really enhanced our air service,” he said. “When I went there, we basically had two air carriers that were serving Rapid City and we were actually able to build that and get Frontier Airlines. It was a tourist area, so it relied heavily on people coming in and spending their money doing tourist activities. We got involved with organizations that help to sell Black Hills and Rapid City to other communities as packages.”

Another thing that Richardson deemed a success while at Rapid City Regional Airport was being able to write, negotiate, monitor and maintain over 60 airport leases and concession agreements.

“We needed to put business deals in place that were lacking,” he said. “We had hangars, buildings, facilities for rental cars and out there, because it was so open, we had a lot of agriculture leases. We had people farming on the land and were using it for ranching and livestock, but they weren’t actually paying us for it. We owned the land that was surrounding the airport. In many cases, we owned much more land than what we needed just for the runway and taxiways, but it was to ensure that we had compatible land uses around us and that we could protect against height hazards so someone can’t just build a tall structure near the end of the runway. We would control that land a certain way, but you could still use that land for certain functions. You couldn’t use it for anything you wanted, but agricultural leasing was one of them. We had a very large agricultural leasing program that we had put in place to make sure we were getting revenue in to pay for all the expenses. At the time, we were barely breaking even, but by the time I left there we were cash positive and we were investing in new facilities and growing and investing for the future.”

In 2004, Richardson was recruited to Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority in Indiana to lead its two-airport system — Smith Field, a general aviation airport, and Fort Wayne International Airport. The international airport had cargo aircraft, passenger aircraft, general aviation and a military base.

He served as the executive director of the airports. During the Great Recession, Richardson faced major challenges with the two-airport system.

“We saw the hub operation of a cargo carrier go into bankruptcy, come out and close for good,” he said. “So, we lost a very large tenant and a very large portion of our business and operation. We also at the same time were trying to grow different lines of business, so we were getting into the business of not only running the airport but also providing the services that typically an airport does not do like fueling. That was usually done by a third party, but in Fort Wayne, we were struggling with the economy and struggling to have that service provided consistently. So we ended up taking that over and creating a new line of business as part of the airport and setting up a separate fixed-base operation that was a part of our organization and provided those services for general aviation, and it ultimately expanded to commercial traffic as well.”

Eight years after joining Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority, Richardson accepted a job offer at Columbus Regional Airport Authority in Ohio after contemplating it for about two years.

“I was toying with this idea of possibly going from a No. 1 position (executive director of airports at Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority) to going back to a No. 2 position and what that might look like,” he said. “I thought it would be a great developmental opportunity and ultimately chose to proceed with that move because it would get me into a three-airport system and get me exposed to working more with union-represented employees, something that I hadn’t done since I was in Dubuque. It was an opportunity to learn more at a larger and more complex organization.”

Columbus Regional Airport Authority operated John Glenn Columbus International Airport, a commercial passenger airport; Rickenbacker International Airport, a military and cargo airport; and Bolton Field airport, a general aviation airport.

While there he took on various titles: vice president of human resources, government affairs and strategy; chief strategy officer; interim president and chief executive officer; executive vice president; and chief operating officer.

After seven years in Ohio, he was named the president and CEO of Gerald R. Ford International Airport in September 2019.

“Grand Rapids and Columbus are so similar,” he said. “Both focus on improving the community, trying to be more inclusive, more diverse, more collaborative and wanting to grow together and be the premier front door to the community.”

Richardson is on a mission to help restore the confidence in passengers to fly again in the era of COVID-19. The airport recently rolled out a campaign called “Fly Safe. Fly Ford” that educates passengers on health and safety measures that are in place to protect them.

He also is in the midst of leading Project Elevate, which includes expanding Concourse A, building out the Federal Inspection Station to welcome nonstop international commercial passenger flights and moving the air traffic control tower.

Another expansion project is the Consolidated Rental Car Center (ConRAC), which would move car rental companies to a larger facility adjacent to its current space.

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