Customer Profile: Northwest Gas & Select JetPublished by Andy Sween on Fri, 2014-04-04 13:10
What do a natural gas company, an air charter service and community banking have in common? In Grand Rapids, it’s Mike and Pat Gorham.
This interview was conducted in the hangar office of Select Jet, the air charter business Mike Gorham and his brother, Pat, own and operate. The hangar is at the northwest corner of the runway of the Gordy Newstrom Field in Grand Rapids. Like other aspects of Mike’s business life, the air charter business only happened because he was “in the game.”
“I’ve had many opportunities in my business life, along with bumps in the road that everyone encounters,” said Mike. “But I would say that many of those opportunities didn’t happen until I got into the game. There’s no doubt that luck plays a part in anyone’s success, but you make your own luck to a degree.”
Mike was raised in Mora, Minnesota, a town of 3,600 people 100 miles south of Grand Rapids. His grandfather and a partner started up an Our Own hardware store at which they also sold stoves. They found that their customers in this part of Kanabec County needed propane for those stoves, so they began purchasing and delivering 100-pound bottles of propane from a cooperative owned by Our Own hardware stores 60 miles to the west in Little Falls.
In 1953 Mike’s father opened a bulk propane plant in Mora, and he delivered propane to customers’ 500 and 1000-gallon tanks. The business grew organically and through acquisition. As natural gas lines began to encroach in areas that had been previously served only by propane, competition became more intense. Over time the Northwest Gas Company expanded to include both propane distribution and service as well as natural gas lines.
Another key part of the story needs to be told here: Mike’s and Pat’s father was a pilot. He learned to fly in the 1960s and the boys grew up with flying; they were in the plane with their dad as soon as they could see over the instrument panel. The seeds of Select Jet were planted early.
Mike earned a civil engineering degree in college, and after five years working in the highway and heavy construction industry, he returned home to join the family business in 1981. Northwest Natural Gas is now a business owned by Mike, his brother and sister, and several cousins. The Grand Rapids propane operation was purchased in 1985, and that is how Mike came to do business with Grand Rapids State Bank.
“When we bought the propane business here in town, the previous owners had their business financing through Grand Rapids State Bank,” Mike explained. “We had decided early on that we would do the financing for acquisitions locally, so it was natural to come to GRSB. We didn’t know the Wilcoxes before that time, but we have had a great relationship ever since. Grand Rapids State Bank has been there when we needed them.”
One of the other branches of the far-flung Gorham family enterprise is community banking. Mike’s and Pat’s uncle was a prime mover, along with their father and other community investors, in starting up People’s National Bank of Mora in the 1960s. They felt it was important for Mora to have a strong community bank focused on local families and businesses, and so the hardware business was sold and the bank started up. Mike, his brother and sister all remain part owners of the Mora bank and another in Alexandria.
So back to flying.
“I moved here to Grand Rapids in 1985 because of the propane business,” said Mike. “Our family owned an airplane, and when I arrived it was a good way for me to get back and forth to our operations around the state. Flying was my hobby.
“We saw, though, that this area has several industrial operations where air service is important,” Mike continued. “The companies here, whether it’s paper companies or mining companies or other manufacturing firms, occasionally need to transport their employees or customers when convenience and timeliness are critical.”
The family air charter business grew from one single-engine, six-passenger plane to a piston twin-engine plane to a turboprop plane when Mike got involved. The fleet advanced to a jet, then two jets, and back to one jet. That may change again, depending on customer demands.
“Air charter service is highly regulated,” said Mike, “and while that makes sense at one level, I’m not sure the new regulations are making flying a whole lot safer. Be that as it may, our small charter service has to comply with essentially the same regulations that Delta Airlines complies with, except that the number of point-to-point passengers or freight is limited.
“I’m in the air about one day a week,” said Mike as he leaned back in his desk chair. “We serve hard to reach destinations that scheduled air service carriers don’t or can’t serve. It’s a niche business, but it complements the rest of our operations well.”
No one yet has written the book on successfully managing a gas pipeline and service company along with community banks and an air charter service, but we know someone who could provide a lot of great advice.
Mike Gorham pictured with his Cessna Model 525 Citation Jet hangared at the Gordy Newstrom Field in Grand Rapids.