You may not have known that there are black-owned airlines, but guess again. Sherrexcia ‘Rexy’ Rolle is the Vice President of Operations and General Counsel for Western Air, a Bahamas-based black-owned aviation business. Although the company was founded by her parents Rex and Shandrice Rolle, Rexy has led the charge in expanding her family’s privately-owned business which has been in existence for approximately two decades. With a net worth of $90+ million, Western Airlines has been steadily increasing its routes across the Caribbean, including direct flights to Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica and soon Florida. In this interview, Rexy describes how Western Air came to be and shares advice on how to make it in the aviation industry as a person of color.
Let’s get into the history of Western Air. What prompted your family to delve into the business of aviation?
Rexy: My parents were very young and just started out their lives when they had me. My mom was 17 and my Dad was 18, just beginning his career as a pilot. We are from a small town called Mastic Point, Andros in the Bahamas. My father started his career in the aviation industry as a private pilot by trade, however, owning his own airlines and developing it in the Bahamas was a lifelong dream of his. My parents worked tirelessly and persevered in developing this business by saving their money and doing their research with various aircraft brokers. My parents were eventually fortunate enough through faith, their persistence and dedication in their business plan to [receive offers] from two aviation investors from the U.S. From that moment moving forward, Western Air Limited was a dream that is now a reality.
Developing an airline is a lucrative but very competitive industry. What were the market gaps that your family wanted to bridge when developing Western Air Ltd.?
Rexy: With any business, it is all about knowing your industry and what particular problem you are solving for the consumer. In the Bahamas, there are over 700 islands and many Bahamians usually take small charter ferries as transportation to the other islands. Even though we have a very efficient government airline in the Bahamas, there were certain islands that were not being targeted for our consumers to have a convenient way to travel. This is where our airline comes in and once we recognized those gaps in the market, we were able to convince our investors why our airline is needed.
I understand in the business of aviation there are little to no minorities who are either owners or have senior level positions. What are some of the challenges that you and your family face in this industry and how do you all overcome those challenges in maintaining the brand and taking Western Air Ltd. to the next level?
Rexy: Every day we have our challenges, just like any other company. Being the largest privately-owned airline company in the Bahamas, as a family, we have an understanding that we must maintain our focus on our mission. We understand we have to work 10 times harder and we don’t shy away from the challenge. Moreover, as the Vice President of Operations and General Counsel, the number one thing I stressed for our company is consistency.
In the beginning, we had our issues in time management and delays. However, in this industry where timing is very crucial, we began to focus on the reasons why these things were happening and “sweating the small stuff” in ensuring that our customers arrive at their destinations in a safe and timely fashion. Once my team and I began fine-tuning arrival and departure times, our performance began to improve. Our ticket sales increased also. From that first initial step, we are continuing a hands-on approach on our customer service by making sure people get there safely, on time and most importantly with their luggage intact. Presently, as we are speaking, I am sitting in my office looking at schedules and flights that are departing and arriving. Just like the old saying goes, “Timing is everything.”
Western Air Ltd. is continuing to grow every year. What are some ideas for expansion that you have in mind?
Rexy: As an urban millennial woman, I know that it is important for us to increase our online and social media presence. My parents did a great job with grassroots marketing through word of mouth in the Bahamas but now it is time to increase our awareness and promote our services internationally.
Presently, there are various women specifically Black woman that hold senior-level positions in Top 500 companies, however, since the #metoo campaign, many women have come forward with sexual harassment claims from men in the workplace. Have you ever been in a position in which you were either discriminated against based on your age, race and gender? If so, how do you handle those challenges in an industry where men dominate the aviation industry?
Rexy: In these cases, like most women, we have our intuition and what I learned is that we must follow it. The minute I sense a meeting has turned beyond the level of business, I shut it down immediately. I learned that if you want people to take you seriously, especially in this industry where I have to constantly negotiate claims and deal with serious regulations, you must be confident in what you know and only do business with people who are focused on the mission in sealing the deal. Anyone that has approached me in any other manner allowed me to know that I would not be doing business with them.
I had to know within myself I will be successful without them and there is always alternatives. As advice to other women who are working in corporate or not, you should not tolerate anything that will degrade you of your womanhood and character. Everything will work out and you should never adhere to sexual harassment or misconduct in the workspace. Those that do that are threatened by your confidence and intelligence.
What is some advice that you would give women that are interested in the aviation industry?
Rexy: Be confident in what you know and I say that over again. One of our downfalls as women is that we leave it at the door, — we must stay CONFIDENT in what we know and the work we produce. We as women were groomed from schooling and professionally to always second guess our decisions and feel as if we are “under-qualified.” I learned from experience to know your industry very well because the odds are immediately against you due to gender and race. In the aviation industry, you should know its a highly regulated industry as it should be, but it’s also incredibly broad with various work opportunities that are not commonly known. In my role, I have to ensure operations comply with not only our company policies and standards but to all relevant laws and regulations.
Understanding your market and clientele — the customers ALWAYS come first! What we take pride in at Western Air Ltd. is our customer service. This is exactly what sets us apart from our competition. Our customers are family and we treat family members with pride and the utmost respect. In building your capital, be sure you do your research to ensure your aviation and finance partners or investors understand your vision and what it will require. Trust your staff, partners, and most importantly YOURSELF.
Want to keep up with Rexy? Follow her on Instagram.
This article was written for BAUCE in partnership with HateTheDot, a new menstrual care company led by women of color.