After earning its ETOPS certification amid a global pandemic, Saltchuk’s air cargo arm is staying the course toward growth.
Betsy Seaton became president and CEO of Saltchuk Aviation in January of 2019, armed with a rich background in corporate strategy and capital projects but knowing admittedly little about the day-to-day operations of Saltchuk’s air cargo business unit.
“I didn’t have a background in aviation at the time, but I knew I would learn from our team and the industry. There’s so much valuable experience out there if you’re willing to learn from it.”
What she did know about strategic growth and continuous improvement after more than two decades at Seattle-based forest products company Weyerhaeuser and a stint as Senior Vice President of Operations at Saltchuk’s Corporate Home helped Saltchuk Aviation businesses weather the pandemic and accelerate their strategy implementation at the same time.
“When I took the job, I thought about two things: what all of us at Saltchuk Aviation do for our customers and our communities and how our shared services organization, Northern Aviation Services, contributes to the lives of all our team members. Our vision is ‘delivering superior value and reliability, so our customers can focus on what matters most to them.’ Another way of saying that is we help our customers, and our customers’ customers, live the lives they want to live. And a profitable company that’s growing provides good jobs in our local geographies, and there’s nothing better for communities than good jobs. I came in with a focus on our people and who we serve.”
The best of both worlds
Seaton was born in New Jersey and grew up in Essex Fells, a suburb 25 miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel. An engineer by training, her father ran his own business selling heating and cooling systems for big buildings in Manhattan, even the World Trade Center. Her mother – who helped Seaton’s father run the family business and was a teacher, an elementary school principal, and the first female mayor of Essex Fells – proved just as inspirational.
“My dad had his own small business, and business seemed fascinating. I thought I wanted to be a business lawyer. My mom wanted to become a lawyer at one point, but she didn’t do it, so I guess becoming a business lawyer combined the best of both of my parent’s worlds.”
She left Essex Fells to attend Princeton University, which had just started accepting women a few years prior. She majored in political history and joined the rowing team.
“There were no try-outs; you could just walk on. So, I did. It was at a time when Women’s Rowing – at Princeton or anywhere else – was attracting quality coaching for the first time. My coach was a former Polish Olympian (and future U.S. Rowing Olympic coach) who agreed to come to Princeton and teach people like me who had never even seen a shell before. He was a demanding coach who made me realize that I could push myself harder than I ever believed possible. That may have been the most important thing I got from rowing – that realization.”
After finishing her undergraduate degree, Seaton attended the University of Chicago and got a JD/MBA, a joint law and business degree.
“I’m not a practicing attorney, I never ended up practicing law, but combined with my undergraduate degree, it was a great education on how large corporations work within the confines of government regulation.”
When she graduated, instead of law, she joined The Boston Consulting Group, a firm that specializes in business and strategy consulting. She worked for the company in Chicago for a year before moving to Los Angeles.
“My boyfriend was working in L.A., and I thought, ‘We have offices in L.A., why don’t I just transfer out there?’ I really enjoyed living in L.A. in the late 1980s.”
But in 1992, after five years as a principal with the company, both Seaton and her now-husband were ready for a change.
“We both quit our jobs and moved to Seattle. He was a Seattle guy – his dad was a Boeing engineer. I took a job at Weyerhaeuser.”
Working in place
Seaton’s first job at the iconic Pacific Northwest company was in the group that approved all capital projects. She remembers that John W. “Jack” Creighton, Jr. became president of the company around that time.
“I remember he was the first CEO that wasn’t a Weyerhaeuser family member, and that was a big deal at the time. He developed a strategy group there for the first time, and I was invited to be a part of it because of my background at The Boston Consulting Group.” (Creighton was also a former Saltchuk board member. He passed away in January 2020 at the age of 87.)
Seaton’s background was in strategy, but she was keen to get more into the company’s operations. She set her sights on a role in Weyerhaeuser’s recycling business because she wouldn’t have to leave Seattle.
“I worked for the recycling business for a few years, and then I ‘recycled’ myself back to a corporate job,” she laughed. “It seemed like a better way to manage life with kids.”
Seaton is adamant that the only way she was able to maintain her corporate position and nurture a family was Weyerhaeuser management’s ability to work with her on her schedule, something she believes is vitally important to keep women in the workforce.
“You can’t see it on my resume, but once my kids were born, I took a leave of absence and then worked part-time for about ten years. The lesson in that for me is that as a young parent, it was very tempting to stay at home and not work for various reasons. I worked for a big company, which gave my managers some flexibility. I also was flexible and worked not just my part-time schedule but more if they needed me. My advice for women or men is to keep their oar in the water, keep their hand in if possible. It pays off.”
There were some trade-offs, she acknowledged.
“I worked in place for a while. My career definitely plateaued.”
Seaton’s first day back working full-time was Sept. 11, 2001, a monumental day in history.
“I started the day ready to dive back into work, but the tragedy overwhelmed us all. My small New Jersey town lost people that day. But that didn’t stop them from helping. The local volunteer fire department went to Brooklyn because their firefighters and equipment were all gone. There’s a picture of our small firetruck in that big city station – I’ll never forget it. And they were there for weeks, volunteer suburban firefighters fighting big city fires. What stayed with me was the example of people successfully doing what they thought was impossible.”
The next 10 years at Weyerhaeuser were growth years – Weyerhaeuser was growing, and Seaton’s career grew with it. But then, with changes in the industry, the strategy changed, and Weyerhaeuser began to restructure and sell businesses. In 2008, Seaton started her last job at Weyerhaeuser. She said she was lucky enough to work for Dan Fulton, then Weyerhaeuser’s CEO and now a Saltchuk Director, as V.P. of Strategy and Business Development.
