The Skills of Skeels: Living the Dream in Local Aviation
I’ve always found networking to be a bit of a challenge. I’m the guy who struggles with small talk – with knowing what bridges in conversation might connect me with someone I find fascinating. When you meet someone who has the gift of networking, who can work a room or slip him or herself into a conversation, it’s, quite frankly, a thing of beauty. And while this is a dance within which I continue to trip over my feet, I am learning and getting better. I owe my improvement to many things but one cornerstone of that is wonderful people with a passion for what they do - the kind of people who can’t help but ooze interesting stories. I’m lucky in that these same people tend to want to pass on that passion which means connecting with students – my line of work!
A brilliant young woman who I’m now lucky to call friend, Lisa Skeels, joined me for lunch recently so I could pepper her with questions at a rapidity akin to my 2 ½ year old son and his newly acquired skill of speech. After an hour of interrogation that barely allowed her to touch her meal (I told you I was still learning), Lisa had given me a peek into a local aviation company and her career within that both inspire and excite me. Read through our conversation and be sure to ask yourself: What kind of company/industry do you currently or want to work for and how are you going to get there?
Lisa, thank you for joining me for lunch. I am so excited about this because I know what you share with me will inspire students in the region.
No problem, anytime! Excited to share this journey and hopefully help another achieve their goals!
So first off, what’s your title?
I’m the Director of Corporate Marketing & Process Control for the ComAv Companies, located at our worldwide headquarters in Victorville, CA.
And in a quick, overly generalized summary – what does ComAv do?
Whether its aviation maintenance, redeployment, storage, disassembly or evaluation, through our Asset Management and Technical Companies, we offer a broad range of premium solutions that are individually tailored for our premier clients in the commercial aviation industry.
I know ComAv has quite a vast operation here locally. Where is your customer base?
Our customer base is global. Along with our international offices we extend our presence in places such as Asia, Europe, Latin America and Canada.
What does your typical day look like at ComAv?
(Laughs) Well, I don't know that there is a typical day. Aviation is ever changing and fast paced, which is something I love about being here. But, here's an example of my day - In the morning, I work with a team of my colleagues on project planning to assess the items of the day. The key to a successful week is project management - with so many integral items of business operating at once, this is critical to ensure projects are on schedule and being completed successfully. From there, we review our sales goals, items of acquisition, protocols and business development initiatives… That could be a discussion on our recent acquisition of a new aircraft, new engine or coordinating a large receiving effort.
(At this point, Lisa takes a sip of her coffee from her ComAv cup, logo appropriately pointing forward to her guest. We both laugh at her ever-living roll of leading marketing.)
We are always coordinating efforts with various airlines around the world, developing relationships and networking. While we work with airplanes, we also care about people and our customers. It’s important to us to keep our relationships as we value our clients and their business. When that is your focus, everything else comes together naturally, helping you be successful.
The afternoons are dedicated to internal initiatives such as process control and any risk mitigation efforts. To be successful in business, it is important to monitor every role in our company for efficiency as well as compliance. As a company with global work, we have both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and all of their worldwide counterparts to comply with. Having multiple authorities whose regulations must be complied with requires frequent quality control evaluation. Also, I may do some risk mitigation work. My career path has developed me into an aviation jack of all trades, which means my days are varied and provide lots of challenge. And I love it.
How did you end up in aviation? Was it a dream since you were a little girl?
My passion in life seemed to sneak up on me. When I was younger, I was unaware of the full business scope behind the aviation industry. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to go into when I started college. I’m a rock nerd. I was studying geology in college and thought that’s what I wanted to do in life. I ended up moving from Michigan to Florida on a whim and while in Florida, my best friend introduced me to an MRO (Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul) company. I took a position as an assistant to the Chief Financial Officer. While in that position, I assisted him in business initiatives of the FAA Safety Management System (SMS) Program that sparked my interests even more. I had to quickly learn about the industry – all aspects of it, really. It was an entry-level role at the time, but I found myself in different departments, gaining different experience in a way that gave me a broad understanding and sense of what the MRO world is all about. I then also decided to attend Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Aviation Business Administration to gain the theory at one of the top aviation universities, and it has led me to many wonderful opportunities within the industry and with ComAv. In short – I fell in love.
So what happened next?
Well, initially I didn’t have the military experience, mechanic licensing (Airframe and Powerplant or A&P) or corporate background that many others in the industry do have, so I knew that I needed some leverage. Getting that leverage meant getting more education and I wanted to get into the Business and Financial aspects of the industry. I attended Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, which has a fantastic aviation/aerospace focus. I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Aviation Business Administration. I’m currently still attending Embry Riddle to complete my Master’s degree.
Are those the typical paths in your industry? Military, mechanic, or bachelor’s degree?
