Most of us have very few memories as a toddler. But Stanley Baker Jr. can take you back there like it was yesterday. “My family was living in Corpus Christi in 1941-42, and there were naval air training bases around the area training pilots for the war,” the keen-eyed, 78-year-old businessman recalls with a smile. “I used to lay in my backyard and watch these airplanes pass overhead. Even though I was just 2 or 3, it stuck with me. I always wanted to fly.”
Baker has moved deftly through an entrepreneurial career using his love of flying. Early in his career, while ferrying a man on a flight, Baker negotiated the purchase of a small company the man was trying to sell. That company, which Baker still owns, is now the leading manufacturer of engine valves in the country. And then as the economy spiraled into recession in 2008, Baker and his family launched Baker Aviation, a charter and aircraft management and maintenance company at Fort Worth’s Meacham Airport. Today, it’s approaching $7 million in annual sales.
But, first, there was the paper route, which once served as the first job for many budding entrepreneurs. Baker moved with his family several times during his childhood, eventually landing in Fort Worth in 1950 at age 10. At this tender age, he began his working career scooping ice cream at Taylor’s Ice Cream. He then moved on to throwing the Fort Worth Press newspaper and bagging and stocking for Chicotsky Bros. grocery store. By age 16, Baker was back to throwing newspapers, this time the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“It was tough work,” he says. “That was back when there was an a.m. and p.m. edition. I’d get up in the middle of the night, throw the paper, go back to sleep, go to school and then throw the paper again. And we had to walk the route – no bikes – and set it on the porch or, if they wanted, inside their screen door.”
Stanley Baker negotiated the purchase of Wesco Valve & Manufacturing Co. in Marshall, Texas, while flying the company's owner on a short trip. The company still maintains an operation in Wesco.
“Son of the Boss” Baker worked the paper route until he graduated from Fort Worth’s R.L. Paschal High School. Following his studies at Kemper Junior College and Texas Christian University, he joined the family business, Safety Seal Piston Ring Co., in the East Texas town of Marshall. Baker’s father, uncle, and grandfather founded the business in 1951. Baker started as an SOB — “son of the boss” — Baker and worked his way up to head of marketing and engineering.
Asked if the family laid out any expectations for him as “son of the boss,” Baker says, “I was told from the time I started by my father that someday it would be mine. The only thing he didn’t explain to me was that I had to buy out about a dozen stockholders, some of whom were expensive.”
The company remains in Marshall today, with 23 employees and about $3 million in annual sales, and Baker continues to own it and remain active in management.
Baker wanted to grow the company when he came in, and he found a unique way of doing it by combining his childhood passion with what is becoming today a more recognized business practice: business aviation. In 1970, Safety Seal Piston bought a Cessna 182 single-engine plane, and Baker got his pilot’s license.
“How did I convince my dad to buy an airplane? I don’t know,” Baker says with a laugh. “The company served primarily the oil and gas industry, and because of that, we had to get to a lot of remote places. It was very time-consuming.”
Working for Safety Seal, Baker found he often spent more time getting to clients than being with them. So his father gave the green light to buy a Cessna 182, which the company quickly replaced with a Cessna 210.
Baker flew into towns like Colby, in northwest Kansas, and Gila, New Mexico. “I got permission from the pipeline companies to land on their unimproved strips,” he recalls. “Most of them were clay gravel strips, but some of them were grass. I was never nervous about landing, but sometimes I was nervous about taking off. They would tell me the strip was 3,000 feet, but when I’d get there, it was 1,800 or 1,900 feet.”
Baker Aviation is based out of the Texas Jet fixed base operation at Fort Worth Meacham International Airport.
A Mid-Air Deal The convenience and speed of the plane paid off for Safety Seal in ways that exceeded Baker’s expectations when he talked his father into buying it. In 1973, Baker was at the Gas Compression Institute and Round Table, an oil and gas convention in Liberal, Kansas, when a man he knew from Marshall, Texas, knocked on his door. His commercial flight was full, the man explained, and he complained to Baker that he had to spend another night in Liberal.
“I told him that if he didn’t mind flying in a small plane, I would take him to Dallas right then to pick up his car, so he could drive back to Marshall,” Baker says. “We got into a conversation on the plane. He told me he was trying to sell his company, but he wasn’t getting what he wanted in the deal. I upped the ante and made him an offer. That was the best acquisition we had ever made.”
The deal: Baker bought Wesco Valve & Manufacturing Co., a small repair shop of valves used in natural gas pipelines. Wesco is now the leading manufacturer of engine valves in the country. It also manufactures a complete line of high performance industrial piston rings for diesel, gas and steam engines as well as all types of compressors, pumps and hydraulic equipment.
Baker moved Wesco's headquarters to Hurst in 1961. Today, it has 45 employees and what Baker said is $6 million in annual sales. Baker remains active in management.
His plane played a role in Wesco’s growth. Shortly after adding Wesco, Baker received a call from a man in Ohio who wanted to meet with him about engine valves.
“He asked me when I could come and visit him, and I said how about lunch tomorrow?” Baker says. “I flew to Ohio, took him to lunch and got a $435,000 order for values — more than our total sales up to that point.”
Over the years, Baker has purchased bigger and bigger planes for the family business, finally ending up with an eight-passenger King Air 200.
