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Minnesota’s Small Business Person of the Year for 2017, Shirley Wikner, Flies Past the Competition

Shirley Joann Wikner stands in front of an airplane.

The U.S. Small Business Administration, Minnesota Small Business Person of the Year for 2017, Shirley Wikner conquered her fear of flying to build Aviation Charter and Executive Aviation in 1988 with her husband, Roger. When he died suddenly in 2012, she fought on several fronts to preserve the company and emerged stronger than ever. Today, thanks to her tenacity - and with a bit of help from the SBA and their resource partner WomenVenture - Shirley employs 54 people in Eden Prairie, Minn.  The business works throughout the contiguous United States, Canada, and Mexico providing corporate flights, flights to organ transplant teams, patient transport, and airline freight. In addition to her role as employer, Shirley’s gifts of both time and money truly enrich her community, including her role as a primary fundraiser for LifeSource, a medical nonprofit that promotes organ, eye, and tissue donation and her longtime financial support of the Minnesota Vikings Children’s Fund which supports Make a Wish Foundation and others.

The oldest of six children from a working class family, Shirley grew up handling responsibility. Her father owned a dry cleaners and restaurant business, so she grew up wearing many hats and then honed her work ethic and management skills with a degree from the Minnesota School of Business. When she met Roger Wikner, her future husband/business partner, he was an investment banker with a love of flying. Originally afraid to fly, Shirley conquered her fears by obtaining her private pilot's license. In 1988, Shirley and Roger obtained their aircraft charter certificate and Shirley became 51% owner of Holte Naslund, the umbrella S-Corp. of Aviation Charter/Executive Aviation, where she was responsible for day-to-day operations. In 2012, Shirley became sole owner of the business with the untimely passing of her spouse.

In 2014, Aviation Charter secured a SBA guaranteed loan from Venture Bank and more recently Shirley graduated from the Scale Up! Twin Cities program, which was offered by WomenVenture, a SBA Women's Business Center in Minneapolis, MN. The Scale Up! program provides critical resources and support to established women-owned businesses that have a proven track record and are ready for exponential growth, with a goal of increasing revenues and creating jobs.

Today, Aviation Charter is a 24-hour, on-demand air charter company, run in conjunction with Executive Aviation, their terminal and maintenance facility. She employs a staff of 54, including office support, flight crews, and mechanics. Through Aviation Charter, they provide passenger transport by air, as well as freight transport. They offer 10 aircraft, ranging from twin-turbine prop jets to small business jets. Executive Aviation provides a first-class terminal for clients, hosting incoming business aircraft, and selling fuel and maintenance.

Over the years, Aviation Charter has developed niche markets that are sustainable during economic downturns. They are the primary carrier for the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic organ procurement teams. They also work for LifeSource, providing air transport for organ transplant teams in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. This is a federally-mandated program that is not reliant on a thriving economy. They distinguish themselves by having 24-hour availability, including weekends and holidays. Another key market is shuttling aircraft parts and mechanics for the airline industry. Delta is a primary client and their expeditious, on-time delivery has made them Delta's go-to provider for a number of years.

Within 5 years of obtaining air carrier certification, the company constructed their flagship facility, Executive Aviation. This 30,000 sq. ft. facility was completed in 1994. The location is in a prime real estate area, home to many of the Twin Cities CEO's. As the business grew, they added a 12,000 sq. ft. storage facility in 1998 to house managed aircraft and their growing fleet, and purchased a commercial fuel farm to pump fuel at cost and provide an additional revenue stream.

Aviation Charter has faced a variety of obstacles in its operating history. Aviation is subject to global volatility. It's the first industry to suffer during economic duress. In 2007-08, they weathered the bankruptcies of hometown carriers Northwest Airlines, Sun Country and Mesaba Aviation. As a result of the collapse, they were forced to write-off receivables from these “too big to fail” behemoths. They shifted their focus to developing relationships in niche markets, particularly the medical transport industry, not affected by cyclical business.

In 2011, Shirley's husband suffered a traumatic brain injury. Without warning, she was left running the business solo. Her husband had been their financial adviser, whereas Shirley's financial acumen was negligible and she was unable to advocate for herself. During this time, their longtime bank was acquired and the company was placed in their workout department, despite never having a late payment. A woman-run aviation business was not in their risk profile. While searching for a new banking relationship, Shirley was also sued by an opportunist and her company became a takeover target. The frivolous lawsuit was finally settled in arbitration. Today, Aviation Charter has a new bank, a new SBA loan, another new plane, and renewed profitability.

For the past 25 years, Shirley has been a primary fundraiser for LifeSource, a medical nonprofit that promotes organ, eye, and tissue donation. She has played a key role in planning meetings, designing philanthropy objectives, and networking to raise funds to support their mission to provide assistance to organ transplant recipients and members of donating families. Shirley spearheaded and implemented a "Hunt for Hope" pheasant hunt to raise funds for organ donation awareness in the state of South Dakota. The 3rd annual hunt will be held this year and they have raised a cumulative total of $100,000.

For over 20 years, Aviation Charter has been a key sponsor of the LifeSource Golf Classic. Additionally, the company donated $100,000 to their capital campaign to build a new LifeSource headquarters, a dream that reached fruition last year.

The company has also been a sponsor of the Minnesota Vikings Children's Fund for many years. Their annual fundraiser donates to a variety of children's organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters and Make a Wish. Their silent auction donation of a free flight to a Vikings/Packers game is the grand prize highlight of the auction, often garnering multiple $10,000 bids. Shirley has also served on the LifeSource Ambassador Program Board and the Philanthropy Advisory Board, and has been honored twice with their “Advocate of the Year” award.

Company Name: 
Aviation Charter and Executive Aviation
Location: 
Eden Prairie, Minnesota