I first talked to Ian some years ago, while we were negotiating a deal. We never met face-to-face but I really appreciated that as serious and very good at his job that he was, he was laidback and working towards an outcome that was win-win.
Ian is one of those people in the industry that everyone wants to talk to and they do their best to get to meet him. He is hard to find during conferences but gives you his complete attention when you have a meeting with him.
Over the years we became friends, we helped each other, and we did more business together. On occasion, we have gone with other friends from the industry to dine at fancy restaurants (where I always get ordered a Cosmopolitan).
Ian is that businessman who is great at what he is doing; he makes a lot of money for his company, but he is not a shark. It is a pleasure to do business with him and to have him as a friend and I am very happy and proud that he accepted to do this interview for the blog.
Could you please tell me a few words about yourself?
I’m passionate about travel and with travel comes hospitality. I always pursued jobs that allowed me to travel because in order for me to get excited about what I’m doing, there needs to be adventure.
This probably has to do with the way that I grew up. My father was a US Diplomat and while I was born in Washington DC, at six weeks old I was already onto my first adventure when my father was posted in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. From there, it never really stopped, with stops in Manila, Philippines and Salzburg, Austria, as well as assignments back in Washington.
After college (university), I went into consulting, working for KPMG in their tax department and it was there that I started traveling internationally professionally.I then transitioned into investment banking and from there figured out that I could combine business travel with food adventures.
I have lived professionally in San Francisco, New York, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and now, Portland Maine. I work for the AJW Group, the world’s largest independent aviation spare parts solutions company (www.ajw-group.com) and I own a restaurant called Little Giant (www.littlegiantmaine.com)
Being a banker and a lawyer (with the NY bar) is quite unusual. Which
one of these two specialties do you like most? How do you combine them?
I certainly prefer the banking to the legal side of things. I knew early in my career that, despite the quality education in the United States, that an advanced degree was required. I thought about whether I should choose business school over law school, but at the time I was making this decision, I was working for a boutique investment bank in New York City and the deals we were doing were very complicated tax transactions. All of the principles there were former lawyers and I figured I could learn the business side on my own time, but the legal analysis and thought process was something I should go to school for.
The best things about law school are that
- it taught me the value of researching a problem I don’t understand so that I could master it, and
- I will never be afraid of reading a contract again. I should also note that I am not a practicing lawyer – I leave that to the experts!
Could you please tell me a little bit more about your restaurant and how you decided to start that business?
I spend my life managing complex multi-million dollar transactions and wanted to take those skills to a business where you can touch a lot of people, create community, hire talented people and shape it through the observations from my travels. At peak summer we would have as many as 20 employees and 200+ people passing through our doors every day. It gave me access to the community and to the industry and taught me so much more about business than I ever would have learned leading a 500+ company as I do now in aviation.
Tell me about your family?
I have been married for almost 13 years and I have two lovely children – a daughter who is 10 years old and who was born in Hong Kong when I lived there and a son who is 7 years old, born here in the US.
My wife and I met at Middlebury College and we reconnected later on in New York City.
My wife is from Maine and it’s because of this that we now live here and, although I still get excited about the thrill of exploring new places in the world, I wouldn’t choose anywhere else to live than here in Portland, Maine, under the current circumstances.
How much of the time are you travelling and what are the do’s and don’ts for a business travel?
Under pre-Covid 19 conditions, I was traveling quite frequently, as often as 3 out of 4 weeks a month and usually internationally.
Contrary to popular advice, I don’t believe that you need to pursue some sort of strict protocol when traveling. I try to listen to my body. If I’m tired and need to sleep, I sleep. If I’m not sleeping, I’m definitely working, mostly getting caught up on emails.
I try to avoid working on presentations on the plane because no matter how hard you try, someone can see what’s happening on your computer screen. The advice I’ve followed is that if someone is careless enough to allow people to see their screen, you should absolutely read along if it’s business related and if it’s personal, then you should absolutely not.
I also think it’s perfectly reasonable to enjoy a cocktail on a plane .It’s the little things, like sipping on a drink, while watching the world down below from the airplane window.
Can you please share with us some tips for business travel? Eg: do you have a favourite hotel, what do you pack, how do you decide your airline and flights, any rules you keep?
