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So. Calif.’s Cambe Group flying high in aircraft sales

LOS ANGELES — One morning at Van Nuys Airport, a public facility that sees no major commercial airlines, Dean Cambe was making the rounds of his 20,000-square-foot hangar, which was brimming with about 10 aircraft of varied sizes and models, including a multimillion-dollar Gulfstream.

Originally from Burgos, Pangasinan, Dean remarked that having his own hangar and aviation company was a realization of his “dream of not only owning a business, but being the boss.”

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A family in aircraft business: From left Phillip Cambe, Dean Cambe Sr., Dean Jr. ASIAN JOURNAL PHOTO

Although, for an individual so acquainted and savvy in the intricacies of executive jets, particularly Citations, LearJets, Challengers, Falcons, Hawkers and Gulfstreams – the most recognizable private jet manufacturers – you’d never guess that Dean fell into the industry by chance.

At the age of 18, Dean enlisted in the U.S. Navy to set foot in the United States and held multiple jobs, including cleaning and painting ships.

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After one year of being an enlisted as a boatswain’s mate, he was transferred to an office job as a personnel man.

“Cleaning and painting a ship – that is not what I came here to America for,” he recalled. “That wasn’t an easy job – I was so dirty every day, paint all over my face and clothes and sweating. I looked at my fellow servicemen and noticed they were clean and not working as hard as I was.”

After a year of being a personnel man, Dean saw his cousin in San Francisco who worked for United Airlines, and inspired yet another request for transfer into a different naval department: aviation.

Starter mechanic

He recalled, “Being a starter mechanic, I felt like I was being watched by everyone. If I’d make any little mistake, I know that there were around 50 technicians out there running around who knew I screwed up. I lost some sleep over it. There were times when I did something but I doubted how I did it, whether right or wrong, so then I had to wake up in the middle of the night and find myself re-doing or re-inspecting my work all over again. I would go back to work. That was stressful.”

He moved on to work as an aircraft mechanic at Point Mugu, a Navy Air Station in Ventura County. Once he decided to leave the Navy, he spent several years working at various private companies, as a mechanic at Hughes Aircraft Company, a mechanic at The Air Group, a manager at Roig West, and vice president of operations, then president within six months, at Thomason Aircraft.

At the last aircraft company, he gained more exposure and polished his ability to run his own business. He was given the opportunity to manage the entire aircraft operations including all departments: accounting, aircraft sales, marketing, FAR 145 repair Station Airframe/Turbine Jet, avionics and piston maintenance, inspection, aerobatic, FAR 135 charter operator and sales, international parts sales and domestic parts sales.

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Venturing solo

Then, one aircraft charter operator offered him a managing position and the opportunity to collaborate and start a business. There was one small problem attached to the offer: They needed a hangar.

He began calling contacts he knew in Van Nuys that manage hangars, like Michael McDaniels, who found the lone hangar available; but a major competitor was about to acquire that same facility. However, Dean’s contact said the hangar could be his if he could make it Long Beach in less than two hours – before the other company representative was slated to come in – and write out checks for a down payment of $30,000, which would fund the first and last months of rent.

He raced down south and issued the two checks, successfully securing the facility. And as he walked out of the building, he he bumped into the competitor walking in. “The timing in that instance counted for a lot,” he noted.

From his successful acquisition of the hangar, VIP Jet Services was born in 2002.

Today, VIP Jet Services is under the Cambe Group (of which Dean serves as the CEO), the parent company that provides international aircraft consultation, aircraft sales, asset procurement, business development and consulting.

A family business

His two sons, Phillip, 37, and Dean Jr., 35, are his business partners who have been integral in boosting the company’s online presence, enabling it to reach wider audiences worldwide.

“These days, my two sons are the ones who are making the most decisions in the company,” Dean said.

Phillip, who studied business management and computer information systems at San Francisco State University, was working for Adobe when his father and brother called him to say they were starting a new company. Though he had minimal knowledge of aviation, Phillip decided to join the family business after seeing the potential for it to expand.

“The reason why I wanted to do it was to grow [the business with my dad]. I really didn’t know much about aviation back then. I knew more about programming and accounting. I went to college about business so I used a lot of the knowledge I had learning from books and applied it to the company,” Phillip said.

He learned everything he could about the aviation industry from his dad, who brought in his years of experience working for other companies. One of Phillip’s main takeaways while at VIP Jet Services was learning how to troubleshoot.

“[My dad] taught me everything, but even now it’s still a learning process,” Phillip added.

Phillip is now head of Avilist, which he founded in 2008 as a company that sells parts of commercial, regional and corporate aircrafts domestically and internationally.

“Phil is very, very smart. If you tell him something, he’ll do it. Sometimes he’s too ahead. What’s good about him is that if you have an idea, he’ll accept it right away,” Dean said.

