Tom Bertels, managing partner at Sullivan Higdon & Sink, fell in love with aviation as a boy.
He would look through old encyclopedias to learn about the parts of an airplane. And he saved money from his newspaper route to buy a ride on a seaplane at Lake of the Ozarks.
He was hooked.
“It’s a disease, isn’t it,” Bertels joked about his passion.
A pilot with instrument and commercial ratings and a former air traffic controller, Bertels is involved in most of the agency’s ongoing client relationships in Wichita and Washington.
About a third of its Wichita business is in the aviation industry.
Sullivan Higdon & Sink employs about 100 people in Wichita and Kansas City. It employs a “couple” of people in Washington, D.C.
Bertels, 58, grew up in northeast Kansas in Nortonville. After high school, he joined the Navy and worked as an air traffic controller.
After the Navy, he worked for six years as an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration but was caught in the 1981 strike when President Reagan fired thousands of air traffic controllers for walking off the job.
Bertels then went to the University of Kansas, where he majored in communications. After college, he worked at the former King Radio, then joined the Avion Group in Kansas City, where he became a partner. Avion was acquired by Sullivan Higdon. Eventually, Bertels joined the former Raytheon Aircraft as vice president of marketing, then rejoined SHS in 2001.
In aviation, clients include Spirit AeroSystems, Pratt & Whitney, Lycoming, Rocketdyne, TECT, Sojourn and others — everything from small planes to rockets.
Most recently, it worked with Cessna Aircraft on the unveiling of its new Citation Longitude business jet.
At SHS, one team works on aviation, aerospace and defense business. Another is dedicated to its business with Cargill.
A third focuses on local and regional accounts, including the Kansas Health Foundation, Intrust Bank and Westar Energy.
Bertels and his wife, Karen, have a son and a daughter and one grandchild.
When not working, he likes to read, play guitar and is learning to play the banjo.
Q. You just returned from the European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition in Geneva, Europe’s biggest business jet show. Cessna and Bombardier announced three new products there. Why do you go, and how was it?
A. I was really surprised that the attendance looked as good as it was. I thought this might be a tough year attendance wise. … (The show) used to be small and intimate. (Today,) it does look and feel like a large show … (With the announcements) in the past, I don’t know five years ago they (Cessna and Bombardier) would have done that at EBACE. … It’s a vote of confidence for (the show) that the clients have chosen to announce new products there.
Q. What’s the most fun part of your job?
A. The most fun part is the upfront strategic work — the tone of the brand, what we’re trying to communicate; what we’re trying to have happen. It’s still kind of thrilling to see that (work) be out there in the public and get results for the client.
Q. What’s your biggest challenge?
A. There are a lot of choices now in how you expose your client’s brand to the target audience, between social media and other digital media. … The challenge is to make sure we’re really reaching the target audience. … It used to be we would discuss whether digital should be part of a communication plan. Now, we talk about not whether it has a role, but what role it will play. Everybody is using the Internet. People are using Web apps. They’re using iPads, iPhones. One of the challenges is you never know how somebody is going to access that information. … You’ve got to make sure the content you’re creating is friendly no matter how someone finds it.
Q. Sullivan Higdon & Sink’s focus, as you call it, runs from “farm to fork.” What do you mean?
A. What happens on a farm or on a ranch all the way to food that goes in our mouth. We actively are looking for new clients within those categories. (Merial Limited, a large animal health business, is the largest customer.) In Wichita, Cargill fits into that. It’s a fairly new focus area for us. But it’s important to us, and we’re finding a lot of opportunities there.
Q. You mentioned the similarities between your work as an air traffic controller and what you do now. How so?
A. When you’re a controller, you’re basically looking at a scope. And you throw a bunch of nickels down on the table almost, and it’s up to you to get all those nickels lined up with the right spacing and attitudes. There’s a lot of creativity. There’s a lot of fast decisions that have to be made. It’s very fast paced. The pace is really similar. Never knowing exactly what’s going to happen is very similar.