As the gates opened April 21 for the 41st annual SUN ‘n FUN, officials were celebrating the fact that the organization is officially debt free.
“Once I did the due diligence and financial review, I wondered ‘where does the money go?” he said.
After that, top officials began reviewing every single contract and all overhead costs and started cutting “non-essential things,” he said.
“We put a plan together to get out of debt,” he continued, noting the organization was making a $27,000 debt payment every month, which left little to keep operations going. That’s why the line of credit was needed.
Staff was reduced — the fly-in has only 20 staff members, relying on more than 3,000 volunteers to do much of the heavy lifting. Expenses were reduced, with Lites even managing to cut the electric bill.
Next step was to increase revenues. That meant hosting more events on the grounds, such as the annual When Pigs Fly South BBQ competition and more. Of course, the annual fly-in remains the organization’s biggest money maker.
“We walked into last year’s show with a line of credit approaching three-quarters of a million dollars,” he noted. “We paid that off after the show and haven’t borrowed on it since.”
“We’ve been paying on the debt aggressively,” he continued, noting funds that normally would have been spent on capital improvements went towards the debt.
And while the organization was making progress, the debt stilled weighed heavy on Lites.
“In November, a wise and successful businessman saw what we were doing with the Aerospace Center for Excellence and asked ‘what keeps you up at night?” Lites recalled.
Lites immediately said the debt and the businessman, who wants to remain anonymous, asked “would $1 million help?”
“We got the money on Friday afternoon and paid off all our debt on Tuesday,” Lites said.
The final payoff was $850,000 and Lites offered to give the remaining balance back to the businessman, but he declined, telling Lites to put it to good use.
Those funds were used to bring on a new staff member, a volunteer who had been working on the SUN ’n FUN scholarship program.
“We never stopped giving scholarships,” Lites said, noting the organization gives more than $430,000 annually to flight and maintenance training scholarships.
Now that the organization is debt free, it can really concentrate on its mission, which is “Building a Better Future Through Aviation,” he said.
“We’re filling cockpits and hangars with young people,” Lites said. “Now I know I can’t convince every kid on the planet to get involved in aviation, but if you do get involved, what you learn are decision-making tools, accountability, situational awareness and confidence — all of which build better citizens. All of these skills apply whether the person becomes a doctor, lawyer or a landscaper.”