I wouldn’t really call anything typical. It’s all about finding the path that makes sense for you to start on and making the most out of it. Every path you can take within this industry can give you that experience and guide you to your goal. I know executives that started by changing tires on airplanes, worked every role on the way up and now run multimillion-dollar companies. They also are among the most respected leaders in the industry. We all start from the bottom somewhere. It’s all about your work ethic and your drive that can move you forward.
We hear a lot in education that industry experiences new hires who want to start at the top, making incredibly money right out the shoot.
You earn your salary with experience and hard work. Aviation is a very reliable and fulfilling way to earn a living. However, you have to look at the career path that you know you would succeed in and work your way up from there. I knew that this industry was going to take me places and that I was going to make a good living one day but not without hard work and really identifying where I would make the most impact.
Let’s be frank about something – you’re a woman in an industry that is dominated by males. What’s that like and what advice would you give a young woman reading this who is considering following your lead?
Honestly, there aren’t many of us, but that’s changing. There are some old-school mindsets that still exist with some people you come across, but that is no longer the majority. You have to be strong and know you can work just as hard and compete just as equally. However, that outdated mindset certainly isn’t found within ComAv senior management. They fully empower women to succeed in the industry and allow us to choose the path that’s right for us. That said, personally, I have this love for challenges. I tend to select the path that’s going to challenge me the most. Anyone who knows me well enough would agree completely. I knew I wanted to make an impact, that I wanted to achieve things I could be proud of, and that I wanted to be helpful. I get to do that here. That’s something unique in itself and very special to find.
For young women looking at this career field, I say go for it and keep a positive mindset. We need more of us here and we can absolutely make a difference. There are an increasing number of female mechanics and business associates in the industry, and they’re doing an incredible job. My biggest advice is to work hard, be humble, and challenge those limits, strive to learn all that you can within your specific area of interest.
ComAv is a local company here in the High Desert. How do you like working there?
It is incredible. Recently, ComAv was awarded our 14th Diamond Award by the FAA. This award is for training, safety and technical knowledge. The Diamond Award is the highest award you can get from the FAA. Only 5 companies in the world have achieved this at this level. We strive to be a world-class corporation and these show that we are meeting that goal. I am so proud of our accomplishments and continue to watch this company grow and achieve.
Another great aspect is that the job and industry are incredibly stable. The aviation industry is certainly here to stay and will continue to evolve. And the icing on the cake is really the management. Craig Garrick, our CEO, treats us like family. Family comes first. We are encouraged to try different departments to find our passion and strengths. A CEO that opens doors to let employees try things and to dabble in other roles is an incredible thing. And the industry brings me something new to do every day which means every day is interesting and challenging. Finally, we're getting ready to reveal a website that we hope will be a resource for folks to learn how to get into this amazing company and industry.
That does sound incredible. And how do you like the High Desert?
I’ve lived and worked all over the country and I’m not originally from here. The high desert has a great family-oriented, small-town vibe that is absent many other places and California really has so much to offer.
What advice would you give to an individual trying to figure out where to work or who to work for?
Try to learn all aspects of an industry that interests you and be selective about the companies you apply for and their individual culture. ComAv has a wonderful culture that some other organizations may not. Also, ComAv pays for schooling for our employees. That means they are investing in my future and I don’t have to rack up the debt that others may have to. Whether you are interested in maintenance, sales, marketing or finance they empower you to achieve more in your education.
How did you end up in Marketing for ComAv? I know you know a lot about Aviation. Did you have a lot of Marketing experience?
I am in Marketing right now because my skillset lent itself well to that right now. I am also familiar and experienced in the contemporary aspects of marketing for this industry that some may not be. I have vast experience in digital marketing concepts and business, and, paired with my aviation background, I can produce content that resonates well with the industry and our target audiences. Marketing has a special place in my heart and I know my role will continue to evolve. In fact, I’m starting a new role at ComAv this month and hope to continue my challenge of reaching senior management here. Continuous learning is a perpetual component of successful people.
Were you a 4.0 student in high school?
(Laughs) I was a solid B kid in high school. Now, I’m a 4.0 student and was through college. But it’s because I love what I’m doing, what I’m learning, and I’m invested in being successful. I found my passion. I realized just how important education is to this industry.
What do you do for fun, Lisa?
I love to read about other cultures, travel, golf, spending time with my loved ones and my English Springer Spaniels.
And what are you reading right now?
I’m reading two books: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick and It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario, a war photographer with an incredible story. I appreciate books that help me widen my perspective of the world and the human condition. They help take me outside of my own experience.
And finally - what's the dream?
I would like to be the CEO of an aviation company some day
Well, Lisa, I thank you for your time. I know you'll be a great CEO some day and I also know your story is going to inspire students around the region.
Teachers - Lisa is available and interested in being a guest speaker in your classrooms. If this is something you are interested in, please contact the MDCP office to coordinate.