I manage my own budgets so any time I can save money, I do so. This means I book economy class and look to upgrade whenever I can. It’s not only the right thing for the business, if they’re paying for it, but it’s the right thing from a value perspective.
A trans-atlantic flight can often cost $8,000 or more(!) and I can’t ever justify spending that much on a 6.5 hour flight, especially when you can use that kind of money as a downpayment on a house, for example.
This means I try and focus my travel on specific airline alliances and hotel chains so that you quickly build up and then maintain status to increase your chances of getting upgraded.
I have been loyal to OneWorld and Star Alliance and I’ve been in their top tier and million miler club for two decades. Marriott Bonvoy has become really great since they merged with Starwood – there are just so many hotels part of that program now.
I pack carefully, but always end up bringing too much, no matter how hard I try. It’s really not that hard if you’re going for a working week (yet I still can’t figure it out!). One suit, a separate pair of pants that you can wear with the jacket from that suit. Three dress shirts, two casual shirts, a pair of jeans and enough underwear and socks for each hotel night you’re away. Yes, hotel laundry is expensive, but you usually only need to do one dress shirt so that doesn’t break the bank.
You have reached a very high level in your career. What is the next step?
I used to think that I had to have my own aviation-related company to feel like I’ve reached the top. That certainly is a goal but at the same time, I’ve spent so much time successfully building the AJW Group, I feel like it’s already part of my own, even if I’m not the shareholder. I have a good relationship with the owner and I am economically tied into the success of the business, as if it’s my own.
Was it hard to become the CFO of one of the biggest aviation companies? What struggles did you encounter on the way?
It was extremely difficult and especially now as we navigate this Covid-19 environment. I used to think that the financial crisis of 2008 was my biggest challenge, but the stakes get higher the older you get and the bigger your family is.
The problem with this situation is that both travel and restaurants are impacted. The thing I’ve learned is that there is nothing we can do to change the impact the virus will have. What we can do is behave. How we behave in this time of crisis will be how we are judged for the rest of our lives. This means treating people honestly and fairly.
Nobody will fault you due to the Covid-19 impact on your business. But you will be blamed if you are lazy or careless in how you treat and communicate with people.
I spend most of my time working on various cash flow scenarios to deal with the short term and the rest I spend in deep thought thinking about what the recovery will be and how I can be best prepared to take advantage of opportunity.
I was fortunate to have predicted that this Covid-19 situation would be severe and managed to prepare both businesses for a period of cash conservation – little did I know how deep the impact would be!
Do you have any advice for someone that is just starting a business or a new job?
Yes, there is no shortcut to the corner office. If you do a good job, people will notice. There is no need for you to tell me that you’re doing a good job because, like I said, if you do a good job, people will notice.
The other thing I like to point out is that you’d better know what it is you’re talking about if you’re trying to convince me of something and the best way to prove that to me is by having done it in the past.
I see so many people who talk the talk but have never been there learning their trade by doing and the moment I work out that you’re just talking about some concept you don’t understand, that’s the moment I stop listening.
With the amount of travelling that your job imposes, how do you manage to keep a balance between personal and business life?
To be honest, I don’t find balance. Work does take priority, but that’s what it sometimes takes if you haven’t found your lucky break. When I find it, then I’ll reevaluate but in the meantime, I have an incredibly supportive family and patient employer who lets me work on different time zones.
I am extremely grateful to both of them.
What hobbies do you have?
Skiing, boating, cooking, playing with my kids.
What do you do in your free time?
When I’m not pursuing aviation or restaurants or parenting, I find myself volunteering. That gives me the biggest reward and, while it’s easy to be selfish in a pandemic, it’s a responsibility leaders should accept no matter what the state of affairs is in the world.
What is your favourite American dish? Do you cook? What is your favourite restaurant in the US (except yours, of course)?
My favorite American dish might just be fried chicken. When it’s done right, it’s marvelous.
My favorite US restaurant is either the 21 Club in New York City, Piccolo Restaurant in Portland, Maine, or the Crown Jewel, in Portland Maine. Crown Jewel is great because you have to take a boat to get there and it just makes the experience that much more worth the effort.
