Profiles in Change: SUN ’n FUN’s new president

At a time when our GA institutions seem in transition, plagued by leadership changes and questions of fiscal stability and stewardship, it seems SUN ’n FUN got a head start on fixes. Its new leadership is now in gear and beginning to roll.

A recent visit with new President John “Lites” Leenhouts was my second, but I came away even more impressed. His military and business background — Navy captain, 10,000-hour aviator, F-18 retrofit program manager — not only defines a disciplined approach to management, it suffuses the staff. All are taking a new approach to SUN ’n FUN’s current realities and its enlightened vision of the future. No wishful thinking here.

Rather than continuing “business as usual,” Leenhouts found that SUN ’n FUN “didn’t have a vision.” He was elated to get the job, confront fiscal realities and keep SUN ’n FUN viable and relevant.

“We pay for 180 acres on the Lakeland airport; we can’t just put on one airshow,” he said a few weeks before this year’s event took off. “And we can’t always bet on a good SUN ’n FUN each year. This place is perfect for an aviation Mecca. Thus, Sun-n-Fun’s new vision tilts more towards education and inspiration as a way to get people back in aviation.”

That’s why Leenhouts hired an executive director of education rather than another director of the Florida Air Museum. In fact, SUN ’n FUN has largely abolished the parallel organization overseeing the museum, which in recent years was functioning essentially as a separate entity. All this will transition a static (and underutilized) aviation museum into a vibrant, hands-on learning center for aerospace education.

And the fiscal realities of recent years have led to more tough medicine. Leenhouts trimmed the SUN ’n FUN staff to 20 (four of these part-time) from the previous 30. And as new management rebuilds the organization’s finances, they even watch how much paper is used in the office.

Says Leenhouts, “I’m not here to make money, just to pay the bills.”

And to be sure fly-in participants are acknowledged as what makes SUN ’n FUN fun, he lowered the fly-in admission price this year. “I gotta give ‘em a break,” he says.

The other side of that equation: Exhibitors and vendors who want to see pilots, not just “the stroller brigade” of weekending locals and their kids. He’s shortened airshow time to allow exhibitors more crowd attention. He offered a 15% discount to new vendors or those returning after an absence. And he built up the Paradise City area and made it home to LSA manufacturers. They will be able to demo their products there all day now, even during the afternoon airshow.

Leenhouts says that, as a youth, “he was going nowhere until I found purpose in aviation.”

He earned a mechanical engineering degree with an aerospace minor at Oklahoma State, then won his Navy “Wings of Gold” in 1975. Rated in the A-7 Corsair II attack jet, the F-14 and F-18, he took on Landing Signal Officer duties aboard ship — a first step towards progressive leadership positions culminating in commander, Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic.

He idolizes great leaders in Navy history and adheres to high principles of leadership: Motivating and taking care of your people, sharing the load among them and balancing the mix of critique and praise. One thing about the Navy, he says: “They never let up on you. Egos get put aside. You learn to take criticism well.”

This is active, involved leadership that’s already reflected down the line among staff.

He’s not all GI, mind you. In fact, he’s a 30-year participant and performer at SUN ’n FUN, ranging from under-wing camping, with his wife Nancy, and fly-ins or show performances in a 1946 Stampe, 1941 Stearman or 1940 Luscombe. Other years, he’s done show visits or aerial demonstrations in Navy A-7s and F-18s.

He’s an airplane guy who wants to “bring this back to what it was meant to be. We are a fly-in for the aviation community and for the enthusiast with his or her dream.”

Leenhouts and SUN ’n FUN are looking to the future, not the past. And in this new organization, I see coordination, drive, well-defined purpose and renewed spirit. In this, SUN ’n FUN may be leading the pack among our long-time GA institutions.

In these times, we know things will have to change. New realities and new opportunities demand it. I am happy to see change well underway at SUN ’n FUN.

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