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Eric Onnen Ready to Steer Santa Barbara Airbus for Long Haul

As the company celebrates 27 years and its move to a bigger home, the owner — and Goleta mayor — is leaving politics to get back to business

Goleta Mayor Eric Onnen played double duty Wednesday by attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony of his own newly relocated business, Santa Barbara Airbus.

A small cadre of fellow businesspeople and council members attended the small celebration.

“This is a physical and visible milestone for this local business’ growth. And what’s so nice about it is they’re a homegrown business with a lot of local employees,” Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Kristen Amyx said as Onnen officially opened the new home of the charter bus company, which provides service from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles International Airport and back.

The company’s new site at 750 Technology Drive in Old Town Goleta is not far from the offices Santa Barbara Airbus has occupied for years, but the accommodations are a step up from the old, smaller digs. The building, which was formerly occupied by Cox Communications, offers the space Airbus employees have needed for a while, Onnen said.

“We were using every available inch of space,” said Tim Onnen, Onnen’s brother and general manager of Santa Barbara Airbus.

Tim Onnen, who has been with Santa Barbara Airbus as it slowly grew through the years, said the company has been looking for a new place for a long time. The new location will allow for a better welcome of clients and offers a better space for the long-term parking the company provides. In a few weeks, the Santa Barbara Airbus Web site will get its own new look, with increased functionality for users, and the company will be adding more trips per day.

“Everything we’re working on is about positioning ourselves to improve, to offer more value to our customers,” he said.

Santa Barbara Airbus started as a couple of vans and a good idea 27 years ago. Eric Onnen said his father-in-law made the suggestion as the 25-year-old, newly married Onnen prepared to head back to Goleta after a trip to London, Ontario, Canada. Instead of driving the 100 miles from the in-laws’ home to the airport in Toronto, they put him on a bus.

“My father-in-law said, ‘This is what you need in Goleta,’” Onnen said. As he rode the 100 miles to the airport, Onnen, a UCSB graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business economics, worked out the plan that later became Santa Barbara Airbus.

After partnering up with a friend he worked with at Country Meat Market, Onnen launched Santa Barbara Airbus with enough money in loans to buy two vans between the two partners. It was back in the day before booking fares online, so Onnen, wife Kelly and business partner Mark Klopstein went to all the travel agents in town to advertise the new service.

“At that time, there were 100 travel agents in Santa Barbara, Goleta, Lompoc and Santa Maria,” he said.

The early years, Onnen said, were an exercise in frugality and hard work. He didn’t quit his job at Country Meat Market for another year, to keep the money flowing in as Kelly handled the business. By year three, the Onnens and Klopstein had quit their jobs to go full on with Santa Barbara Airbus.

He credits customer service for the company’s success after a quarter-century in a relatively small market and its ability to outlast the occasional competition for clients. The vehicles, which started out as 10-seaters to the familiar motor coaches the company uses today, were punctual, available and reliable. They also took reservations.

The business participated in the community. The staff, both in the office and in the buses, were friendly and attentive, Onnen said. It’s a simple formula, but one that has allowed the company to grow to the 60 employees, 20 buses and five mini-coaches it has today.

Meanwhile, as the company grew, so did the idea of cityhood for Goleta Valley residents. Onnen said he supported the idea of incorporation for Goleta, and even considered participating politically during the several incorporation drives, but he was still full into running the young business he had and couldn’t commit the time to become a politician.

Fast forward to 2006: The new city of Goleta had been in existence for four years, but tensions between no-growth proponents and pro-growth supporters continued to be high. The slow-growth council majority, Onnen said, wasn’t sensitive to the business community’s needs, and so, with a little more stability in terms of his own business, Onnen ran — and won — a seat on the council.

People would know Councilman Onnen for the businesslike expediency with which he wanted projects to move through the Goleta planning departments. It was a quality that some interpreted as blindly pro-growth, but if you ask Onnen, it’s simple business practice.

“It’s just how I think,” he said.

All the years of studying business and economics, and pulling his own business together by the bootstraps, he said, guided how he chose to do things.

After four years on the council, including the current one as mayor, Onnen said he’s ready to go back to being a local businessman.

“I tried not to steal too much time from my business and my family, but I did,” said the father of three daughters.

Now, he said he wants to bring back more balance in his life, and that’s the main reason he gives for deciding not to run for office again. Still, he walks away from public life with a lot learned, and he said he hopes to continue to participate in the future.

“It’s been a positive experience,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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