“I always wanted a bigger plane,” Baker, who no longer flies as a pilot today, says with a laugh. “I can tell you many, many stories about how many times a potential customer had a problem and I was the first on the spot. I could observe the problem and come up with some solutions. Other guys would come in behind me, but I was already way ahead of them.”
Recessionary Start-up His passion for flying has taken him one step further. In 2008, with the country moving into recession, Stan and his son, Stanley “Stan” Baker III, created Baker Aviation.
“When we weren’t using the King Air for company business, we turned it over to a charter company to fly,” Baker says. “But in 2008, that charter company went into bankruptcy. We couldn’t find another charter company we liked. My son, Stan, suggested we get a charter certificate ourselves, so we did.”
Stanley Baker Jr., with his children, Angela Baker and Stan Baker.
The family started Baker Aviation with its own money, no investors, and two aircraft – a King Air and Citation III.
A family affair, Stan is president of Baker Aviation, and his sister, Angela, is general manager. Stan shares his father’s love for aviation. “It’s almost like it’s genetic,” he says. “It’s a passion that sticks with you.” Stan has his own professional pilot’s license, as well as a degree in aviation science from Oklahoma State University.
The charter plane industry was getting hit as hard as other industries during the recession. Stan believes that it turned out to be the perfect time to start such an endeavor.
“It was easy because everyone else was out of business,” he said. “If you had the capital, you could build a company. Our first month, we had 22 hours chartered with oil and gas people — other companies we knew said they hadn’t that many hours all year.”
Baker Aviation has grown to close to $7 million in annual revenues since it became certified in 2011 by the Federal Aviation Administration, Baker said. Its client base boasts a who’s who list of local billionaires, artists, athletes and executives, who can be flown around the world since Baker received FAA approval in February for worldwide operations.
Enroute by plane to a company plant in Marshall, Texas.
Most of Baker Aviation’s business is domestic, however, as the company flies doctors and other medical personnel and equipment for a local hospital, coaches and administrators for local universities, and oil and gas company executives.
“We are exponentially expanding our business in a very short period of time and establishing Baker Aviation as a major player in the charter management business here in Texas,” Stan said. “Texas is a huge market for us. We’ve had our biggest uptick in the last six months — up 30 percent in revenues so far this year.”
With just under 40,000 square feet of hangar space run by Texas Jet fixed base operator at Meacham Airport, Baker Aviation’s fleet includes a King Air B200, Piaggio Avanti ll, Citation Mustang, Citation II, Citation III, Falcon 50EX and a Learjet 45XR.
Baker Aviation employs 30 people, including 17 pilots. While the company started out with most of its business — 85 percent — using charter brokers, now half its business is through Baker Aviation’s own retail clients, Stan said.
Baker Aviation’s commitment to safety goes above and beyond most charter companies. In January, Baker was able to renew its coveted Platinum Safety Rating by Aviation Research Group, which it originally received in 2012, for the company’s FAA Part 135 Air Carrier Operation. The ARG/US Platinum status, the highest rating for aircraft charter operations, is awarded only to those air charter operators that have demonstrated successful implementation of specific industry safety practices.
During a thorough on-site audit, ARG/US evaluated Baker Aviation’s manuals, procedures, safety management systems, FAA compliance, and general company-wide practices before renewing the Platinum status.
Assortment of engine valves at the Wesco plant.
“Less than 10 percent of charter companies receive the ARG/US platinum status,” Stan said. “The rating requires a lot of extra checks and a lot of internal review and safety audits. Several of our clients require to use Platinum-rated companies by their life insurance company.”
As a point of comparison, the FAA requires that captains have flown 1,500 hours and co-pilots have flown 250 hours. To receive the ARG/US Platinum rating, captains must have flown 3,000 hours and co-pilots, 1,000 hours. “It’s much more stringent,” Stan said. “Only a handful of companies in D/FW meet that standard.”
Baker Aviation also has accomplished Stage One of the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations, which establishes standards that provide consistency in safety management across national and regional boundaries and their varying levels of regulation.
In February, Baker Aviation announced that it had received its worldwide operations specifications from the FAA, allowing it to conduct flight operations around the globe. Baker Aviation participated in a proving run with FAA International Inspectors, using the Falcon 50EX to cross the North Atlantic in September 2016.
One of Baker's jets.
“Private aviation is going to grow a lot as the airlines get more and more congested,” Stan says. “When they start cancelling flights at DFW, we start getting phone calls.” The globalization of business is also playing into the hands of the charter industry. “Instead of needing to fly to New York, companies now have to fly to Beijing for business. We’ve seen a few clients buying longer range trips.”
In addition to the convenience of private planes, Baker Aviation pulls out all the stops for clients, Angela Baker said.
“We’ll do whatever the client wants to do,” she said. “We have had requests from lobster to champagne and everything in between. We’ve had flight attendants decorate for a beach theme. You can get extremely personalized. The sky’s the limit.” In addition to booking flights, Baker Aviation offers services like renting hotels, booking events, and even washing clients’ vehicles while they are flying.
Stanley Baker says he’s confident his new company is in the right hands, because his own kids are running it. Baker Aviation fits with a family-owned business philosophy Baker has seen for several generations.
“I have a personal philosophy,” Stanley said. “People ask me if I’m in business for myself. While that is true, I’m primarily in business for the employees in my companies, the customers we serve and the suppliers we use.”
By Teresa Vonder Haar / Photography by Peter Robbins