“I very much enjoyed working for Dan but over time realized that what I really wanted to be doing was building something. I wanted to be a part of something industrial, something that was growing.”
Seaton said she started “talking to people.”
“I set up meetings with people where I said, ‘Hey, I’m interested in your career and your career choices.’ Through the process, I learned a lot about myself, what I liked, and what things about my own experiences were my favorites.”
She discovered she loved talking about a particular project she’d led for a few years.
“I finally realized that part of the reason it was my favorite project was because I was running it,” she joked. “Really, what I liked about it was pulling together a team. There were hundreds of people; there was some scope and scale to it. I just liked working with a team toward a goal. I found that if we all pulled together, we could accomplish things we never would have thought were possible.”
Similarly strong values
Seaton joined Saltchuk in 2014 as Senior Vice President of Operations, working for President Tim Engle.
“When I was ready to leave Weyerhaeuser, I was looking for a company with a similarly strong sense of values.”
Seaton worked on capital and safety projects before Engle asked her to launch Saltchuk’s Continuous Improvement (CI) efforts.
“We did quite a lot of work trying to figure out how to make CI work best at Saltchuk and decided to focus on first principles and values. At its core, CI is about respecting people and believing that those doing the work know best how to improve it. We ended up launching CI at Tropical and TOTE because we thought that if two of our strongest companies found CI had value, we would be able to implement it across all Saltchuk’s business units. And that’s how it worked – thanks to all the great work done by TOTE and Tropical.”
When Seaton was asked to take the controls of Saltchuk Aviation in 2019, she said she had few qualms, despite her lack of aviation background.
“Saltchuk Aviation is a true Saltchuk company in that it’s a combination of three separate acquisitions: Northern Air Cargo (NAC) in 2004, Aloha Air Cargo (Aloha) in 2008, and StratAir in 2016. Each acquisition brought a great brand with high market share, barriers to entry, and great people.”
These three regional cargo operations, plus Saltchuk Aviation’s two aviation maintenance businesses, make up the base of Saltchuk Aviation and are the foundation of the business. The challenge when Seaton joined was how to regain profitability and grow the business.
“The simple strategy we started working on not long after I joined Saltchuk Aviation was to get the base solidly profitable, then build a 767-charter operation with ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards) capability – the ability to fly over oceans – on top of that foundation and grow the business that way. We thought we could probably, in this way, profitably grow and double the size of Saltchuk Aviation within five years. We were in our first year of this strategy when COVID-19 happened.”
A challenge – and an opportunity
The opening act of the pandemic was particularly destructive to two of NAS’s three main geographic regions.
“It was particularly disruptive in Hawaii. And StratAir – transporting goods to the Caribbean and South America – I remember getting a call about produce rotting in a warehouse in Lima where it had been detained. There were curfews and other disruptions. It was a shaky time. We started asking ourselves, ‘If we need to scale back our operations, what does that look like?’ We put together a plan for that, but the CARES Act ended up giving us the confidence that we could keep our people and put them to work. For us, COVID-19 was a challenge, but it was also an opportunity.”
Seaton said the pandemic ushered in a “super strong” cargo market – and Saltchuk Aviation had the freighters needed to make the most of the opportunity.
“Pretty soon, we had our people at NAC and Aloha flying into the continental United States, which isn’t a trivial ask, but they could see the need. The company, frankly the country, needed them. I think people don’t understand how quickly chaos would ensue if the supply chain ever broke down. When I think back on that time early in the pandemic, I’m most proud of how everyone from all parts of NAS came together to support the company and our country.”
Seaton said NAS was able to grow through the pandemic, improving profitability and increasing revenue by about 20 percent a year. In addition, the cargo market has remained strong, and earlier this year, Northern Air Cargo received its ETOPS certification.
“ETOPS took four years in total, and the last year was during a global pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, and for months, FAA inspectors were not even flying. So, continuing to operate, much less getting ETOPS approval, was all a challenge. I give a lot of credit to our FAA officials up in Alaska – they helped us find a way. They did things they’ve never done before to support our progress– including virtual observations of our training programs.”
In all, Seaton said, the certification took all 1,400 people working in tandem to achieve.
“It was a massive effort. Now we’re able to fly our own airplanes on our own routes and look toward the future and consider opportunities for strategic growth. It was worth it.”
Seaton lives just east of Seattle on Mercer Island and works at Saltchuk’s downtown headquarters. She recently began rowing again, 30 years after her time on the women’s team at Princeton. She also is a long-time supporter of Planned Parenthood and currently serving on Planned Parenthood Federation’s National Board.
“I put a lot of work into this cause, and it’s truly important to me. This is another way I feel I can help serve communities, by ensuring that everyone has access to the resources they need to reach their full potential and live the lives they desire.”
She also supports the Puget Sound community as a board member of Columbia Bank, based in Tacoma. Her children, now 28 and 25, keep her centered when she’s not at work. But in this season of her life, growing Saltchuk Aviation is often top-of-mind.
“We’re still implementing our growth strategy. We’ve purchased four 767s to convert into freighters to build our fleet, and we are developing a timeline for renewing our 737 fleet. We have a plan, and we’re going to execute it. In terms of why we’re going to be successful, it’s because we’re all working together to make it happen. It doesn’t happen without that. It’s all about the team.”