By Dennis Seid
TUPELO – Keri Wright, the new owner, president and CEO of Universal Asset Management, is no less passionate about her company or employees than when she was the company’s chief operating officer just a few days ago.
Wright, 31, on Monday officially acquired the company that hired her eight years ago and in doing so, replaced the man that recruited her.
But it was no hostile takeover. Talks about an ownership change had gone on for about a year. UAM founder and former CEO Steve Manley hired Wright in 2005, before she even finished earning her master’s degree in international aviation operations from Purdue University, where she also earned her bachelor’s degree in professional flight.
“Keri has essentially been running the company for the past several years in her role as COO, and selling the company to her will allow UAM to continue to expand under her ownership,” Manley said.
Wright, who often pilots a Cessna 400 and is a flight instructor, was flying before she could legally drive a car. This summer, she flew in a transcontinental race.
And she has been in the middle of a swirling debate involving the Tupelo Airport Authority and the city of Tupelo over who should pay for a $1.2 million proposal to repair a portion of the airport’s old runway.
The city is asking UAM to pay for half of the work, while UAM says it’s the city’s responsibility as the tenant of the facility it leases.
Daily Journal Business Editor Dennis Seid interviewed Wright on Tuesday at UAM’s Tupelo facility.
Q. What does it mean for the company now that you’re the new owner and CEO?
A. It allows us to move forward on our growth plan, to grow and expand in new markets.
Q. Can you elaborate on that plan?
A. We want to build on our global strategy. We’re looking at going into the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia and looking at opening three sales offices in the next two years.
Q. And to sell those airplane parts to those customers worldwide, you need a disassembly facility and warehouse like what you have here in Tupelo and Verona?
Q. So, we’ve spoken extensively about this $1.2 million project (see the Sunday Journal). What more can you say? Have you heard from city officials since the article was published?
A. I’ve said from the very beginning that this is a partnership, and continue to emphasize that. I’ve met with the council members and the mayor and I’ve answered all their questions honestly.
I’m not sure what more I can say, but if they have more questions, I’ll be happy to answer them. But no, I haven’t heard from them yet.
Q. Are you frustrated at the impasse?
A. We’re working on long-term job growth here, which is why we signed a 20-year lease. … at the end of the day, our business exists on planes landing. Jobs are tied to planes landing.
Q. Has the condition of the old runway prevented planes from landing?
A. We’ve had to adjust the delivery of planes. … last year, we disassembled 55 planes, a record. We’re trying to meet that this year, but we’re having to alter some of those deliveries.
Q. Because of the condition of the old runway?
A. Yes. Getting a 747 stuck in gravel is not good for anybody.
Q. So what message are you trying to tell the city, the community?
A. We know there’s been a loss of funding to the airport for various reasons. … We’ve offered alternatives about the dilemma we’re facing. We’ve talked about changing our business model here to accommodate what’s happened. It wasn’t our fault that the sources of funding changed.
We were recruited here on the promise of improved infrastructure and better facilities. We’re paying five times more overhead here, but we knew we had the ability to grow in Tupelo. That’s why we came.
We need access to our front door, but the road leading to that front door needs repair. We don’t own that road, but we do pay for what’s behind that front door.
And we’ve invested a lot of capital, and said we’ll invest more, in our lease-hold area.
I’m just not sure why we’re being asked to pay for that road to our front door that, right now, we’re having trouble getting to.
I don’t want to play politics; I just want to run a business.
I want to keep the 75 people here working and I want to hire more. It’s as simple as that.