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"Go fast, help others, be happy" philosophy keeps dolphin aviation soaring in sarasota

Ask Ron Ciaravella, owner of Dolphin Aviation at Sarasota–Bradenton International Airport (KSRQ), how the two-time national vintage race car champion, Learjet pilot and former international salesman for Cessna tripled the size of his FBO, and he’ll start interviewing you.

For Ciaravella seems more interested in learning about others than in talking about his own success building an FBO serving the Florida Gulf Coast and its growing Sarasota-Bradenton region – where brilliant white sand beaches, blossoming tropical flowers, plush golf courses, a fertile performing arts schedule, and tile-capped Venetian-style second homes summon Midwestern CEOs for the winter.

It's been 47 years since a young Ciaravella taught flight instruction at Dolphin Aviation before taking a big financial leap to buy the place in 1979. He steadily transformed it from a quaint FBO into what is now a full-fledged, 24-7 bastion of Gulf Coast aviation. From one building on seven acres, the FBO has become a 25-acre facility featuring 100,000 square feet of ramp and 200,000 square feet of buildings. Ciaravella quadrupled the number of employees, while multiplying hangar space five times over. And since the day Ciaravella bought Dolphin Aviation it has been a Phillips 66® Aviation branded dealer. "It's always been good to work with Phillips 66," said Ciaravella. "The aviation business succeeds by building productive relationships, and we have a very good relationship with them.”

Aviation Industry Incubator

What really stirs Ciaravella’s entrepreneurial spirit is the FBO’s Dolphin Aviation Commerce Center – an incubator of sorts that affords aviation entrepreneurs the opportunity to start a business without the heavy investment required to buy land and build facilities.

"We’re probably a little different because we have our Aviation Commerce Center, a myriad of independent businesses that perform aviation services,” explained Ciaravella. "It’s helped make aviation a force in this marketplace where it may not have been done as well as it’s being done now.”

While the FBO provides full-service pilot and crew offerings, the Dolphin Aviation Commerce Center hosts a diverse range of firms, including flight schools, three Part 141 repair stations, aircraft brokerage companies, avionics and even non-aviation tenants like retail, a computer-assisted testing service and a manufacturer of organic e-liquids for electronic cigarettes.

"Activity breeds activity,” said Ciaravella. "We grew with the marketplace and provided a little niche. The barrier entry to the aviation industry here is real estate. I had land, and fortunately for me, owned all the improvements. We just tried to figure out a way to make aviation grow in our community.”

Dolphin’s "incubator” approach is a revelation, considering Ciaravella’s original business model. The former flight instructor dove into aircraft sales and in 1977 Ciaravella was one of five international salesmen for Cessna. After buying Dolphin, he did it all: started a commuter airline, ran an air ambulance, performed scheduled air carrier service, flew freight, had an aviation shop, a flight department, even a fleet of 11 Learjets at one time.

"At the time, manufacturers would tell FBOs to do all those things, which is hard to do,” explained Ciaravella. "After a while, I realized that. So I sold our flight school to a French company, leased them space. And that started it.

"There are so many people that want to be in the aviation business, I just didn’t realize how many,” he remarked.

Focus on Fuel Prices

Dolphin’s main draw, he said, is "very competitively priced” fuel – and the Phillips 66 depot in nearby Tampa, part of an extensive national network of supply terminals, keeps the jet juice flowing.

There are two reasons Dolphin Aviation focuses on fuel pricing, according to Ciaravella. First, because Florida economy relies on ad valorem taxes, not state income taxes, there are a number of small businesses with airplanes. Second, this popular resort destination draws its share of recreational pilots; lower fuel prices help them fly more often.

This is a place where it’s easy to spend the present. It’s no wonder general aviation pilots, snowbirds and companies seek refuge in Sarasota. Framed by barrier islands begging to be explored, there is an abundance of sport fishing, world-class golf, high-end shopping, Venetian mansions and cultural treasures like the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (housing both the world’s largest miniature circus and biggest collection of 17th century canvasses by Flemish artist Paul Rubens).

But Ciaravella tends to look forward. And part of that future is helping high school seniors with scholarships, which Dolphin Aviation has been awarding for 15 years.

"We try to do as much civic work as we can to bring aviation into our community,” Ciaravella said. "For the scholarships, I try to get the latchkey kids, single-parent kids having a hard time. They usually work. They are overlooked. Some of the stories they write, well if I’m having a bad day I read those and realize I’m not having a bad day at all.”

That sense of community is woven throughout the FBO’s team, many of whom are what Ciaravella calls legacy employees. Depth of management, a NATA 1st-certified line crew, and welcoming customer service reps working a spacious lobby lounge have created fans of Dolphin Aviation.

"We just try to provide a good service and don’t try to be more than what we are,” Ciaravella said.

Humble words from a man who once was a latchkey kid himself, pulling a lawn mower by bicycle to his customers’ homes and dreaming of aviation with little of hope of ever learning to fly. If adversity builds character, as Ciaravella says, then it worked for this Ybor City, Florida native, who ended up racing a vintage 800-horesepower Pratt & Miller Spice GTP, soaring over waves in his Baja Outlaw powered by roaring Corvette small-blocks, doing private investment banking, and transforming a sleepy FBO into a successful Dolphin Aviation Commerce Center.

"Go fast and be happy because life is short,” he said.

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