CVG airport CEO to students: 'Be open to what comes your way'

Candace McGraw seated at a desk

Candace McGraw certainly has a room with a view. The CEO of the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport can catch the sun setting over the airport in her rear office window. In front of her, she can see the massive cargo hub that continues to grow on the airport’s southern edge. “I've literally watched the Amazon construction coming out of the ground. So it is a great place to be, and it has a great view.”

McGraw was the inaugural guest of the spring 2021 Farmer School of Business Executive Speaker Series on Thursday evening. Over the course of an hour, McGraw and Farmer School dean Jenny Darroch talked about topics ranging from favorite airlines to the experience of being one of a handful of women running U.S. airports.

McGraw noted that while there are few women in charge, the ones that are tend to be at some of the largest airports. “Of CEOs at the top 50 airports in the U.S., about 10 of us are women. So 20%, which is certainly not an insignificant number, but certainly should be more,” she said. “We have a great sisterhood amongst us -- Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, San Diego. A lot of the larger and mature markets are run, I think very successfully, by women.”

On being a newcomer to the region when she became CEO: “Cincinnati is a city where people like to like to have a personal relationship. And I think it's important to have those relationships,” McGraw said. “It was very important for me to understand this community, to understand the needs, to understand where businesses needed to go and travel. I needed to understand workforce issues. I jokingly say, particularly in my early years here, I have shaken more hands and kissed more babies than any politician because this is a town where you have to get out there and meet people. So I just hit the ground running and really listened to what the needs were.”

On helping turn the airport’s fortunes around after the Great Recession: “I'm a lawyer by trade and training. I don't have a good deep financial background, but I always say to our folks, ‘Look, here's the basics. We have to make more money than we spend. You have to bring in more money than goes out.’ And we have a really good fiscal discipline here at CVG. When I started, folks had been fiscally prudent, and we've continued that. We make sure we look at our capital program to keep investing in the facilities, because we want to be able to continue to grow and provide safe, clean facilities now and into the future. I think it’s always important to surround yourself with great people. We have a great finance team and I think very highly of our CFO and his ability. It’s important to enroll the community. How can you partner with great institutions like Miami University or others to leverage off of their strength, to help our business and find those mutual, common benefits for both of us?”

On bringing in the $1.5 billion Amazon cargo hub set to open later this year: “I said, ‘If we want to get this deal done and you want to move quickly, let's bring the right people to the table.’ One of their principles was that they wanted to make sure ways we could move quickly. So we sat down in November and I said, ‘I'll move as quickly as you do.’ And we hammered out a deal and announced it the following January. This will be their largest operation in the U.S. It was really an interesting discussion, with some arm wrestling, and we were able to get there.”

On leading during the pandemic: “I always say that if you want to be in a leadership position, you have to have developed thick skin, broad shoulders and a good poker face. Even when there were some sleepless nights -- I normally don't have many, but there were some at the beginning of the pandemic -- you can't let it show. You have to put on a brave face, but I think you can be transparent that there is some angst there. I have a little quote that is attached to my computer that I saw years ago that just for whatever reason resonated with me, that said ‘A good leader defines reality and gives help.’ So I think that's sort of the way we had to lead through the pandemic.”

On the recent agreement for CVG to manage the Miami University airport: “We hope to grow your corporate traffic. We hope to be able to grow some of the weekend flying business. But really important for us was partnering on airport and aviation innovations like autonomous vehicles and drones, having an airport test site that we could use as a living lab and partner on those things. So our team has been working with the Miami University team on some great ideas for that space.”

On career advice: “Be open to what comes your way. I had a career path in my head and I knew exactly where I was going. And then things changed. So you lean into the change. Be open for that change. Whatever you do, do it with gusto, learn your craft, lean into the opportunities. We talk a lot about how some young women are afraid to raise their hand. They think, ‘Oh, I only meet maybe four of the 10, criteria for this position.’ Dive in and give it a go. Don't let fear stop you from making that next step.”