Tom Rafter Discusses Succession Plan, Reflects On 10-Year Run As Airport Manager

David Creed •

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Tom Rafter is confident that the Nantucket Memorial Airport will be left in great hands when assistant airport manager Noah Karberg is handed the keys to the second busiest airport in Massachusetts as its new manager on January 1, 2023 following Rafter’s retirement. Rafter took some time to chat with the Current on Tuesday about the structure that allowed Karberg, who began as an environmental coordinator for the airport nine years ago, to become the airport’s new lead man.

“What is the succession plan? That is what I was looking at all along,” Rafter said. “Human resources on the island are tough to come by. Extremely specific, highly technical ones are almost impossible to get, so I said ‘alright what are we going to do and how are we going to accomplish that.’

It led Rafter and airport administration to restructure the management hierarchy, creating an assistant airport manager position where the next manager could be developed and trained by Rafter. He said Karberg was a no-brainer for the position after performing so well in his environmental role.

“That was why we made Noah an assistant airport manager,” Rafter said. “We did it, and we created an organizational structure that allows for growth too and people to move up. He is thorough and has a very broad understanding of things. There aren’t many topics you can bounce off of him and he won’t have an answer. And if he doesn’t know it, he will learn it because he can learn things quickly.”

Karberg has never been shy about challenging himself when it comes to moving up the ladder in the aviation field. Rafter said he passed every test he threw at him and along the way, earned many certifications that validate his knowledge in airport management such as becoming an accredited airport executive in 2019.

For years, Rafter said he would sit down with Noah for at least multiple meetings per week going over airport management terminology, responsibilities, and some of Rafter’s daily tasks that day.

“I had a list, about two pages, where we would go over a different topic and section and go through it together,” Rafter said. “More recently, I have been putting more and more on his plate these past few months and he handled it incredibly well. He has great knowledge of it all whether it be general management, the FAA’s funding system and their programs, engineering of an airport.”

“We have been basically going through ground school and doing a lot of work together. Now he is going to be sitting in the pilot’s seat and I’ll be sitting in the passenger seat guiding him along. Then I am going to parachute out of the airplane and tell him to go do his cross country, and he is on his own as I wave good bye and say see you later.”

Rafter said the next several months will consist of him taking orders from Karberg and helping him ease into the larger role.

“One of the things Noah and I are going to be looking at over these next 10 months or so is the system as it is currently structured because he and I complement each other with our skills,” Rafter said. “He came in with a strong environmental background while I had the management knowledge. So, what skillset and what support does he need if you will now that he is in that seat? Does he need another assistant airport manager, or do we hire an environmental coordinator to take some of his environmental responsibilities off of his plate? Or do we restructure or tweak the system to fit what he needs? There are a lot of things Noah and I are going to be working on over the coming months.”

Rafter said he is only required to give 30-day’s notice in his contract but felt like it would be unfair and make little sense to leave with little notice.

“So if I gave my 30-day’s notice and Noah moved up, there is still a big void there with him moving to that higher position,” Rafter said. “I can help manage that a little bit and help figure out how to backfill that position.”

“The system is structured to help support me as the current airport manager and make the most out of our strengths. Now it is about setting it up for Noah.”

Reminiscing about his path to Nantucket, Rafter said the job on the island was appealing because like his former home in Atlantic City, New Jersey, it is a seasonal community. He felt after learning about the island and visiting it, there were a lot of similarities that would make it a nice fit for himself.

“I learned there were a lot of differences too though,” Rafter joked.

Looking back on his 10-year run leading the airport, Rafter said he is appreciative for some of his staff such as Karberg and airport business finance manager Jamie Sandsbury, along with former airport commission chair Dan Drake.

“What is going to really help Noah is the people we have here,” Rafter said. “They are amazing.”

Rafter said the two goals he had when he took the job were to fix up and establish the framework for financial and administrative functions at the airport. His first goal was to get the airport away from being subsidized from the town, saying that community taxpayers shouldn’t be the ones funding the airport and that the airport should be funding itself.

He said ramp rehabilitation, buying new equipment, PS systems, and upgrading infrastructure to better suit the larger aircraft coming to and from the island in the summertime are other things he is proud of. He also referenced the rehabilitation of Taxiway Echo, the airport’s main taxiway as one project he is very happy he, along with his staff, were able to get completed while having the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cover 100 percent of the $20 million cost.

“I just wanted to establish a sustainable financial revenue stream,” he said. “I came in and we said we are going to start diversifying our revenue and start leasing some land, so now we have year-round income from our tenants, which helps us get through the lean months in the offseason. But managing what we bring in in the peak season is crucial too.”

Rafter said Preston Harimon, the airport’s compliance manager, is playing a vital role in monitoring the airports 180+ leases. Rafter said the attention being paid to their leases now is a far cry from the many leases prior to his arrival that were verbally agreed upon but not being honored, or expired leases that continued on without any thought from the airport’s previous administration. The negligence likely helped create the situation the airport was in a decade ago when they were operating under a two million dollar per year deficit.

“That is Preston’s job now and he does an incredible job of going out and doing lease inspections,” Rafter said. “Sometimes tenants aren’t the best tenants, but if you are an absentee landlord, you aren’t a good landlord.”

Rafter said he always thinks about what Herb Kelleher, an American billionaire who established Southwest Airlines, said in a commencement speech he gave years ago.

“While he was talking to a college graduation, he told them ‘I am going to tell you the secret to making money – make more than you spend.’ It was managing and overseeing too. Watching how we are spending and not just looking at the big picture strategically but the tactical one every day,” Rafter said. “I still sign almost every PO (purchase order). I see who is buying what, what it is costing, the financial reports. Dan Drake did a lot before I got here and when I got here. He knew his stuff and that was very helpful.”

Rafter said he will be moving to his home in Florida, which he bought two years ago in the Fort Myers area. He said he is looking forward to retirement but reiterated there is a lot of work to be done between now and then.

“I’m ready to be whatever Noah needs me to be to help him transition into this new role,” Rafter said.

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