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Award Winner: Shirley Wikner, Aviation Charter

2017 WomenVenture Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: Social Entrepreneur Award

Walk through the doors of Aviation Charter and you’ll be greeted by smiling personnel and the smell of fresh-baked cookies. Known for its excellence in customer service, Aviation Charter has been serving the aviation needs of the Upper Midwest for 30 years. As the largest on-demand air charter company in the region, they cover the United States, Canada, and Mexico, providing services for corporate flights, organ transplant teams, patient transport, and airline freight. Just beyond the welcoming entrance, you’ll find the office of Shirley Wikner, President and CEO and one of the few women in a male-dominated field. She is also the owner of Executive Aviation, a first-class terminal for charter clients and incoming business aircraft with a top-notch maintenance facility and fuel service business.

Aviation Charter got its start when Shirley met Roger Wikner, a banker with a love of flying. The pair soon decided to go into business, obtaining their aircraft charter certificate. Roger handled the business’ finances, while Shirley took responsibility for the day-to-day operations. Within 5 years, they began constructing their flagship facility, Executive Aviation, a 30,000 sq. ft. facility located at Flying Cloud Airport. As their business continued to take off, they added a 12,000 sq. ft. storage facility to house managed aircraft and their own growing fleet of planes, and purchased a commercial fuel farm to pump fuel at cost and provide additional revenue.

Although successful, the business weathered its share of turbulence. During the recession of 2007, hometown carriers Northwest Airlines, Sun Country, and Mesaba Aviation all declared bankruptcy, forcing Aviation Charter to write-off large amounts of receivables. Then in 2011, Roger suffered a traumatic brain injury and Shirley found herself running the business solo. At the same time, their longtime bank was acquired and the new bank no longer wanted a woman-run aviation company as part of its portfolio. Shirley was forced to seek out a new banking relationship, a process that would ultimately take three years and one that was further complicated by Roger’s untimely passing in 2012.

A savvy businesswoman, Shirley knew she would need help to successfully take her business to the next level. She found it in WomenVenture’s Scale Up! Twin Cities program, a 31-week course that provides critical resources and support to established women-owned businesses that are ready for exponential growth.  “I came to Scale Up! because I wanted to get a better grasp on business management, especially the financial arm,” says Shirley.  “I loved learning about finances. The difference was just night and day. I have an amazingly better grasp on cash flow.”

Shirley has used this knowledge to steer her business into profitable, recession-proof niche markets, such as shuttling aircraft parts and mechanics for Delta airlines. Aviation Charter is also the primary carrier for the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic organ procurement teams, as well as LifeSource’s organ transplant teams in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. 

It’s the latter work of which Shirley is the most proud. A longtime champion of Lifesource’s mission, Shirley gives generously of both her time and her finances to provide assistance to organ transplant recipients and members of donating families. She has twice been honored with LifeSource’s “Advocate of the Year” award. Says Shirley, “My goal for Aviation Charter is to leave a legacy. A percentage of all our profits is donated to LifeSource.” 

Today, Aviation Charter employs a staff of 54 and operates a fleet of 10 aircraft providing charter services 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In the last year alone, they have flown 700 organ donation flights for LifeSource and that number continues to grow. Shirley was recently named the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Minnesota Small Business Person of the Year. For her compassion and long-term commitment to helping those in need of organ transplant, WomenVenture is pleased to name Shirley Wikner our 2017 Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained Social Entrepreneur. 

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