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Air Force paved way for career in leading ‘compassionate navigators’

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Donald Chupp is the 2019 SBA Small Business Person of the Year. The 49-year-old (as of April 30) Chupp runs Dover-based Fireside Partners, which helps 130 companies – most of them outside of Delaware – respond when they’re faced with an emergency or crisis, providing them the resources, the know-how, and in many cases even the personnel to respond to crisis. Fireside Partners works primarily in the business aviation space with companies that own and operate business aircraft but are not aviation companies themselves. Fireside helps them respond when they are faced with an emergency with one of those corporate aircraft, and accident or an incident. In those cases, Fireside integrates into the company emergency plan. The company has 15 full-time people at its headquarters, located on Starlifter Avenue in the shadow of Dover Air Force Base, with close to 50 part-timers – counselors, therapists, military retirees and spouses, and former law enforcement – on its response team. 

Chupp refers to his team as “compassionate navigators who provide information and advice and counsel on what’s going to happen next for them, and what they should do. A lot of folks, when faced with uncertainty and stress, just need someone to tell them what happens next.” 

As Told to Peter Osborne

Tell me what you do.

We are not a company that just stands by on retainer. We provide a daily service to each of our customers. That daily service is asset tracking. We have a very large command center down the hall where we’re tracking the movements of these aircraft and trying to identify abnormal situations. We monitored more than 79,000 flights last year in business aviation and identified 11,000 situations that were not normal or expected. That didn’t mean they were all emergencies and crises, just reasons to pick up the phone and talk to a customer and say, “Hey, we notice that your airplane just diverted to a different destination. Do we know why?” And helping resolve whether this is truly something to worry about or not.

We also do a lot of on-demand consulting. Customers can reach out to us and say, “We’re working on our response plan. What should we say for this? How would you advise we do that?” Much of our work are for natural employee death situations. Heart attacks, strokes, employees who die on vacation and maybe the company wants to demonstrate some degree of emotional significance around that event. It’s top to bottom, my friend.

How did you get into this business?

I started Feb. 3, 2007 as a consultant. I had spent 12½ years before that in the Air Force, in family readiness and bad situation sort of stuff. Then I was fortunate enough to work with the National Transportation Safety Board for several years, doing aviation accident response and family assistance and was program director for the NTSB Training Academy, where we trained new investigators and the industry on this sort of stuff. But I saw a real niche in business aviation. The non-airlines stuff.

How do you grow a company that provides this kind of specialized service?

You need good information or good contacts. The best is to have both. Information that folks that need, even if they don’t perceive they need it. 

At a pivotal point in 2010, I reached a crossroad, where our customers kept saying, “Don, we love you as a consultant, but we need more than that. We need someone we can turn to if this happens. We need bench strength.” So I put every dollar I had into developing the resources to being able to respond. That means hiring more people, building more infrastructure. 

In a lot of ways, we are that dream story if you’re a government agency. We used every resource that Delaware had to offer. We were one of the first people in the Emerging Enterprise Center up at New Castle, the incubator program where they took a person who wanted to grow a company and surrounded them with helpful resources with an attractive rent structure, and advice and counsel. But what I really had was direct access to members of SCORE, which are the former CEOs that can help advise and counsel. I had them right downstairs. If I needed a high-volume printer, I had it. And I had an office space that was legitimate, that people could come visit until we got our feet under us.

You also need a healthy respect for your numbers. Ego can do a lot for you, but numbers done right don’t lie. If you pay attention to them, and you give them the respect that they deserve, they’re the roadmap on what you need to do more of, or less of, to be successful and grow.

Is it a coincidence that you’re located in the shadow of the Air Force base?

Not at all, sir. One is just from a footprint standpoint this building presents a tremendous opportunity for us to grow as we envision in the years forward. Secondly, our relationship with Dover Air Force Base has always been tight. The mission there and the mission of Fireside Partners are very much in alignment in a lot of ways.

Tell me a little bit about your expectation levels.

Are they challenging for your employees to achieve? I have a healthy suspicion that we could always be doing better than we are. In that case, employees have told me, “˜Well Don, no one’s going to do it exactly the way you would.’ But I’ll tell you that the flip side of that coin is, sometimes if you get out of their way, they will absolutely astound you with what they’re able to do if they’re unencumbered by supervision. These folks, if you just hand them a problem, and tell them you don’t have the answer, they’ll get one, and they’ll get one pretty quickly.

And you’re hiring … What percentage are former military?

