The Nuts and Bolts of Success with Lady Ridley-Tree
Philanthropist and CEO of Multimillion-Dollar Company Gives as Good as She Gets
Thursday, April 12, 2018
“I don’t think of myself as a philanthropist. I think of myself as having the enormous privilege of sharing, and sometimes I get very emotional about it because … I wish I had more to give,” said Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree. It was a foggy April morning when Santa Barbara Independent photographer Paul Wellman and I arrived at the home of the well-known Santa Barbaran to speak with her about, among other things, the Spirit of Entrepreneurship 2018 Rock Star: Life Achievement Award she will be receiving May 4 at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort (formerly Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort). The honor is bestowed each year to a successful female entrepreneur who has made an “indelible impact on our community.”
Clementine, a 13-year-old white fluff of a dog, was the first to greet us in front of the pleasant Montecito manor. A smiling Lady Leslie followed, looking smart in a pink dress and orange coat, a modest yet elegant outfit in a style reflecting the lady herself. Ridley-Tree showed us into her sitting room, which exuded old-world charm blended with mid-century California casualness.
During the interview, we spoke about her life, focusing mostly on what it’s like to be the CEO of Pacific Air Industries (PAI), a multimillion-dollar airplane-parts distribution company and FAA-certified repair shop founded in 1959 by Ridley-Tree’s late husband, Paul Ridley-Tree. Lady Ridley-Tree became CEO of PAI after her husband’s 2005 death, commuting to the Chatsworth-based office three times a week. At 93 years old, Ridley-Tree remains the hands-on driving force behind PAI. In the 13 years under her leadership, the company has grown and thrived, which allows Ridley-Tree to pursue her passion — sharing her wealth with the people of her beloved Santa Barbara.
By Paul Wellman
As part of the “old guard” of Santa Barbara philanthropists, Paul and Leslie Ridley-Tree have given to myriad organizations, among them the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (including its Ridley-Tree Education Center), Santa Barbara City College, Westmont, UCSB, the Santa Barbara Zoo, the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, Casa Esperanza, Music Academy of the West, United Way, Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinic, Girls Inc., the Sheriff’s Council, the Santa Barbara Symphony, the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Lady Ridley-Tree’s most recent notable donation was the $10.7 million she bestowed on Sansum Clinic and the Cancer Foundation of Santa Barbara for a cancer center.
Ridley-Tree has had a varied and fascinating life, training in music, attending law school, directing a Manhattan community center, and implementing the first Head Start program, designed to help young, underprivileged children prepare for school. Though reticent to discuss personal details, Ridley-Tree is thoughtful and expansive when it comes to discussing her work. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Where were you born and raised? I haven’t been born and raised. [Laughs.] I’m still working on it. I’m a work in progress. [Laughs.]
Where did you spend your childhood? On the East Coast? Yes, and Europe and all over. But I don’t think that is what [influences] what you do. I think you fall into what you do. Some people are educated for what they do. I’ve not been educated for anything that I’ve done.
You are self-taught? You’ve learned on the job? I think that has been it. I think doors opened. The need was there. Somehow I saw the need and stepped into it. Fortunately, I haven’t fallen on my face too often. I’m always amazed how I’ve ended up doing things. It has kept life very busy and very alive.
What was the very first door that opened for you? I think my life has always been like that. I’d make a plan and think, that’s what my life is going to be, and God looks down and says, “That’s lovely, little girl. Now I’ll show you what you’re really going to do,” and he gives me a push.
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to be when you grew up? Well, I was a violinist first. And then I was a singer. I’ve been a singer for a long, long time.
By Paul Wellman (file)
The Santa Barbara Zoo is one of the many organizations to which Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree has donated monies. Pictured here in a chef’s outfit, Ridley-Tree prepares meals for the critters in the Ridley-Tree Animal Kitchen as zoo goers look on.
Opera? It started that way, and then it turned into torch [songs]. Life has been very full for me, very adventurous. And then for some reason, it turned again. It’s been a life of turning corners. … I had the privilege of being the director of a [homeless] center [in New York], and then I came to Santa Barbara, and I’ve had the joy of being involved in the community in a different way.
What brought you to Santa Barbara? Getting married.
Was your husband from here? No. When I married Paul, he was here.
Did you know anything about aerospace or planes? Nothing. I’ve never known anything about anything.
I don’t believe it. It’s true.
How did you learn about the company? Did you work there? Not really. I would hear [Paul] talk on the telephone, and then I would go to the office with him when he went once a month. I would listen, and I would talk to the people at the office and get acquainted with them. But just casually, I didn’t really involve myself, because he was semi-retired.
But now clearly you know what you’re doing. My husband said that if I broke both legs and was put in the hospital, in two weeks I would be running the hospital. It seems that I end up running things.
You have a good mind for leadership and organization. I take over.
From what I’ve read, it sounds like you’re a lovely boss. I would hope that was true. I try to be considerate. And I try to do what is best for the people without being too aggressive.
But you also have to have a business mind that makes multimillion-dollar decisions, I would guess. Well, I care for the bottom line …. I’ve always had a respect for money and a respect for people at the same time and that there is a balance.
That’s a nice combination. I think having a balance about that and caring for both and understanding that there is a need that you can’t be ruthless about money and you can’t be ruthless about people — you need both.
How long have you been running the company? Twelve and a half, 13 years.
What’s it like being a female CEO? I think it’s difficult; it’s very difficult to get the respect … to get a man to look at you and talk to you and look you in the eyes. And when you’re in a group and you have men about you, you have to be very strong to get a man to look at you straightforwardly. I’ve overcome the prejudice of having red hair. And having age on my side has helped a bit because now I don’t have to flirt to get attention.
By Paul Wellman (file)
In 2016, Lady Ridley-Tree put her John Hancock on a center beam that completed the building of the Ridley-Tree Cancer Center, to which she bestowed more than $10 million.