Canada native John Belcher came to Maryland in October 1997 to take the helm at Annapolis-based ARINC and build it into a global company. He recognized the engineering capabilities and expanded it into a transportation systems engineering solutions company, supporting aviation, defense, aerospace, airports, rail and information technology customers.
As chairman and CEO, he built the corporation into a service provider that served more than 150 countries with revenues at $1.4 billion. He sold the company to Carlyle and stayed on as chairman and CEO for five years and, with Carlyle, sold the company a second time.
Previously, he’d served as president and CEO of Hughes Aircraft of Canada, another global $1 billion-plus operation. Today, he works as founder/CEO of JMCB Enterprise Solutions, where he provides management consulting services.
There have been more than a few awards along the way since coming to Maryland. In 2005, Belcher was selected as one of the state’s top business executives, receiving the annual Maryland International Business Leadership Award; and he was named the 2005 Business Leader of the Year for Annapolis and Anne Arundel County.
He also believes in giving back to the community and, in 2012, was named the outstanding volunteer fundraiser of the year in Maryland; in 2013, the Philanthropist of the Year in Anne Arundel County; and was also named one of the 2014 Influential Marylanders. He is presently vice chairman of the board of trustees of Anne Arundel Medical Center; and the Carlyle Group named him the 2013 recipient of the Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Award for leadership and management excellence.
Belcher has more than 40 years of experience in the aviation, aerospace, airport, information technology, communications and defense industries. He received a bachelor of science in applied science at the University of Ottawa, and a post-graduate diploma in communications systems engineering at Queens University.
What did you do when you arrived at ARINC to effectively press the reset button and position the corporation to reach its goals?
When I was asked by shareholders of ARINC to come and lead the corporation, I saw an opportunity to build another company that was similar to the company that I led in Canada.
To reset, I added a number of new executives, took the company international, reduced government business for the commercial division, created an environment to move our excellent engineering capability into several other products and services, and added stock appreciation rights, all to encourage growth. We sold the company after 10 years to Carlyle. I stayed on with Carlyle as chairman and CEO another five years, selling a second time at 12 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (known as EBITDA).
ARINC made its name in the aeronautics industry, but how many other sectors ended up benefitting from its technology?
We took our engineering capability in communications, information technology (IT) and software development, and moved into IT solutions for airports, rail control systems, public safety communications, global networks and aerospace. The latter led to upgrades of military aircraft, global data link solutions for commercial aircraft, operational systems supporting business jets and numerous other system integration solutions for the transportation community.
What have you been doing since you left ARINC (now Rockwell Collins)? You have continued working with Carlyle Group?
After the sale of ARINC, for a second time I had an opportunity to continue my career while tied to Carlyle, working on its Landmark Aviation board. Working with Carlyle was a great experience for me, as I was working in unison with a global company with managed assets of more than $200 billion.
During that time, with partners, I set up two new startups in Houston and went on six international boards in Germany, Canada and the U.S.A., serving as an investor in each. All are high tech companies.
What’s your take on the current conditions for doing business in Maryland?
Current conditions for doing business in the state are getting better, with a much better understanding from Gov. [Larry] Hogan’s team as to the needs of business leaders.
What do you think of the job Gov. Hogan is doing regarding improving the business climate in Maryland?
Maryland doesn’t have a great reputation for offering a good business environment. Gov. Hogan, however, has greatly improved that situation. Other states have created new and creative approaches to provide reasons to invest; Minnesota, for example, has created an angel tax credit program where you get back 20% in cash of what you invested as an A investor, with a cap of $500,000.
Also, know that it is also important to ensure that businesses from our community can set local businesses up to be competitive within the U.S.A., as well as encourage international expansion.
How have your efforts to work with Hogan or his key appointees gone?
Most government organizations at the federal and state levels are very bureaucratic and slow in decision-making, which is not liked by commercial businesses and costs these companies a considerable amount of revenue.
For instance, developers and construction companies looking for permit approvals often find that the approvals take forever. Requests for proposals need to be followed as written to ensure a clean process.
What have you found to be the biggest struggle or frustration in your career?
I have been CEO of a number of companies and, fortunately, successful through a lot of hard work, providing leadership and hiring great people. Frustration comes when I run into ridiculous rules and regulations, or into people who try to reduce our efficiencies [while we’re aiming to] build companies and create jobs.
I’m an entrepreneur and a big picture guy, and can become frustrated when someone doesn’t see the big picture.
What types of businesses do you look to buy/invest in?
I stick to the businesses I know. As mentioned, I’ve invested in six international companies during the past two years, and all are high tech firms that build technology that I know and understand.
Also, I normally look at these companies where I know the CEO and we have been friends for a while; I look for them to be of the same thinking as I am. My exit strategies here are three-to-five years, and when I refer to multiples, I’m talking about earnings, not revenue.
You and your wife, Cathy, have pledged $10 million to the Anne Arundel Medical Center (AAMC) Foundation. What’s next on the agenda there?
We believe in giving back to the community, and AAMC is a great regional hospital that we have supported since we arrived in Annapolis 18 years ago. I served nine years on the foundation board and chaired it for three years. I also chaired the capital campaign, raising $44.3 million; and have been on the board of trustees for four years, and presently serve as vice chairman.
Today, we have certificates of needs in to the state for open heart surgery and mental health facilities, where the demand in the region is very high. We are also putting in new wellness programs, as part of our intent to reduce overall medical costs in the state.
How else are you active in the nonprofit circles?
Cathy and I support numerous 501(c)(3)s. Working with Hospice of the Chesapeake is her key activity, and we’ve contributed significant funds to establish the Hospice of the Chesapeake’s John & Cathy Belcher campus on Route 2, on the southern end of Pasadena.
The two of you have stayed in Maryland, year ’round while many CEOs have become tax exiles and relocated to Delaware, Florida and elsewhere. What makes you want to stay?
The Maryland inheritance tax drives many CEOs out of the state, and I personally find this tax ridiculous and a slap in the face of company heads that have created many jobs during their time here.
In our case, we’re staying in Maryland and hoping to work with the state to remove this issue. We think Annapolis is an ideal place to live, with a climate that really isn’t that harsh. Remember, we came from Canada, where we really experienced harsh winters.
What’s your take on incubators and startup facilitators?
Incubators and startup facilitators provide great platforms in the creation of new products, using a real business model in the process. At ARINC, we were one of the founding companies for the Chesapeake Innovation Center.
What’s your take on the venture capital market in the mid-Atlantic? In the U.S.? Worldwide?
There is so much cash out there ready for investment. However, there are not a lot of companies to acquire at a reasonable price. Again, I look at multiples tied to EBITDA and not revenue when I get serious about making a move.
What effect do you think the Trump Administration will have on your efforts?
I am pleased to see a real businessperson taking the lead. Yes, the management approach will be different and decisions made in real time, but I think it is good for our country, and it will improve the economy and create good jobs.