The S.B. Questionnaire: Eric Onnen

Chatting Bootstrapping and Accountability with the Founder of Santa Barbara Airbus

Eric Onnen of Santa Barbara Airbus

Paul Wellman

Eric Onnen of Santa Barbara Airbus

When landing at LAX after a long trip abroad, I can’t think of a more soothing sight than being greeted by a big blue bus that says “Santa Barbara Airbus.” I know it will comfortably take me back home.

“We wanted the interior of the buses to look more like a living room than a waiting room,” explains the company’s founder and co-owner, Eric Onnen, who exudes honesty and reliability in person, the exact qualities I associate with his business.

He came to UCSB in 1978 from El Camino College in Torrance, where he’d studied theater and business. Although he took as many theater classes as he could, he majored in economics and business. While at school, he worked at the Country Meat Market and Catering Company in Goleta and, after graduation in 1981, became the manager. That’s where he worked with his future business partner, Mark Klopstein.

In March 1981, on a diving trip to Cozumel, he met and fell in love with his future wife, Kelly, who is from London, Ontario. While visiting her family, they took Robert Q’s Airbus from Toronto to her hometown, about 100 miles away. Kelly was a flight attendant, so, after they were married, Eric drove her back and forth from Santa Barbara to LAX. The idea for the Santa Barbara Airbus came from that personal necessity as well as firsthand customer-service knowledge and business acumen.

In 1983, Eric, Kelly, and Mark crafted a business plan and then started Santa Barbara Airbus with two vans and eight drivers from a spare room at the Onnens’ condo. His wife gave up her flight attendant job, but the first year was slow. “It was bootstrap,” Eric recalls with a laugh. “Minimum capital but no costs.”

A year later, they moved to a 500-square-foot office and had 12 vehicles, including mini-coaches. In 1988, they moved to a site at an industrial location in Goleta on Thornwood Drive, and bought the property. “We always felt it was a sound move to acquire property,” he says.

They now lease their Thornwood location to Smitty’s Towing Company while operating from a much bigger location on Technology Drive, which is home to a 5,000-square-foot office building and a 5,000-square-foot maintenance facility. The company currently employs approximately 60 people, operates 25 company-owned vehicles, and tallies more than 1.2 million miles annually.

“I wouldn’t have ever imagined the way it’s grown,” says Eric, who’s added four new buses in the last year alone. “One of them is more in an airplane style — a slicker, limo feel, with leather seating and a wood-like floor.”

They also offer charter services for sports teams, Dodger games, school groups, weddings, and other events. The business is quite unique since it travels 100 miles to LAX; most bus services of this type only go about 60 miles. “You have to have frequency,” he says, “and you need more equipment to satisfy the frequency.”

Eric has always been involved in the community: He was elected to the Goleta City Council in 2006, appointed mayor in December 2009, and served until the end of 2010. He’s still closely involved with the Goleta Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club.

And what happened with all his theater training? He smiles at the question and answers that he acts in Santa Barbara Airbus commercials.

Eric Onnen answers the Proust Questionnaire.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

"Value," "values," and "accountability." Seems like every day includes a discussion that includes these words.

Where would you most like to live?

I live where I most want to live: Goleta. I have loved it since I arrived in 1978.

Whom do you most admire?

My parents. They immigrated from Germany in 1955 to the USA, with three small children and a determination to make a better life. Amazing courage and self-reliance.

What do you like most about your job?

My favorite thing about my job is making people — customers and staff — happy. It makes all the rest of it worthwhile.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Not sure if I really contemplate perfect happiness. But Friday afternoon sitting on my patio, with my wife (and sometimes family or friends), a special adult beverage, and a nice dinner underway, blues playing. To me, this is the best place on the planet!

What is your greatest fear?

Loss of those closest to me, or being killed by a wild animal. Losing a loved one is the biggest test of spirit, and being a meal for a bear just makes me ——!

What is your greatest extravagance?

I will admit to enjoying a variety of extravaganzas, most occasionally. The one that is consistent is enjoying fine food and wine, both at home and dining out.

What is your current state of mind?

Really positive!! I just turned 60 last week, and the journey to the next phase is now a more real and constant consideration.

What is the quality you most like in people?

Self-accountability. The people I most enjoy being around look to themselves first and can work with others collaboratively.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Selfish and unmotivated people make everything harder.

What do you most value in friends?

Companionship and a willingness to enjoy.

What is your most marked characteristic?

I am told intensity. I think I am very funny, but either way, I enjoy a good debate or a funny story, almost anytime.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I would love to be able to make music. I just got a harmonica for my birthday. Maybe that is my path.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I would like to be able to shut off the mental grinder. That silly thing that wakes you up at 3 a.m.!

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

My family! My daughters make me feel proud and appreciated regularly. My wife is a force in all our lives that helps us be what we want to be.

What is your most treasured possession?

My house, which is our family home. We have had the good fortune to make it a reflection of us.

Who makes you laugh the most?

My youngest daughter, Samantha, likes to make others laugh. Most of the time she is good at it, sometimes a little too pointed, then we sneer.

What is your motto?

Not sure I have a motto, but I often use my father's frequent line, "Don't try. Do.” At Airbus, we emphasize, "Don't say no.” Long story, but telling a customer “no” has a way of creating problems that can be avoided.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

I cannot say I identify with any specific historical figure. I have great admiration for the founding fathers of the U.S., as well as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. I also have that for some athletes, actors, writers, and musicians. I do relate to those who have struggled, overcome, and found a way to contribute to something bigger than themselves.

On what occasion do you lie?

When the truth will not help, when the pain of truth is more than I (or another) can or should have to handle. When my ass is on the line and the truth will make it worse. When there is not enough time for truth. I always prefer the omission of fact to the surrender of the lie.

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