Ask The CEO

Photography by Rebecca Baxter By Molly McCartney February 28, 2010

Ron Ciaravella, 61, was a latchkey kid who grew up in Ybor City with “lots of unsupervised time. I loved airplanes, but my parents didn’t fly and I didn’t know anyone who did. I never thought this would be something I would be involved in; it was just out of my reach.” In 1969, he got a job at Dolphin Aviation, a private airport that Chicago White Sox owner Arthur Allen was building in Sarasota. Today Ciaravella (pronounced chair-a-vela) owns Dolphin Aviation and four airplanes of his own.

Describe Dolphin Aviation then and now. It was seven acres in 1969 and 25 acres today. There was one building that consisted of one big room. Today we have 200,000 square feet under roof. We have hangar storage and offices. We are a general aviation facility.

If you have an interest in aviation and want to buy a plane, learn to fly, meet someone coming from out of town, you come to Dolphin Aviation. We are like a marina in the sky. We probably have 100 airplanes here during the season, staying for the night, the week, the month or the season. Annual revenues are $12 million to $14 million. I have 30 employees.

What are you best at? Persevering. My favorite slogan is never, never, never give up. My other one is go fast and be happy because life is short.

What are you not so good at? Details.

What life experience helped shape you? Looking at airplanes with my dad, who was a parachute rigger in World War II. I loved airplanes and read every book on airplanes in the library.

After high school, I was working at a clothing store when a friend came by and said he had just come from a flying lesson. He said he would give me a ride if I came to the airport. I was to park at the end of the runway, and he would taxi out and pick me up. So here comes this plane; the door opens and I get in and we take off flying. It was just marvelous. And I am thinking, “I can do this!”

I took a $5 flying lesson and then enrolled in the National Aviation Academy at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport. Later I learned my friend had taken flying lessons but had no license.

How did you get the Dolphin Aviation job? I saw an ad on the back of a magazine that an aviation facility was under construction in Sarasota. I was 21. Mr. Allen, the owner, became my mentor, and working with him changed my life. He taught me the business and he gave me the opportunity to succeed. 

He also made it possible for me to buy Dolphin Aviation from him in 1978. He wanted to sell the airport for $175,000, which would be about $2 million today. I was 29 years old, and it was a staggering amount. But Mr. Allen said, “Here’s what you do,” and he explained a financial arrangement, with delayed payments, that made it possible for me. He was very generous.

What do you want to be doing in five years? Working.

Guilty pleasures? I love to ride my motorcycle. I have a 31-foot powerboat that I love to go jump waves with. And I love to race cars.

What goal have you not achieved? Lots of things. In reality, I have come a lot farther than most people and that is not because I am farther ahead of most people. It is because I started so far behind. The first time I went to the races in Daytona, I had to sleep in the infield because I couldn’t afford to buy a ticket. I was 16. I never for a moment thought I would ever be in a racecar, much less be in my own. Now I am a two-time national champion.

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