What is your favourite international dish? What do you prefer from the European cuisine? Or maybe Asian?
My favorite European dish is of course Wiener Schnitzel and if we’re talking Asian, then it would be Dim Sum from Hong Kong or Taiwan. It just doesn’t get any better than that. Every time I land off a flight in Hong Kong, I go straight to get dumplings.
What is your favourite travel destination and why?
I really like the Caribbean. There is so much to offer across all the island and their varying cultures and it’s really accessible from the US or from Europe.
What is the location of travel, you recommend for non-American tourists, in the US and why?
I think everyone should explore the US National Parks. Everyone always thinks of the grand canyon, or Yellowstone or Yosemite National Park but there are so many more.
I particularly like the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, or the Petrified Forest in Arizona.
Where is your favourite place in the entire wide world?
It’s a tie. It’s either Istanbul, Turkey (to me the most dynamic and exciting city in the world) and in my mountain retreat in Vermont. This property, in the middle of the Green Mountain National Forest, gives me the greatest sense of peace anywhere on the planet.
Is there anything you would change in your life?
I have happy and healthy people around me who I simply adore.
I have a job that is challenging and rewarding and I get to work with wonderful people like Anca and the rest of the aviation industry and I get to see talented chefs create mouth watering meals that I often get to enjoy.
I have nothing I would change.
In your busy life, how do you find time for charity? What does charity mean to you?
I’ve always wanted to give back through my life. I find that there are opportunities where one can give back with real impact and now is one of them.
As the owner of a commercial kitchen who can prepare meals safely and at scale, I feel it’s a responsibility and thus an honor to be able participate.
I know not everyone sees the world the same way, but I hope others will follow my lead.
Are you teaching your kinds to do charity, too?
The kids need to focus on being kids. They have a long, challenging and fulfilling life ahead of them where they will have plenty of time to be serious. I want them to play and to enjoy the innocence for as long as they can.
We do talk about what I do, both when it comes to charities and work, they see the effort I put in, even if I’m not around often for them to see it.
I know they understand – they’re kids after all and they’re clever – always trying to figure out what’s going on and the best thing we can do is lead by example and make sure we talk about what’s going on and answer all the questions they have, patiently.
You are doing a lot of charity. Please share with us some of the activities and projects you are involved.
I helped start Cooking for Community (www.cookingforcommunity.org). We raise donations that get used to pay restaurants to cook food for needy people and in doing so, this keeps restaurants busy and supports the food supply chain.
This is a way that I managed to give back with more impact than just opening my wallet.
I have been able to actively participate in this project as I am not traveling, and I can commit to my obligations.
Are you managing this initiative with other people?
Yes, now we are 6-7 people that are actively involved in this project. And in my restaurant there are 19 employees.
How much money did you raise?
We have raised, until now, $700.000 in donations. And the good part about our project is that we are all volunteers, so all the money is going for charity.
We have hired Volunteer Baine Consulting to do an evaluation and see how much we actually produce. It will be interesting to see the result.
How many families have you helped?
As of the time of this writing, my restaurant and the partner restaurants have produced and delivered over 62.850 meals to people in need.
And this is just in one little tiny city in one tiny state in the US, in 7 months. This is also the number of inhabitants of Maine.
It’s a powerful thing to be a part of.
Did the restaurants answer positively to your proposal?
This is the second good part of Cooking for Community: this project is the reason why many of the restaurants involved are still alive, even during this pandemic. We are working now with 15 restaurants and we have various menus.
Are the restaurants you worked with only in Portland?
Twelve restaurants in Maine and four more restaurants in two more regions in the state.
Did you think to grow the activity on this NGO around The US and maybe the world?
Yes, for sure we have. But then we will need to have full time staff which means a leak in the donations. We would need to become professional fundraisers. We are not sure we want this, at least now.
Will you keep this initiative after the pandemic, too?
Depends but we would like to; hungry people will not disappear.
We consider this is an interesting model and can be maintained.
And if not, we served our purpose during bad times and we are very happy with that.
Thanks for the answers Ian, and for the time you spent on this piece.
In my opinion, this is what a successful young American looks like. Complex and complete. It seems part of the American dream. And it is. Good luck in the post-pandemic life. That moment will arrive, too.