Interview: Steve Grossman

Brooklyn native Steve Grossman has Jacksonville’s four airports under control

 I still love that Nathan’s hot dog and French fries. It reminds me of Coney Island and my childhood. And although it’s not true, if you talked to my staff you’d think I went to Nathan’s five days a week.”

By Palmer Hasty

Brooklyn native Steve Grossman became inspired by airports when he was only eight years old.  He was a cub scout living in Canarsie, Brooklyn.  Once a year his scout troop would take an educational day trip to JFK International Airport.  Almost fifty years later, now CEO and Executive Director of Jacksonville Aviation Authority’s four airports, Grossman recently told the Brooklyn Eagle that he feels lucky to have decided his career path at such an early age. “As a kid, everything about the airport stirred my imagination.”

Grossman was born in East New York on Alabama Avenue; his family moved to Canarsie and lived there until he was twelve.  He attended PS 105; then his family moved to Seaford, Long Island, where he attended High School and Jr. High.

Brooklyn Memories

After moving to Seaford the Grossman family made frequent visits to Steve’s grandparents, who still lived in Sheepshead Bay, where his father had grown up. “I grew up in a strong family atmosphere; the big family dinners were traditional in a Jewish neighborhood like Sheepshead Bay.”   

BE: What about your Brooklyn childhood?

SG: “One thing that stands out in my mind, as a kid I always felt safe in Brooklyn. It was natural for us kids to go Trick-or-Treating without our parents.  I remember when I was about 10, my mother would give me $2 for lunch and I’d ride my bike by myself about a mile to Grabstein Brothers kosher deli on Rockaway Parkway. I remember doing something as a Brooklyn youth that I never told my mother about until a few years ago, when I was 50 years old. I used to take the BMT Canarsie Line’s L-train from one end of the line and back; Just for the ride. The line ran from Rockaway Parkway in Brooklyn to 8th Avenue and 14th Street in Manhattan.”

BE: Did you spend much time at Coney Island?

SG: “Are you kidding?  I spent a great deal of time at Coney Island and would always go to Nathan’s for a hot dog and French fries.

BE: I read where there is a Nathan’s franchise that the Jacksonville International Airport (JAX)?

SG: Yes there is. And I have to confess, it’s been reported that I can be seen eating my lunch at Nathan’s durin a workday. It reminds me of Coney Island and my childhood.  I still love that Nathan’s hot dog and French fries.”  
Grossman paused, then said with a smile; “Although it’s not true, if you talked to my staff you’d think I went to Nathan’s five days a week.”

Jacksonville International Airport.

Hooked on Airpots

Grossman wasn’t kidding when he said those trips to JFK when he was a cub scout had a lasting impact on his imagination.  By the time he was ten, he was studying World War II aviation history.  He also said he used to cut school back in the 1960s so he could watch the Apollo space launches.  He still describes that experience as “totally cool.”

At twelve, about the time his family moved to Long Island, he joined the Civil Air Patrol.  That’s when his mother put her foot down and told him: “You’re not going to fly.”  In an interview with the JAX Daily Record,  Grossman said that he acquiesced, being an “obedient son”, and then bluntly made his point: “…but I was pissed.”

After high school Grossman went to New York State University College at Oswego, where he earned an undergraduate degree in urban geography.  In 1977 he earned a master’s degree in urban planning (with emphasis on airport planning) from Michigan State.

In that same interview with the JAX Daily Record, Grossman talked about the experience that led directly to his decision to run an airport: “By my sophomore year in college I knew I wanted to be in charge of an airport.”  

His father was an electrician in New York City where they had a summer work program for the sons of union members, a chance to earn money to help pay for college.  Grossman was assigned to a new Pan Am Terminal at JFK. “So I spent the summer working, and watching the new 747’s come and go from JFK. That was it, I was hooked.”  

Right out of college he first worked as an aviation consultant, then for seven years he worked as Deputy Director of Aviation in charge of Finance and Administration at the San Jose International Airport.  Then for 17 years, from 1992 to 2009, Grossman was Aviation Director for the Oakland International Airport, an arm of the Port of Oakland.  

Transforming the Aviation Authority: The CEO at Work

As CEO of JAA, Grossman is in charge of four Jacksonville area airports. With Jacksonville International and Cecil Airport being major economic resources for the area, those two airports have been his primary focus.

