by Dan Rafter
The DuPage Airport in West Chicago, Illinois, was bleeding money before Daniel Goodwin joined its governing board in late 2002. By the time Goodwin was named chairman of the DuPage Airport Authority in January of 2003, the airport about 29 miles west of Chicago was $26 million in debt and was suffering annual operating losses.
Goodwin, though, changed that. Instituting some of the same business strategies he relies on as principal and chairman of Oak Brook, Illinois-based The Inland Real Estate Group of Companies, Goodwin was able to turn the struggling regional airport into a profitable venture. Today, the airport is completely debt-free. Instead of losing $2 million a year, it now earns a profit of $1 million to $2 million every year.
The airport in Goodwin’s early days received a property tax levy of $18 million. Goodwin helped do away with that, too. Thanks in part to the operating reforms that he and the airport authority’s board members pushed through, the board was able to slash that property tax levy by 67 percent. Every year now, the DuPage Airport Authority rebates $1 million back to the taxpayers of DuPage County.
It’s little surprise, then, that the DuPage Airport Authority earlier this year honored Goodwin, who stepped down from his position on the board in January, by renaming the airport’s flight center The Daniel L. Goodwin Flight Center. The airport authority’s board of commissioners unanimously approved the change in January of this year.
Dan Cronin, board chairman of DuPage County, said that Goodwin’s work at the airport authority is just the latest example of the commercial real estate leader’s efforts to promote sound government.
“This is an example of how to do things right in government,” Cronin said during the flight center’s dedication ceremony.
How did Goodwin turn around an airport that was so heavily in debt? Goodwin said that he followed a simple, but effective, formula: He cut waste. Hired the right people. And ended the political patronage that so plagued the airport.
The big turnaround
Goodwin remembers when the chairman of the DuPage County Board first approached him about the airport.
“I knew about the airport. It was in the newspapers every month with a negative headline,” Goodwin said. “Everyone in the county was aware of the airport and its struggles. The chairman told me that he thought a lot of the problems were political ones, elected officials using the airport for patronage. They would steer their favorite contractors toward the airport. It sounded like a good challenge to me.”
Goodwin, though, agreed to sit on the board but only if politics would be removed from the way the airport was operated. That, Goodwin said, would mean no political influence and no more favored contractors.
“The airport had to be run like a business, even though it is a non-profit,” Goodwin said. “We needed to do anything that could get the DuPage Airport away from the negative headlines. I figured that if I could make this airport a model public agency, that it would be something that could be replicated around the country and with other governmental agencies. That’s how I approached this challenge from the very beginning.”
Goodwin said that once he was elected chairman of the airport authority’s board, he relied on classic organizational development theories. He and the board led a rewrite effort of the airport’s mission statement. They spearheaded a rewriting of the airport’s strategic plans.
And a central theme of this rewritten plan and mission statement? Political influence would no longer have any place at the airport.
Slow, steady change
Goodwin said that one of the first steps the board took was to change the way the airport purchased services and goods. For the first time, the airport would bid everything out and would make sure that there were always multiple bidders on service and work contracts.
Even when the airport bid for contractors in the past, the system was rigged so that the board’s favored contractors won the jobs, Goodwin said. The requirements for winning a bid were set up so that only one favored contractor could actually qualify for a job, he said.
The board and Goodwin changed this.
“You used to end up with one contractor bidding and getting the work every year,” Goodwin said. “Everyone else knew that there was no way they were getting the work. They knew it was fixed.”
With the changes to the bidding process, the airport attracted a steady stream of new bidders, vendors and contractors, Goodwin said. The prices that the airport was paying for goods and services suddenly dropped.
“That was the shot across the bow to the political system,” Goodwin said.
While Goodwin and the board did make changes, they didn’t force them through too quickly. Because of years of patronage, many of the employees working at the airport when Goodwin first arrived on the board weren’t qualified.
But Goodwin didn’t recommend firing these employees immediately. Instead, he and the board waited for the unqualified workers to retire. They then replaced them with employees who were qualified to work at the airport. Some retiring employees were not replaced at all, with their duties split up among the remaining employees at the airport.
Goodwin and the board also changed several of the rules that resulted in an airport workforce that was largely overpaid and under-qualified. For instance, when Goodwin first arrived at the airport, employees who worked on holidays didn’t just receive double pay. They earned triple pay. Goodwin and the board changed that.
There were also five employees who worked in the main office who had their own company cars paid for by the airport. These workers, though, never used the cars during the day for company business. They only used the vehicles for getting to and from the airport each day. Goodwin and the board quickly eliminated those cars and required that the employees drive their own vehicles to and from work.
“We really did change the rules, but we did so in a gradual way,” Goodwin said. “We got through it all without one person filing a lawsuit against us. That’s because we took a more measured approach to make a big change at the airport.”
The results showed that Goodwin’s business theories were just what the DuPage Airport needed. The airport’s annual operating revenues eventually tripled. The airport began advertising for corporations to use the runways. It also began encouraging planes to refuel there. Both measures helped the airport’s revenue jump dramatically, Goodwin said.
Goodwin said that leaving the airport board in January made sense. He’d accomplished his goals, and it was time to seek new challenges, he said.
“I had instituted all the needed reforms,” he said. “We had really made the airport a model operation. All that they have to do now is continue with the practices we put in place. There is nothing more dramatic to do.”
Goodwin said, too, that the airport is in good hands with Steve Davis, who replaced Goodwin as chairman of the DuPage Airport Authority’s board.
Goodwin’s work with the airport authority isn’t an anomaly. Goodwin has earned a reputation for his charitable and philanthropic work during his long career in real estate.
Davis, during the flight center’s dedication ceremony, referenced this, saying, “Dan Goodwin is not only a successful businessman, but he is also a model citizen of DuPage who puts the community and taxpayers first.”
Goodwin said that from the time he was a student in college he wanted to do something to better society. That’s why he went to school to be a teacher and why he taught in the Chicago Public Schools.
After about five years of teaching, though, Goodwin learned something: As a teacher, he could influence a classroom every year. But the public school system had serious problems that he could not influence, just as society as a whole did.
So Goodwin made a decision: To truly make a difference he would need to influence big government agencies and organizations in society with money. Problem was, as a teacher, Goodwin didn’t have much money.
Goodwin left teaching and entered commercial real estate. It took time, but eventually, Goodwin’s knack for deal-making and his knowledge of the local real estate market led him to big success. From about the age of 35 on, Goodwin said, his business was turning a solid profit each year.
That’s when he began participating actively in civic organizations and not-for-profit charitable agencies.
“My bent toward philanthropy isn’t something that I acquired later in life,” Goodwin said. “I’ve had this desire to change things for the better for a long time. The good news now is that I can actually act on it. I can make a difference today.”