Small Business Takes Flight with help from SBDC advising

RENTON, Wash.—The irony is not lost on Gordon Alvord or his business partner Bradley Donaldson.

They lost their jobs as pilots because of the recession but ended up founding a flight school that is thriving today.

“People told us, ‘You guys are either insane or geniuses,’” Alvord said. “Who starts a flight school in a recession?” (Founded during a recession, the business is weathering the pandemic as well. As an essential business, they have not had to close.)

Rainier Flight Services at the Renton Municipal Airport has a fleet of 30 aircraft and prior to the pandemic they employed 48 full-time employees and had an active enrollment of about 350 students.

The remarkable growth of this company is an “only in Seattle” story, Alvord said.

In 2009, after being furloughed from their jobs as pilots for Alaska Airlines, Alvord and Donaldson started giving private flight lessons to keep busy until returning to commercial flying.

They thought their stint as flight instructors would last a month or two, but the furlough dragged on. Fortunately, demand for flight instruction remained strong during the recession, Alvord said, particularly among employees at companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing.

Even so, Alvord and Bradley never planned to start a full-fledged business and they did not have significant resources to invest. That’s why the assistance of the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) was so critical.

In the early days they leased an airplane from a former student, but by late 2009 they decided they needed to buy their own aircraft if they wanted to establish themselves as a serious flight school.

Alvord called a few banks to see about a commercial loan but did not get any traction. That’s when he called John Rodenberg, the SBDC business advisor in Pierce County. Rodenberg assisted with the loan application, including helping Alvord with a business plan.

While working on the business plan with Rodenberg, Alvord said, they realized there were advantages to leasing additional aircraft rather than buying. “We would not have realized the financial implications without discussing the strategy with John.”

Since the goal was always to return to careers as commercial pilots, Alvord and Donaldson were careful to avoid debt as much as possible. The transition from pilot to business owner was a difficult one, Alvord said, “but one we tackled with enthusiasm.”

In 2012, when they finally got the call back from Alaska Airlines, they were leasing a space at Renton Airport, had seven flight instructors in addition to themselves, two company-owned aircraft and five leased aircraft. They met with Rodenberg again to discuss strategic planning.

Could they keep the business going with full-time jobs? How could they continue to grow the business if they were no longer on site every day? What revenue streams could they add?

“It was challenging,” Alvord said, “but the key was finding the right people. We have always been fortunate to find and retain individuals that do a fantastic job implementing our culture.”

Over the years, Rodenberg has continued to provide assistance, including templates for financial projections and monthly reports. For years they worked hard to accomplish goals while operating lean, but at about the five-year mark, Rodenberg started talking to them again about acquiring capital to grow their business.

Alvord said he and his partner were reluctant to take on debt, but in 2015 they applied for and received a $300,000 loan which enabled them to renovate a larger space at the Renton Airport. “It was a very wise decision because it allowed us to grow our company 10-fold,” he said.

Alvord recently completed an executive development program at the University of Washington.

“Now I understand why the decisions we made with John’s assistance were the right course of action,” he said. “Most small business owners are not MBAs so the service provided was invaluable to help steer us towards success.”