A wing and a prayer

Like many CEOs, Fred Dettwiller likes to take to the air. What he does while up there sets him apart.

It’s simple enough to say Fred Dettwiller is the president and CEO of DET Distributing, the Nashville-based beverage distributor founded by his father. It’s much harder to encapsulate all that the successful 78-year-old executive does in so few sentences.

The Tennessee native and Vanderbilt University graduate ran his own business in Clarksville soon after he tossing his commencement cap into the air, and then took over DET and its 23 employees in 1973. Today, the private company, operating from its MetroCenter headquarters, has more than 150 employees and is the state’s largest distributor (with more than 100 brands). DET’s annual revenue is estimated at $20-50 million.

Dettwiller also carries titles of “chairman” (Tennessee Aeronautics Commission), “past chairman” (Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority, Tennessee Human Rights Commission), “president” (Tennessee Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) and, since 2004, “Reverend,” serving as Canon for finance, administration and development for the Episcopal Diocese of Middle Tennessee. He is a member of more than a dozen community, state and national organizations, commissions and boards.

He juggles responsibilities with relative ease, now giving much of his time to the Diocese while relying on senior managers at DET to handle that company’s day-to-day affairs. He does not short-change his wife and family, nor does he let a second home in Destin, Fla., sit idle for very long.

Oh, and he can fly commercial airliners if he feels like it.

An experienced pilot, Dettwiller learned his aviation skills almost by accident. Now, as with his myriad ventures and hobbies, he is passionate about aviation. He recently took some time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts about piloting a plane or a business or family or a calling—perhaps pondering a connection that links them.

Q: Do you sleep?

A: (Laughs) “I sleep very well. But I also don’t really need or want more than seven hours.”

Q: So how did you get started as a pilot?

A: “It was not a childhood dream of mine, not an adult dream of mine. At my first company, a financial advisor realized that my business partner and I could afford an airplane and that it might help us get around and accomplish our business objectives. So, we bought one, and [I got asked] to be the navigator. So then it was my responsibility to hire the pilot and get trained as navigator.

“When we flew on company business, I sat in the back working on things and the pilot would turn around to try and talk to me. One day he said, ‘Why don’t you come up here?’ I’d been reading, so it was kind of an interruption for me, but I went and sat up in the co-pilot’s seat and put the headset on and thought, ‘This is kind of neat,’ so I did that a couple of times. And it just grew from there.”

Q: Other executives are also pilots. Is there a connection between jobs that carry greater responsibilities and piloting?

A: “I can’t speak for everybody. I think most of them enjoy it, but there may be a connection. It could be a combination of things. I’m very much a ‘point A to point B’ type of person. I’m very slow, so I don’t fit the typical profile of my colleagues. Flying has always been personal enjoyment. It is very convenient for some businesses, but for me it’s mostly personal. It’s also very intellectual—the experience—dealing with weather issues, navigation issues...

“However, I have flown some airplanes much bigger than mine. And what I’ve discovered is the bigger they are, the easier they are to fly—they have more power, better systems, they’re more stable—but it’s the same navigation. You talk to the same people, use the same system. Is that a business correlation? I don’t know.”

Q: Has piloting allowed you to get away from the day-to-day distractions for a few hours of solitude or to help you think through business issues?

A: “No. My philosophy about aviation is that you have to have your mind clear and uncluttered, so to me it’s just the opposite. Not thinking about the business helps me think clearly. I’m not saying I haven’t enjoyed some solitude, but for me, it’s more that you have to clear your mind of all those distractions before you can fly an airplane.”

Q: Is that because you have too much to think about before you take off?

A: “Absolutely. There’s a pre-flight checklist to follow. I think it’s a mistake to think about work. In fact, I won’t answer my cell phone—I power it off. If someone wants to call me, then call me after the flight.”

Q: So the only people who need to be talking with are in your headset?

A: (Laughs) “Yeah. That’s right.”

Q: There is a stereotypical view of business executives that would seem to be in sharp contrast with church leaders, at least from an ethical and moral standpoint. How do you respond if you’re asked, ‘How can you do both jobs?’

A: “I can do both because I use the same standards for both. DET is run in an ethically and morally correct manner, so I don’t see these as being diametrically opposed. As for the stereotype of corporate executives, I think a lot of them are consumed with greed. I also know that some ‘members of the cloth’ are consumed with personal greed. They can become overwhelmed by their desire to produce big numbers. It’s been called ‘nickels and noses’—they want to take in lots of nickels, and they want to see lots of noses in the pews on Sunday. And that’s how they can measure their success.”

A: I read somewhere that you had a list of things you hadn’t done that you still wanted to do. Are you close to finishing what’s on that list?

Q: “No, I’m farther away because of other things I’ve taken on. One reason I’m not done is I found out long ago that I can’t be in two places at the same time.”

Q: Would you say being a pilot has or hasn’t helped you as a business owner?

A: “Here’s how aviation helps me: by getting me to Destin in one hour and 38 minutes. Because I don’t have to drive the eight or nine hours, I can stay there longer, too.