If the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines executives expected the standard balloons and speeches to celebrate their newly announced flights to Dallas-Fort Worth International, they underestimated Joe Lopano.
The DFW airport's marketing boss, Lopano loaded them into a mini-bus stocked with Heineken and Shiner beer and showed off local landmarks: the sixth-floor window at Dealey Plaza where Oswald shot JFK, the Fort Worth Stock Yards and Billy Bob's Texas, a.k.a. the World's Largest Honky Tonk.
At the next day's public ceremony, they sheepishly sported big black cowboy hats and matching boots, gifts from their host.
"I believe in the saying that all business is personal," Lopano said. It's especially relevant, he said, when airports are trying to persuade airlines to bring $25 million airplanes to new communities.
Lopano, 55, will take over Jan. 1 as just the third executive director of Tampa International Airport since Lyndon Johnson was elected president.
He'll face big challenges.
TIA board members expect Lopano to beef up the airport's meager roster of international destinations. Declining passenger traffic continues to drag down revenue. Lopano sees signs of a rebound. But if it doesn't materialize, he'll need to find new ways to make money or cut expenses without tarnishing TIA's reputation for customer service.
Friends and acquaintances describe him as driven, contagiously upbeat and fun. A guy with good people skills but not an easy boss. A native New Yorker whose clipped accent and allegiance to the New York Yankees haven't softened through two decades in the Lone Star State.
In his time off, Lopano shoots still-life photos, golfs to a 15 handicap and follows college football. Especially Ivy League football, where the youngest of his three children, Scott, punts for the University of Pennsylvania.
Lopano stays close to relatives in Tarrytown, the Westchester County suburb where he grew up. A Lopano family website pokes fun at their Italian-American idiosyncrasies and documents annual Christmas parties and summer picnics with YouTube videos.
His first job out of college in 1978 landed Lopano at Pan Am in New York as an auditor. He caught on with Continental Airlines seven years later as a marketing executive specializing in scouting and developing new routes.
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport hired him in 1997 to work the other side of the table: persuading airlines to fly their multimillion-dollar jets to the Big D.
His success in luring airlines like KLM persuaded Tampa International's board to name him Thursday to succeed former executive director Louis Miller, who resigned in March.
Dallas-Fort Worth International handles three times as many passengers as TIA. Most are changing planes on American Airlines, which controls about 80 percent of DFW's traffic.
Lopano had to walk a fine line, recruiting competing carriers to fly into American's biggest market without angering the airport's 800-pound gorilla.
He's done well, said Kevin Cox, an American executive and former No. 2 at DFW, in an interview with TIA's executive headhunter, Michael Bell, last month.
"You have to have the political backbone to say that you are here for the region, not just for one airline," Cox told Bell. But Lopano was smart, meeting first with American's alliance partner airlines or carriers that didn't compete head-to-head with American, he said.
The marketing guy doesn't rely on gut feelings, Cox told Bell.
"He does not like people that do not support their positions with facts and numbers," he said. "If the answer is not in the numbers, then someone is not doing things properly, and he finds that unacceptable."
Lopano describes himself as a "fairly high-intensity" leader. "I expect a lot out of my team and out of myself," he said.
Pieter Elbers, one of the KLM executives on the local tour in 2007, told Bell that Lopano can be impatient, but that's not a bad thing.
"For Joe and me, it is, 'Let's get it done; let's not discuss it over and over again.' Not all people are like that, and he may be impatient if people have a different approach or direction."
Lopano won't be at DFW to see the results of his last recruiting coup: flights from San Francisco and Los Angeles by Virgin America, the airport's first new domestic carrier since 2006. But he left behind an idea to welcome the airline's first arrival in December.
"When the plane pulls up, we're going to have four or five cattle and horses on the ramp to welcome them," said David Dubois, CEO of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Creativity is what Joe's all about."
Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384 or [email protected]