Growth motivates new Detroit Metro Airport CEO

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Romulus — Passenger growth is taking off at Detroit Metro Airport, and that’s just one reason Joseph Nardone is excited about taking over as CEO.

He’s also high on the gleaming new restaurants that provided the backdrop during a recent tour of the airport he’s now in charge of running.

The new McNamara Terminal concessions — Papa Joe’s Bistro and Market and Embers Fire and Ice bar — are a symbol of the growth Nardone hopes to continue.

“How can I not be happy to be here?” asked Nardone, 55.

“This is a great industry. It’s fun every day. I learn so much.”

Nardone is inheriting an airport on the rise.

After years of stagnation, Metro saw 34.4 million passengers pour through its gates in 2016, a million more than the previous year.

Airport officials have been increasing flight options, too, especially with low-cost carriers, that have been driving down airline prices.

Spirit Airlines is also building a $32 million hangar, the airport’s first in years. It’s a deal Nardone, a longtime businessman who has worked in both the public and private sector, helped secure.

“We are doing some things very well right now and we’re going to continue to do them well and expanding what we do well,” he said. “What we want to do is make a compelling case to every airline on why they should be flying through this airport.”

After making Nardone interim CEO last fall, the Wayne County Airport Authority named him the permanent successor to Thomas Naughton, who led Metro from 2012-16 and will serve as a consultant to the airport until the fall. Nardone makes $262,000 a year in his new role, but joked that he would have taken the job of a lifetime with his previous salary.

During a stroll through the airport, Nardone engages people eagerly, often touching elbows for emphasis. He has a cheerleader’s motivation, trumpeting the airport’s on-time performance and promising to make sure the litter he spotted on the runway is cleaned up.

Tim Keyes, the economic director for Romulus, the city where Metro is located, said the airport authority “could not have made a better selection than Joe” for the post, whom he described as affable but unafraid to hold his employees accountable.

“Joe is one of those guys who is not afraid to get his hands dirty,” said Keyes, who worked with Nardone in Taylor in the 1990s.

“He won’t ask somebody to do something that he hasn’t already done before or is willing to do alongside them. For him, teamwork is incredibly important.”

Keyes said Nardone is “very transparent” and “if he says he’s going to do something, he’ll do it. He’s saying good morning to everybody. He’s asking how their kids are doing. And he’s genuinely interested in what people are thinking.”

Nardone previously headed up the transition team for Warren Evans when he became Wayne County executive.

Joining the airport in 2012, Nardone first served as director of development, managing the real estate department and permits group, and then as vice president of business development and real estate.

In the coming months, Nardone will oversee the revamping of the concessions in the North Terminal. Officials hope that will bring a similar boost that new concessions have had in McNamara.

One of Nardone’s goals is to keep fees to the airlines down so that they can continue to invest in better and more affordable flights and infrastructure improvements. And that’s especially important for Delta Air Lines, which has a hub at Metro. After becoming CEO, Nardone flew down to see Delta leaders in Atlanta.

“If our rates become too high, if our landing fees become too much, or the rent becomes too much and it’s less expensive for them to land (at other airports), they will take their passengers there,” Nardone said of Delta.

“We want them here. We need to keep costs down. When we get parking revenue, when we get concession revenue, when we get real estate revenue, then the airlines don’t have to pay as much.”

Wendy Sutton, the director of real estate for Metro who has worked closely with Nardone on several airport deals, including the new Spirit Airlines hanger, said he has an “authentic nature” that inspires others.

“Joe is always Joe, it doesn’t matter who he’s talking to, it could be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or it could be one of our maintenance guys driving a snow plow,” Sutton said.

“He’s the same guy, and I respect so much about him.”

Why did Nardone want the airport CEO gig? His answer is simple:

“We have the greatest airport team in the country,” he said.

“We not only have the greatest team, we have the best airport. We are cutting edge in everything that we do in this airport.”


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