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Apr
03
Minneapolis
debriefing

Catching up

Ground transportation management software company flying high in airports

When GateKeeper Systems participated in the initial Upsize Growth Challenge in 2004, the company’s biggest challenge was diversification.

The company was developing systems for vehicle access control at airports, such as helping them manage busy taxi queues. And it was growing slowly, but CEO Lynn Richardson was exploring other industries, from medical to manufacturing.

In the end, Richardson, who spent nearly 20 years working at the Metropolitan Airports Commission after growing up in an aviation family before starting GateKeeper Systems, stuck with the familiar. The company has, in fact, diversified, but it’s been in a series of airport-specific enhancements that have helped the company double in revenue, add significantly to its collection of partners and weather the ups and downs of more than two decades in business.

“It’s hard to break into other industries, even if the product is a good match,” he says. “We looked at a variety of ways to use our technology and what we really found is we were better off sticking with airports and sticking with a limited number of things.”

The company has continued plugging along, never trying to grow huge, but always looking for ways to capitalize on changing technologies and how they might affect the airport. For example, GateKeeper TNC-Ops was designed to help track the activities and fees associated with the explosion of growth in transportation network companies at airports.

“It’s been a complete upheaval in who does hauling of passengers and how they do it, and we were able to offer to airports the ability to track TNC activity close to the way we had been tracking with” radio frequency identifications, Richardson says.

Additionally, its App-139 product airfield inspection product allows GateKeeper Systems to help airports fulfill the Federal Aviation Administration’s daily airfield inspection requirements.

“That activity for 75 years had been done by an airport operations or maintenance technician with a clipboard, paper and pencil going around and identifying lights that aren’t working, holes in the concrete, safety and operational issues that have to be fixed,” Richardson says. “You’d write them down and find a maintenance guy to fix them. We’ve moved that to a technology platform.”

Now, if the technician sees a hole in the concrete they touch an iPad screen with GPS coordinates so the maintenance workers know what to fix and where. The software keeps track of the inspections and allows the FAA to do an annual review.

“This helps the airport manage that activity,” he says.

Back in 2004, GateKeeper Systems was working with a small number of airports. Now the number exceeds 100 overall, with about three-quarters involved in App-139. And there is plenty of room for growth, especially since the company landed its first international opportunity with several airports in Sweden.

Another upside: More than half of the company’s revenue is now recurring, through its ongoing support and maintenance activities and subscription-based pricing for its new products, Richardson says. Initially, only around 20 percent of GateKeeper Systems’ revenues were recurring – another of his challenges from the early years.

The company’s slow, steady growth the last 15 years has worked out fine for Richardson, who had expressed to Growth Challenge experts in 2004 a frustration about not being able to land venture capital funding. In the end, growing organically has worked out well for GateKeeper Systems, as it has been able to maintain control of the business. He doesn’t reveal revenues anymore, but did say the company has 15 employees and likely will add more.

“We’re in our 22nd year, which in and of itself is a bit of a cause for celebration, weathering a couple of recessions and 9/11, which was almost a death blow to a lot of airport companies like us,” he says. “That was a particularly difficult time.”

GateKeeper survived. And it appears the company will transition to the second generation of Richardson leadership. Lynn Richardson still is CEO, but he’s ceded the title of president and most of the day-to-day leadership to his son, Brian Richardson. They’re working out the final details now.

Brian says he doesn’t foresee any major changes. The business is changing a little bit, in that it’s becoming more of a software business than the hardware business it started out as, he says.

And there may be a chance to explore some uses of, for example, the existing TNC technologies at sporting events or universities, though like his father, he sounds like he’d be fine either way. “It’s not a major focus to try and expand outside airports, but with the current landscape, you never know,” he says.

Meanwhile, Lynn is working three partial days weekly at GateKeeper on various projects and spending the rest of his time learning to play the guitar, volunteering at a Mobility Worldwide organization in the Twin Cities that makes carts for people who don’t have use of their legs, flying radio control airplanes competitively and spending time with five grandchildren.

“I got some pretty good advice once when one of my co-workers was retiring at the MAC,” he says. “‘If you really want my advice, retire to something, not from something.’ That has proven very true in my case. After 50 years of working I’m ready to do some other things and I don’t feel the obligation to be here all the time.”

Jonathan Hankin

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