Michael O'Connor Omaha World Herald
Robert Duncan Worked from Ground Up Building Aviation Firm
October 13, 2012
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  • By Michael O’Connor

    Robert Duncan started on the ground level of the aviation industry, washing planes and pumping fuel into Cessnas and Beechcrafts.

    He was 14, and he worked at the aviation business his father, Donald, founded in 1956.

    The younger Duncan’s entry into the field was modest, but his business skills would mature and grow strong, helping turn Lincoln-based Duncan Aviation into the country’s largest family-owned company for business aviation including maintenance, modification and sales.

    Duncan’s accomplishments, leadership and community contributions led to his crowning Saturday night as the 116th king of Ak-Sar-Ben during a gala pageant at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha.

    Duncan, 70, was born in Clarinda, Iowa, and said his parents were big influences in his life.

    His mother, Betty, now 93, provided stability, strong values and a love of learning.

    He learned hard work from his father, an Iowa farm boy who sold ag implements and automobiles in Clarinda before moving into aviation. His father didn’t talk about the importance of hard work. He demonstrated it every day.

    His father would arrive at the aviation business at 5 a.m. and work until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. He was a skilled salesman who sold about 450 Learjets before he died in 1981 at 58. As a tribute to his ability to work the phones, a phone was placed in his casket.

    “He set the standard,” Robert Duncan said.

    The younger Duncan, who moved with his family to Omaha during high school, soaked up his father’s work ethic and drive.

    Robert sold his first aircraft while a teenager.

    For more coverage of the 2012 Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Scholarship Ball, visit Omaha.com/aksarben

    He completed his first solo flight on his 16th birthday in a Piper Cub. He earned his private pilot’s license on his 17th birthday, and his commercial license on his 18th.

    At that same age, Duncan flew his first charter flight, taking several businessmen to Mason City, Iowa.

    When he was 26, only three years after graduating from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., he was named president of Duncan Aviation.

    The company continued to grow. In the early 1980s, Duncan led an important change.

    At the time, the company was focused primarily on sales. But the industry had shifted toward direct sales between customers and manufacturers, virtually eliminating the need for a middleman like Duncan Aviation.

    Duncan moved the company’s focus from sales to service, a change that became a key element of the company’s longterm success.

    He also took the important step of forming an outside board of advisers. The board provides sound advice that helps the company prosper, he said.

    When he took over in the 1960s, Duncan Aviation was a small sales shop with about a dozen employees.

    The company now has more than 2,000 employees and more than 18,000 customers worldwide, and is considered one of the industry’s leaders in both maintenance and avionics.

    Duncan said he’s made many decisions in his life, but his best one goes back to his junior high school days in Clarinda.

    That’s when he started dating a girl named Karen Kay Kent. She would eventually become his wife.

    She was an intelligent, pretty, brown-haired cheerleader with an outgoing personality. Their early dates included dances and visits to the local drug store for cherry Cokes.

    He and Karen, also a Clarinda native, married in 1965.

    The Duncans’ two children followed their father into the family businesses.

    Their son, Todd, is married to Connie Duncan, and they have twin sons. Todd Duncan is chairman of Duncan Aviation in Lincoln.

    Their daughter, Paige, is married to Jonathan Henning and they have two daughters and a young son. Paige serves as chairwoman of Bank Iowa, a family-owned multibank holding company with banks in 21 Iowa communities. She and her family live in Lincoln.

    Karen Duncan said her husband never pressured their children to join him in business.

    “He wanted them to grow up and be happy,” she said. “But he’s pleased they did want to go into it.”

    Todd Duncan remembers traveling with his dad on business trips when he was a boy.

    He said his dad set a great example of how to treat customers.

    “I learned how important your word was,” the younger Duncan said. “It’s about people and relationships.”

    Robert Duncan turned over day-to-day management of the company in 2007 to the third generation, but he continues to serve on its board as chairman emeritus.

    He remains an active pilot. He and Karen fly to Duncan Aviation locations across the United States in such places as Chicago, St. Paul, Minn., and Battle Creek, Mich.

    He said meeting employees is rewarding. He wants all employees, even those who aren’t at the company headquarters, to know they are essential to the company’s success.

    “We want to make sure they feel they are part of the organization,” he said.

    He loves flying planes, but also enjoys hitting the road on his Harley. Last year he and a friend rode their motorcycles to Alaska, with Karen and their dog, Chica, following in a pickup.

    During his career, Duncan has received numerous business and civic awards.

    He said he is honored that the Ak-Sar-Ben organization selected him as king.

    “It speaks to the inclusiveness of Ak-Sar-Ben that they would choose someone from outside the city of Omaha,” he said.

    He said Ak-Sar-Ben is an important civic organization that provides an important boost to the community and region through its fundraising efforts.

    Duncan said even though he is an Iowa native, he has developed a love and appreciation for Nebraska. He said Lincoln and the state have been a wonderful place to grow his business, partly because of the strong educational system.

    But he’s passionate about more than business.

    He and Karen love the visual arts and have traveled internationally searching for works. They have collected 1,800 pieces from across the United States including New York City and Nebraska, and other parts of the world such as Switzerland, England, Germany, Mexico and South America.

    Their collection has been featured in many publications including Art and Antiques and Nebraska Life, and in a July story in The World-Herald.

    He credits Karen with helping develop his love of the arts. She played piano growing up and studied organ music at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She’s the former board president of the Nebraska Chamber Orchestra.

    The Duncans run an artist-residency program in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with some friends, Lincoln businessman Marc LeBaron and his wife, Kathy,

    Duncan also serves on numerous boards such as Kaneko, Sheldon Museum of Art, Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and the Museum of Nebraska Art.

    Community activities remain an essential part of his life. His board and civic service has included the Lincoln Community Foundation, the Nebraska Wesleyan Board of Governors and the Lincoln Partners for Public Art Development. He was a key organizer in Duncan Aviation’s Citation Fly-In, which brought athletes and their families to and from Lincoln for the 2010 Special Olympics.

    Duncan said his family and business have received strong support from Lincoln and the region, so he’s glad he can return the favor.

    “It’s all a big circle,” he said.