The youngest Cambe, Dean Jr., whose background is in computer networking, is owner and operator of VIP Jet Services, which handles aircraft inspection, management, avionics and sales.

Together, the brothers manage the family company’s back-end operations, particularly in running the websites, accounting and marketing.

Thriving, downsizing

Like most businesses, the Cambes were thriving before the recession, managing 50 employees and two hangars, and drawing in sizable revenues each month.

However, they had to cut back on their operations, leaving only the three of them to handle every aspect of the business themselves. Admittedly, downsizing was a blessing in disguise and significantly reduced their burdens.

“Once the recession hit, we had to downsize and I think, it brought us even closer based on being able to work together. All of us were hit pretty hard by the recession so what we did was work closer and understood each other, where we were at and where we come from,” Phillip said.

“That’s how I became really hands on. Since we didn’t have employees, all three of us had to do the work, whether it was doing the accounting or working outside. I feel like we’re a lot closer now compared to pre-recession,” he added.

With the ongoing recovery of the United States economy, Dean is increasingly optimistic about business opportunities and the demand for private jets in Asia and the Middle East.

“In this industry, you cannot just stop here in the United States,” he said. “The business is around the world.” The U.S. though will always remain the hub of his company.

Dean frequently travels around the world to service clients, fix jets, consult on aircrafts, buy/sell and deliver airplanes from foreign countries to the United States and vice versa. His company already services jets that come from far corners of the globe, including the Philippines, Dubai, Hong Kong, France, Malaysia and Singapore.

“Someday I will start a company in Asia. Hopefully, I can share some of what I learned and see what I’ve learned after so many years of being in the industry. It’s a matter of people recognizing that, and the potential of what I can offer,” he said.

Confident

Though Dean is one of the few Filipino Americans in the industry, his previous experiences working in a hotel and in the United States Navy – where he interacted with individuals similar to his current clientele – have allowed him to feel like he fits right in.  Dealing with mechanics and employees in aviation was much harder, according to Dean, but he has never felt out of place while interacting with private jet owners.

“As long as you’re confident, and you’re honest, and you know what you’re talking about without circling around, you’ll gain respect,” he said.

“We’re trying to get [our dad] away from working on aircraft — because he’s getting older and will eventually retire in a couple of years — so the Cambe Group was established so he didn’t have to be as hands-on with the aircraft. All he has to do is sell aircraft. For VIP Jet Services, my goal is…to have it grow to its potential to where we were back then [before the recession],” Phillip said.

In addition to expansion plans, Dean wants to give back to the country that inspired him to dream big, strive for a better life and rooted him with grit that led to all his achievements. One day, he envisions opening up a technical school in the Philippines that would allow Filipinos to learn the craft of aviation.

“It’s the greatest legacy I’ll ever have,” he said.

A father’s lessons

“For as long as I’m here, they’re still learning,” Dean shared, adding that working together has opened up an exchange of knowledge among the three of them.

While some conflicts at work may arise, the Cambes have learned to find a way manage them.

“Sometimes you have to be a balancing act. Of course the arguments are there — sometimes one will want something done one way, while the other wants it in a different way,” Phillip added. “Eventually we’ll get to a middle ground.”

For Phillip, working alongside his father and brother for seven days a week, has strengthened his ability to deal with others and their relationships.

“Though I knew how to work with other people, working with family is a whole different story because you see them during the day, working hours and then after hours. You’re constantly with them. When I first started, I would ask, ‘I have to be with them for the weekend?’ Now that I see it, [not a lot of people] can be with their families all the time. It made us closer being together 12 hours a day for seven days a week,” he said.

However, above all, Dean stressed the importance of family and taking care of one’s self. Growing up, Phillip and Dean Jr. saw Dean working two jobs and 12-hour days, yet still made time to be involved with their school activities.

Very strict

“My dad is very strict — he shows a lot of tough love. We have to be good at everything, whether it’s sports or academics, and excel. He would tell us to not let anybody push you down  and you can achieve anything. From that, what I’ve learned is what I’m going to instill in my son. He has to be able to do everything academically and physically,” Phillip said.

Now a father himself, Phillip said that what he learned from Dean is helping guide how to raise his own son.

“Now it’s my time to do that for my son as well. No matter how much I work, I should be able to be involved and attend all of his school and sports [activities]. Whatever my dad instilled in me to succeed, I’m going instill in my son,” he said.

And being a grandfather is a different experience for Dean, he admitted — one he never used to understand until Phillip had a son.

“When [my grandson] comes to the office, and I’m stressed out, everything stops,” Dean said. “But the best thing for me as a dad is to see your children every day working with you.”

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TAGS: aircraft maintenance, aircraft sales, aircraft sales and acquisitions, Avilist, Cambe & Sons, Cambe Group, Challengers, citations, Falcons, Gulfstreams, Hawkers, Hughes Aircraft Company, LearJets, Roig West, The Air Group, Thomason Aircraft, Van Nuys Airport
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