Mark Baker’s entry into general aviation is classic, quintessential—a textbook case. As a kid he rode his bicycle to the airport and sidled up to the old guys there to hear flying stories while he freely poked around the airplanes, bumming rides when he could. No fences, security gates, or threatening signs.
He took ground school while in high school, but once he went to the University of Minnesota he learned he could get credit for the class, so he took it again. While in college in the mid-1970s he sold his van to buy his first airplane, a 1968 Cessna 150. At the time he was working at a lumber yard for about $2 an hour. “With gas at about 80 cents a gallon, I could fly for $4 an hour,” he told AOPA staff in August a few hours after he was introduced as the next president and CEO of the association.
Baker, a longtime pilot, aircraft owner, and AOPA member, is scheduled on Sept. 6 to be appointed by the board of trustees as only the association’s fifth president in 74 years. He replaces Craig Fuller, who announced to the board in early 2013 that he planned to step down this year.
Baker, 55, admits that learning to fly changed his life and opened doors for him. In his new role, he hopes to foster that sort of experience for others—young and old. He sees preserving easy access to general aviation airports as a key initiative for AOPA. “We need open access, not a place that looks like a maximum security prison.” Encouraging the development of parks with grills and pavilions, viewing areas, and amenities on the perimeters of airports will expose more people to aviation, he reminded.
He joined AOPA when a CFI gave him an application as a new pilot. Like a lot of people struggling financially right out of college, he dropped his membership, sold the 150, and stopped flying for a few years as he began his career in the retail home improvement business. But soon, the urge to fly and the need for transportation brought him back into aviation. With a young but growing family, he quickly progressed through numerous airplanes. He joined a flying club at the Lake Elmo Airport in St. Paul, Minnesota, and flew the club’s Piper Warrior, Archer, and Arrow. Moving to Florida for work for a few years, the Minnesota native bought a Cessna 177 Cardinal, into which he stuffed his family—which at the time consisted of three daughters and his wife, Vickie. “Altogether the family weighed 422 pounds in those days, so it worked.” Since then, the couple added a son, and now sons-in-law and six grandchildren. Baker has brought his sons-in-law and father into aviation; his college-age son and nephew are student pilots.
Over the years, Baker’s career progressed from a local lumber yard chain to management and then executive positions at The Home Depot, outdoor outfitter Gander Mountain, The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, and, most recently at Orchard Supply Hardware, a West Coast home improvement chain that was spun off from Sears as an independent company in 2011. Baker was brought in as president and CEO. “It was in a difficult place with a lot of debt. I put it through a restructure process and successfully got the business turned around so that Lowe's bought the company…and is now continuing to grow that business.”
The bankruptcy court approved the sale of the Orchard Supply assets to Lowes in mid-August. He sees the brand as now being in a good place. “We turned around sales and focused on what Orchard Supply was so good at—taking care of customers.”
While his position at various companies has changed, the airplanes have stayed. Over the years he has used various V-tail Bonanzas, and a 36 Model Bonanza, as well as Barons, to commute from his home in Minnesota to positions in Chicago, for example. In other occasions he has used his airplanes to scout locations for new stores and to support the opening of new stores. He’s managed to accumulate more than 7,500 flight hours in everything from that first 150 to Cessna twins, business jets, Ford Tri Motors, T-6s, a Beech 18 on floats, Grumman Albatrosses, and a helicopter—and a bunch in between. Ask what his favorite is and he without hesitation names his Piper Super Cub. Sometimes on floats, sometimes on skis, sometimes on wheels, he has owned it for more than 25 years. “I just can’t ever have a bad day in the Super Cub,” he says with a smile, although admitting, “some days it’s a little bumpy.”
Fixing up older airplanes has become a hobby of sorts. “It’s very satisfying to take what is a good piece of aluminum that may need an interior, new paint, maybe a new radio, fly it for a while; and put it into better hands and go find another one.”
An admitted hangar rat, when in a new town he uses a sectional chart to find the local airport and goes out to drive around.
When he got the call to come lead AOPA it caused him to reflect on whether he could make a difference in aviation. “Aviation has been really good to me—and I mean really good to me. What could I do to help? How could I participate? It was a little scary, to tell you the truth. I’ve got a lot to learn from the people around me—the great staff at AOPA. I think I can learn a lot from the members. I know a little about flying. Put that together with some business skills….and then we ask how do we continue to grow the value” for the members. “That’s where I’m going to spend my time—making sure the staff and I can get to the agendas the members see as important.”
Knowing the importance of AOPA’s role as lead advocate for GA pilots, Baker notes that he has spent time on Capitol Hill communicating for companies he has worked for in the past. “We have to be heard from the consumer perspective and remind the people who work up there that they are working for the people. We have an agenda and have to communicate that.” When addressing the AOPA staff, Baker reminded that “the government works for us. Some have forgotten that. The general aviation groups together are going to go toe-to-toe with the government.”
Baker is a longtime friend of EAA Chairman Jack Pelton. The two leaders have already talked about how the two largest groups in aviation can collaborate to bring about positive change.
Baker will make his first address to the membership at AOPA Aviation Summit on Oct. 10 in Fort Worth, Texas. To read his personal reflections on his role and the future, see “President’s Position: Behind the Curtain” on page 4). See a 16-minute video interview with Baker on AOPA Live.
While he may still be formulating his plans for the association, one thing that comes through clearly in any conversation with Baker is his passion for aviation and his all-consuming desire to protect the freedom to fly for others. He has given hundreds of rides over the years and influenced dozens of people to learn to fly, he estimates. “When I’m 100 I expect I’ll still be riding my bicycle out to the airport,” he says.