Spreading Her Wings: Beti Ward, the queen of air cargo, keeps a keen eye on cancer research

June 25, 2016

Beti Ward travels to Hawaii once a month, but don’t look for her lounging on the beach with an umbrella drink in hand. More likely she’ll be up to her elbows in work as chief executive of Pacific Air Cargo, a company she formed in 2000 after “retiring” from the air cargo business just two years earlier.

Retirement didn’t go as planned. In 1998 Beti sold her previous air cargo company, which flew goods between the mainland and Hawaii. She signed a non-compete clause and held financing for the new owner, who quickly went bankrupt. Though she was owed millions, Beti offered to forgive the debt if she was released from the non-compete clause. She was back in business.

But as she stood before her first meeting of Pacific Air Cargo personnel, Beti got a distinctly chilly reception from the 12 male faces staring back. That was when she first realized there was a gender difference.

“I had to learn to reason with and talk to the very male element of my business—and when not to talk at all,” she recalls. So before the next meeting, she read Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, a 1993 best-selling guide to understanding the opposite sex. At the next meeting, she showed up in a red power suit and demonstrated her prowess with a forklift.

She didn’t stop with the forklift; she also learned her way around a cockpit. She took flying lessons after tiring of people assuming she was a flight attendant when she said she worked “in aviation.”

“I wanted to say ‘No, I’m a pilot.’ But then after taking lessons, I decided I didn’t have time to devote to it, so I stopped. I was only doing it to prove something to others, which I came to realize was not necessary,” Beti says. She adds with a laugh: “Besides, when I ride in the cabin, I can enjoy a glass of wine.”

Left: Beti Ward, center, with daughter Carolyn Poe and son Gary Poe. Middle: Pacific Air Cargo reunites many people in Hawaii with their pets. “The pets travel first class with us on the main deck, not in the dark belly of the plane,” Beti says. Right: Baby buffalo en route to Hawaii from Texas.

Four employees from her original air cargo company remained with her when she started Pacific Air Cargo. They’ve now been with her for more than 20 years.

“The loyalty of these employees is what helps keep me successful,” says Beti, now in her early 70s. When working, she stays in either her Los Angeles or Honolulu condo, but home is Incline Village, Nevada, on the edge of Lake Tahoe. “I just love the mountains and the lake and get there as often as I can.”

Retiring again is not on her radar. “I have bad knees. I can’t play tennis. I can’t go skiing. I suck at golf. Might as well work,” she quips.

The loyalty Beti values in her employees is a trait she gives to causes she supports. Since 2005 she has been a steadfast friend of the John Wayne Cancer Institute, making regular philanthropic gifts.

While at Saint John’s Health Center for a routine mammogram, she read an informational brochure about the Institute and became intrigued by the specimen repository while touring the facility. The tissue bank holds decades of tissue and blood samples from cancer patients for use in research.

“They have thousands of samples—from years ago even— that they still study, which was very interesting,” Beti says. The repository was started in 1971, long before most in the medical field realized that such tissue would be useful in the study of the genetics of cancer.

Beti also was “a big fan of John Wayne" and attended the Institute’s annual Benefactors Dinner where she met Patrick Wayne and several of the Institute’s doctors. “They were all so wonderful, excited and devoted that I put the Institute on my list of annual giving,” she explains. Her donations benefit research into brain cancer, which claimed her mother’s life in 1999.

Beti applies the same high standards to philanthropy that she applies to her business, says Tanja Janfruechte, Pacific Air Cargo’s corporate vice president, who has worked for Beti for 22 years. “Beti is very particular about the organizations she supports and donates to,” Tanja says. “She does quite a bit of research to ensure the money is indeed going where it’s supposed to be going.”

Tanja describes Beti as a woman with an eye toward detail. “Beti is very smart, but what has never changed all these years—and still impresses me today as it did 20+ years ago—is how fair she is with business,” Tanja says.

Pacific Air Cargo has been named Pacific Business News’ top female-owned business—based on revenue—four times. In 2015 the business did $51 million in business, shipping 80 million pounds of freight.

Mentoring is also important to Beti. “Tanja is my right-hand person,” she says. “She started with me right out of college, and now she’s vice president of the company. Our mentoring mission is to bring people up to speed with their bosses. In fact I have a rule among the staff that no one can take a day off until they have trained another employee to handle their position.”

She brought her three children into her business years ago on the ground level. Beti never told anyone they were her children; they had to work their way up. Her daughters, Carolyn Poe and Tabitha Carnow, are currently raising families. Her son, Gary Poe, is CEO of Aloha Contract Services, which Beti bought from the now defunct Aloha Airlines in 2008.

At a time when fuel prices were skyrocketing, Beti saw an opportunity to diversify into a non-fuel-driven industry. “It was my last impulse purchase,” she jokes. The purchase saved nearly 600 counter, baggage and behind-the-scenes airport jobs that would have been lost with Aloha Airlines’ demise.

Whether in business or in giving, Beti is always forward-thinking. “I have the Institute in my will as well,” she says. “I’m sure there’s a cure for cancer out there somewhere. We know the cause and effect. A cure can’t be far behind.”