Almost all, to be honest. Folks who understand mission. That have the credo of a typical employee that you would like. But it’s service wide. Transitioning military. Those that have done four, six years. They have a core skill set and are looking for something. And they get it. and they still get it. We do a lot of shoulder tapping. We use LinkedIn a lot, and that’s a message to any young person to be very careful about what you have in your social profiles because others look at them very carefully. And we have tours in here. I would suspect once they learn what we do, there’s probably quite a bit of interest.

Are there clients or prospective clients that you say no to?

In all honesty, more recently yes. In the early going, as an individual. I was inclined to say yes to things that, looking back I probably shouldn’t have. Just the eagerness to get a customer. Some very large companies just make no apologies to say “Look, if you’re going to work with us, anything you produce is ours now and we can repackage it, resell it. We can patent if we want to. If you want to do business with us, it’s just what you’re going to do.” And those are tough ones to say no to, because nobody says no to the Fortune 5 and up. Sometimes you have to.

There are others that just are hiring us to check a box. Where it’s clear that some insurance audit, or some industry audit is requiring them to have an emergency plan with resources behind it. And you can tell by the phone call they have no interest in who we are, meeting us, and what we do. In those situations, we typically agree that it’s not the right kind of relationship. I believe your best customers are the ones that bring energy to you. The ones that take energy from you, no money is worth it. It’s the worst money you ever made, because they drain you dry with just unreasonable expectations or they’re completely unplugged.

When you feel overwhelmed or distracted, what do you do?

You can very easily eat your way through a whole bag of chips and not realize it in a day. Stress management for any business owner has got to be important. We take self-care very seriously from a psychological standpoint at Fireside. When we’ve been through an emergency response, debrief with a credentialed counselor. She is the only person on our team who is not an employee, a 1099, and that’s by design. She doesn’t answer to me or anyone else. Any of us can go to her. We all have her number, and we just process. She’s so good that you don’t realize.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?

I’ll give you the most profound one first. One of our Delaware customers said, “Don’t try to exceed our expectations. You won’t. Focus on meeting them. When you do that, we’re going to be great. If you’re spending your energy, time and resources trying to impress us or exceed expectations, no service provider we’ve ever worked with has found success in that space.” If you’re not careful, you’re not delivering on the core of what they wanted anyway. That was sage advice because it really does center you down and say all I have to do is what they’ve asked me to do, and they expect me to do that to completion and professionally.

What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?

I was still in the military at 25. There are no magic answers. There are no replacements for hard work, but smart work. The other thing I would say is, it’s great to be situationally aware. I think it’s more important to be situationally ready.

What is your superpower and your kryptonite?

My superpower is collecting great people around me. My kryptonite is saying yes to everything. Saying I can do that, even if I can do that, doesn’t mean I should do that. That’s my kryptonite, and I labor continuously to overcome that.

One thing that’s not on your resume.

I love to build things out of things that most people throw away, namely scrap wood and pallet wood. That is a hobby of mine. You can see it around here. There’s no math, science, specificity to it. You get to create it as you go, and as a matter of fact, you almost get to see it take form on its own, and you don’t have to be perfect. 

What’s your favorite failure, and what did you learn?

When I was early in my career, I tried to make a very quick platitude to a family who had lost their son in a helicopter accident. They were grasping for something that would take their pain away. Very awkwardly I simply said that whatever happened, it happened very quickly. When the details of the accident came back, it was anything but. It was a post-accident fire. The accident didn’t kill anyone on board. 

The fire did. So, what actually happened there was a very long, slow and painful, agonizing scenario. This is not a failure I’m happy about, but I never forgot, and I never repeated. There are a lot of trite expressions and ways to try to make people feel really in the moment, but the best service you can ever provide is to be truthful.

What advice do you give to college students?

What you want is not what we want you to want. Many of us in my age bracket learned the concept of grinding it out and working somewhere for 20, 30 years for the retirement, the pension, the whole thing. In our hearts that’s what we want young people to want. We want loyalty. We’re always using words like pay your dues. It seems to me as though some college students have probably seen their parents lose their entire retirement savings during the financial downturn. They’re thinking I don’t want that; I want something different. 

What do you think is the key to your success?

The key to my success is ego balance. There’s a part of ego that gets you out of bed and keeps after it even when you’ve been beaten down a little, or you haven’t delivered for a customer and you’re questioning certain things about your business model. Ego will help you punch through that, but ego can also be your worst enemy, because it will keep you from listening to good advice. People aren’t buying services. They’re establishing relationships, and they’re going to establish relationships with people they can see going to a bar with and hanging out. They’re seeing people that they can have over for dinner and feel comfortable with around their families. They hope to God they never need us in real life, but they want someone around who maybe brings energy or enjoyment to their life. 

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