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On the Job: Man With Many Hats is Flying High

Former Marine Corps pilot Jim Panknin has put down roots in Santee and cultivated his entrepreneurial spirit.

As Jim Panknin sits down at his desk, he hands his visitor three business cards.

Most people have just one, but Panknin “likes to keep busy,” so he has a few extras.

The former major in the Marine Corps -- who spent 20 years flying all types of aircraft and traveling the globe – says he now has a career that involves wearing “a lot of hats.”

Panknin, 50, retired from the Corps in 2004 and has lived in Santee since 1999. He’s now the president of San Diego Executive Flight. For years he had his main office at his Santee home, but now has offices in airports across San Diego County, including his primary location at Gillespie Field.

That’s business card No. 1.

Card No. 2 is for Extergo, a bed-bug eradication company in El Cajon for which he is vice president of business development. The third card is for his role as a board member on the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority.

He could carry a fourth card as well, as treasurer of the Santee School District Foundation.

“I’m way too busy,” he says, smiling. “But I like busy. I’d rather be busy than bored.”

* * *

As the son of a Marine who then became one, Panknin has spent most of his life moving from one spot to the next. Until he and his wife moved to Santee in 1999 and put down roots while he was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, he says he moved about every three or four years of his life.

“It’s good,” he says of staying in one spot. “One of the problems is, though, when you move all the time you clean stuff out of your house every time you move. When you don’t move, it just kind of accumulates.”

When he retired in 2004, Panknin was certain of one thing: he wanted to continue to fly. Flying was the reason he’d wanted to go into the military, and it remains his passion. As a Marine he flew both helicopters – including the helicopter for President Bill Clinton while stationed at Quantico, Va. --  and fixed-wing craft. For about five years after leaving the Marine Corps he worked as charter pilot for Jimsair at Lindbergh Field. Then, when Landmark Aviation bought Jimsair, Panknin started San Diego Executive Flight in 2008.

The business, which employs about eight people, allows Panknin to continue to fly on average about once or twice per week as a charter pilot.

The company provides pilot services to companies and individuals, manages and maintains airplanes for their owners and provides aviation consulting services to other charter flight companies. In addition, Panknin acts as a broker for people looking for charter services.

Much of the company’s work involves management of planes for others, in hangars all over the county and as far east as Yuma.

These days, Panknin does a variety of flights, from short hops to East Coast trips.

He loves the business, of course, because he can fly. But he also relishes the chance to help others along, too.

“I like to hire young people and give them opportunities,” he says.

He has offices at all the regional airports and spends plenty of time on the freeways. He talked recently about having to drive to Yuma every few weeks to keep a plane maintained there.

The business, he says, can be challenging because it’s demand-oriented.  If the phone doesn’t ring, there’s no work. Fortunately, the phone hasn’t been silent.

He took a leap of faith to start it, he says, because he wanted to continue to fly – and simply owning a plane makes no dollars or sense.

“There’s no profit in aviation,” says Panknin, smiling. “The old joke is, aviation is where you take a large fortune and turn it into a small fortune. But there’s something sexy and people have a passion for aviation and they want to be in it. And all of us who fly have jet fuel in our blood.

“No, this is a lifestyle business. It’s not a get-rich business. Most pilots have a spouse that works. That’s how they can afford to be pilots.”

His wife, in fact, does work, in the jewelry business handling accounts on military bases around the county.

* * *

Panknin went to the University of Southern California on an ROTC scholarship, earning a degree in aerospace engineering. After retiring from the Marine Corps, he went back to school at UCSD to earn his MBA in marketing at the Rady School of Management.

That experience -- studying business opportunities and business plans -- fueled his move about a year ago to become involved in Extergo.

The bed bug problem, which has grown in recent years, provided an opportunity. While San Diego Executive Flight might be a “lifestyle business,” he sees the potential for “more than a lifestyle business” in Extergo.

The company puts a focus on exterminating bed bugs at properties around the county. It can’t be done simply through the use of chemicals, but with a combination of chemicals, cleaning, education and diligence.

“Our grandparents and great grandparents lived with them,” he says. “We’ve forgotten that.” After building up resistances and with people no longer diligent against them, the bugs have returned – which means Panknin’s phone rings for that venture, too.

These days, the man with many hats deals with both, almost simultaneously. One day it’s bugs, the next planes.

The guy who loves to be busy sometimes has so much on his plate, it’s hard to find time for golf, where he loves to play at Admiral Baker.

But that’s OK. He’s excited by the possibilities of both his businesses. The phone is ringing, he’s flying and his mind is working.

“There’s no days off,” he says.

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