BE: Why did you take a job running the Jacksonville airports?

SG: “I saw it as an opportunity to put the theories I had developed over the years into play.  Having worked in airports for 30 years. The job offer at JAA in 2009 was an opportunity I had been waiting for.  In Oakland I was one of three executives under the Port CEO.  In Jacksonville I would have the freedom to do it my way.”  

BE: What are you most proud of accomplishing as CEO of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority so far?

SG: Grossman thought for a moment, then replied. “I think probably changing the corporate culture and the core values, and providing leadership regarding the Authority’s relationships with city government and economic development groups.  

I thought we needed for a more unified vision regarding the cooperation between the Aviation Authority and the City of Jacksonville, and the need to implement a pro-active approach to business.  On building closer ties between the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce marketing team and the airports. I had to virtually make the Chamber of Commerce an arm of my staff so we could work hand-in-hand.”

BE: I read something about your negotiating skills. Tell us about the Signatory Agreement you restructured and negotiated between JIA and the airline industry?

SG: “Well, I had to protect JIA from industry downturns. By restricting the upside and eliminating the downside, I was able to adjust the old agreement to the new realities of a persistently volatile economy.  The industry and the economy are different now than when that agreement was originally formulated; and the new agreement acknowledged those differences.”

BE: When Grossman took charge of the aviation authority people in the area were convinced JIA should become an international air cargo hub.  Grossman recognized the misperception right away.

SG: “Jacksonville is not Atlanta or Miami. I had to re-educate the community, change the perception, to understand JIA’s niche within the US and International airline industries.  We needed to focus on Cecil Airport; the brighter future would be with the aerospace industries. I had to get that going.”  

And “get it going” he did. With Grossman’s rebranding campaign in 2011, which included a new logo for JAA, Cecil Field was renamed Cecil Airport.

Also in 2011 Cecil Airport was awarded a Spaceport license by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).  Cecil is only the 8th official spaceport in the US, the first in Florida, and the first spaceport located in an urbanized area.  “The Spaceport designation is extremely important for the future,” he said.  

BE: How did you turn around Cecil Field into Cecil Airport?

SG: “Back when I arrived at JAA, Cecil Field, as it was called then, was burdened with developer contracts in progress, not yet signed and unrelated to the aviation industry. I simply canceled those contracts and started a 5-year plan to prepare Cecil for the future, which included clearing 150 acres of land for future tenants and building 250,000 square feet of hangar space. The next 3-5 years for Cecil is clear, and we’re ready,”

BE: Jacksonville International has also had it’s share of turn around success hasn’t it?

SG: “Yes. We’re transforming an existing hangar to accomodate a $355 million defense department contract. The hangar will be used to manufacture the A-29 Super Tucano for the Brazilian Defense firm Embraer. The a-29 is a light attack support aircraft. With this contract JIA will boost its economic impact on the local economy. The hangar is 90% ready and manufacturing should start in November.”

BE: It sounds like you geared the airports up to be run like businesses?

SG: “That’s exactly what I felt I needed to do. We’ve worked hard to improve customer service, adding express boarding lanes, providing free wifi, and with a seriers of Airline Conferences intended to educate major airline representatives about the Jacksonville area, carriers have responded by expanding flight schedules and destination corridors.

Although overall passenger levels remain well below pre-recession levels, Grossman says that JAA is positioned to easily handle increased passenger traffic and thrive as a business, and his persistent emphasis on running the airport like a business since he took over has good reason.  “A misperception about airports like JIA is that they are funded with taxpayer dollars.  JAA must be run as a business because there are no local general fund taxes provided to the Authority.”

Note: All the work is paying off economically while the prestige of the Airport improves. Since last year JIA won the distinguished Airport Service Quality Award, and was named the 5th best airport in North America by the Airports Council International.

BE: I also read where you love golf?

SG: “Absolutely. With a handicap of 7 I may not be the best golfer here, but I’m the most avid. It’s the only thing I can do for five hours without thinking about work.”

BE: Are you as good a golfer as you are a CEO?

SG: (Grossman laughed and gave the impression he was selecting his words carefully) “I think I’m a significantly better CEO than golfer. If I had to make my living playing golf, I’m sure I would be struggling below the poverty line by now.”