Things were in a "pretty pathetic state" when Paul Benoit took the helm at the Ottawa International Airport in 1996, he recalls.
Paul Benoit, Ottawa Airport Authority CEO.
Passengers had to drag their bags through snowy parking lots to access the terminal. The federal government was preparing to download responsibility for running airports across the country to local authorities. It resembled, as one former chairperson recently said in hindsight, a third-world airfield.
Since then, Mr. Benoit oversaw half a billion dollars in upgrades that turned the Ottawa airport into an award-winning facility that breaks passenger records year after year and is a catalyst for development in the immediate surrounding area.
On Wednesday, Mr. Benoit announced he'd be retiring as CEO next February after more than 16 years on the job.
Previously the vice-president of operations and marketing for the Montréal-Mirabel International Airport, Mr. Benoit arrived in Ottawa in 1996 to find a facility that hadn't undergone a major renovation program in a decade.
If that wasn't enough of a challenge, he also had to complete the airport's transition from federal ownership to standing on its own two feet - only four months after his arrival. The federal government had previously established a national airport policy, effective in 1994, to establish local airport authorities to manage their respective facilities. In Ottawa, that transition was supposed to be finished by February 1997.
The big question facing his mind at that point was "how do you set up a company when you come in with one employee," said Mr. Benoit in an interview Wednesday. "There are 100 things that go into there ... operations, financing plans, everything."
Infrastructure upgrades began shortly afterwards. A new, $3.4-million United States pre-clearance facility was up and running only four months after the airport authority was established.
It was sorely needed. Montreal airports were bussing passengers from Ottawa to their own facilities for international flights, removing that source of income from local coffers, recalled past board chair David Gavsie.
Mr. Gavsie was the first chair of the new authority board, which hired Mr. Benoit. The CEO's "airline and airports" experience was his main selling point, as well as his "take-charge" attitude, but the board acknowledged there were big hurdles ahead.
"We were a bit leery if Paul would really try and build various flights and different destinations for Ottawa, but he did it. Especially when that pre-clearance facility opened. It just opened a gateway to the U.S.," recalled Mr. Gavsie, a former Ogilvy Renault lawyer who is now the Toronto-based chair of the Ontario Civilian Police Commission.
Then Mr. Benoit turned his attention turned to creating an airport master plan to upgrade the facilities.
The result, raised entirely from bond money, was a $310-million passenger terminal building completed in 2003, and expanded in a second, $95-million phase in 2008. A $60-million parking expansion, in three stages, took place between 2004 and 2010 to support the extra capacity.
The successful, rapid expansion under private ownership is proof that the government should "get out of business they shouldn't be in," according to Mr. Benoit.
"An example is why does the government own the CN Tower? Do you want to save some money at the end of the day? Private-public partnerships work as long as neither side is greedy and tries to abuse the other."
Claude Bennett was the airport board chair for nine years, through most of the expansion. He said Mr. Benoit's no-nonsense attitude was beneficial to keeping things on track.
"Paul can be a bit of a bull in a china shop, but he gets things done," Mr. Bennett said.
"Whether dealing with Air Canada or other people, he has the ability to - at times, I admit - ruffle a few feathers to get people moving in whatever direction he's hoping for."
Smaller upgrades have been ongoing in the past couple of years, including runway lighting, adding snow removal and fire trucks, and a $17-million runway rehabilitation project that will complete in 2013.
All told, about $500 million of infrastructure upgrades came in under Mr. Benoit's tenure - all on time and on budget, according to the airport.
"He was an exceptional president who took Ottawa from a third-world airport to a first-class airport worthy of a G8 capital," wrote Jim Durrell, past chair of the Ottawa airport's board, in an e-mail.
"His passion, knowledge and leadership were essential in making it happen," added the recent winner of an OBJ/Ottawa Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award.
In the past few years, the airport has continually broken passenger records. In 2011, the airport recorded 4.62 million trips, a 3.4-per-cent increase from last year, due to increased domestic and U.S. flight traffic.
In recent years, the airport has also bolstered its international connections with direct flights to London and Frankfurt. The airport recently ranked first overall in North America and second globally among airports of its size in an annual customer service benchmarking survey.
Meanwhile, the airport is spurring development on the surrounding lands, which now feature a hotel, trade show space and retail stores on Hunt Club Road.
"With the CE Centre here, the airport hotels are now seeing a tremendous uptake in their occupancy," Mr. Benoit said.
The airport is undertaking an executive search shortly for Mr. Benoit's replacement.
Mr. Benoit disclosed few details about what kind of candidate is being sought, or where the airport is looking, except to say it is engaging a search firm for assistance and is leaving it open for the right candidate to step forward.
While saying he remains focused on closing out his last few months, Mr. Benoit said he was pleased to see the city come of age, and the airport's assistance in helping the city get to that point.
"At the end of the day, how do you do it? You put together a hell of a team because on your own, you can't do it. You have great people," Mr. Benoit said.
He compares the airport to a small city, with "great deputy city managers in every department. That's where you start. There's no single one person or event. It's everybody. That's the reality of it."
Mr. Gavsie said Mr. Benoit's departure is a large loss not only in Ottawa, but to the Canadian airport community because of his institutional memory and know-how.
"I fly into Ottawa quite often, and I can tell you I have so much pride in seeing that facility, and what Paul and his people have done with it. It's one of the best airports for its size and passenger count in the world."