Like a growing number of his peers, Curt Castagna, owner and CEO of the Aeroplex/Aerolease Group — an airport development, aviation consulting and property/project management company based in Los Angeles — knows it's not enough to simply name a successor to the business. To build a real legacy, ensure continuity for clients and employees, and set the stage for future growth, you need to establish a thoughtful, adaptable succession plan that takes into account all of your company’s short- and long-term goals and needs.
We recently spoke with Curt and his son Justin — who currently serves as Director of Operations and Project Management at the Aeroplex/Aerolease Group — about the unique, not-always-intertwined paths they took to becoming father and son colleagues, the importance of mentors, generation-transcending wealth lessons and building a succession plan that reflects your values.
“If you’re not always thinking about the future and willing to adapt, your company won’t survive.”
How did you two come to work together?
Curt: When Justin was just one year old, I remember holding him in my arms and looking out the window at Aeroplex. I jokingly said, "One day this will all be yours.” As years progressed, Justin was very athletic and played ice hockey from three years old through college — even moving to Canada in high school. I would ask him why he didn’t learn to fly, but his plan was to be in the NHL.
Justin: It hit me, while I was in college, that I wanted to be in aviation. My school was a quarter-mile from the airport and I watched planes take off and land all day. Safe to say I caught the aviation bug. I pumped aircraft fuel, learned to fly and completed an airport management training certification. I ended up getting a business degree, and I graduated having completed four internships in the aviation field. After college, I worked for the county of Ventura as an Airport Operations Officer doing airport management. Having a basic understanding of the Aeroplex/Aerolease Group, I then took the initiative to write a proposal to my dad and the Aeroplex ownership group on what I thought I could bring to the team. Four years ago, I was hired on as Operations and Project Manager.
Why is a succession plan important?
Justin: Because you really never know what the next day is going to bring. Our founder, Milton Widelitz, was on a vacation in South America in 2009 and suffered from an unexpected, traumatic medical injury. Sadly, he passed away just five months later. But right before that trip, he had dinner with my dad and gave him succession instructions. Assuring a plan is in place for what happens when there's a failure or a breakdown is what keeps all the processes steady so the torch can be carried forward.
Curt: If you’re not always thinking about the future, your company won’t survive. You won’t be competitive. What we’re doing today, we weren’t doing five years ago. I wish I could tell you that five years ago I had this vision and this plan — that I had it all figured out. I'm actually doing it on the fly. The industry changes quickly. Technology changes quickly. We’re able to adapt because we're small.
What does your succession plan look like?
Curt: I started within the organization, looking at staff, at what the future looked like, at the age of our employees. When Justin came on, we ramped it up. Shifting the business to Justin wasn't always the initial succession plan, but it's evolved into that naturally. And it didn't stop with him — planning has carried through into our administrative staff, PR staff, in our onsite supervision. We have a process. We know how to bid. We know how to collect money. We know how to pay our bills. And I'm going to make sure all the staff knows how as well. Because if something happens to me, the best legacy I can leave behind is that the heartbeat of the business didn’t stop.
Another part of the succession plan is finding and nurturing new talent. It’s interesting: At several of the airports we work with, the directors are college graduates who I once mentored. A strong plan also needs to look at the business beyond the mechanics of simply making widgets or selling something or generating a profit. It's also about creating a legacy. And doing that requires character and integrity and transparency. The widgets might look different, but the character will always be the same.
Justin: For me, succession planning is built into my every day. It's like when you learn how to fly. The instructor will tell you to always be thinking about what happens if your engine fails or if the worst-case scenario happens. I try to keep my staff up to speed so everybody knows what others are working on. And I always strategize about the best way to adapt as our business morphs every day.
How do you prepare the next generation for wealth?
Curt: In my parents’ generation, you worked for the same company for 40 years, got a nice gold watch and picked your pension. That doesn’t exist anymore. Today, people switch jobs every few years. So, whether it’s a life insurance plan, annuities or the stock market, people need to diversify their investments in order to mitigate risk. My mantra with both my kids is that life is about creating options for yourself. I want them to gain experience, be self-sustainable and ultimately not need me.
Justin: I've led and guided my team in the same respectful, careful way as my dad. I’ve taken those lessons and used them to be a better mentor.
What advice would you give to younger people trying to figure out what they want to do and build their own legacy?
Curt: Find mentors. When you get that entry-level job, there's going to be a boss. You're going to learn something from everyone — and it isn't necessarily always good. Take the good advice and learn from the bad.
Justin: Right after I graduated college, I went to an airport industry conference and I was introduced to a man named Jorge. Without hesitation, I walked up and introduced myself and expressed interest in any available positions that may be available at his airport. He later became my boss. So first, find something that you love, are passionate about, and don’t let anything stand in your way of chasing that. Second, in order to be successful and grow, you have to be willing to make yourself uncomfortable. Many people my age and younger are getting into the workforce and looking for the easy route, but without discomfort, there cannot be growth. That person who is willing to stand out, ask questions, and take extra initiative is the person who will be successful.