By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times
A passion for “things that fly in the sky” has always motivated Ron Mathieu, dating back to his fifth birthday, when he and his family flew aboard a Pan Am 727 jet from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, into New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK Airport).
“I remember being on the ramps that day [in 1967],” he recalled. “I saw the airplane and said to myself, ‘I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my life!’ We got on the airplane, and all I could do was really just look around.
“We landed, went through the International Arrivals Building, and met my dad. At the time, I hadn’t seen him for three years because he immigrated to the U.S. before we did.”
That passion would eventually land Mathieu in Birmingham, where he is currently chief executive officer of Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport and has his sights set on The World Games 2022 (TWG 2022), which will be held at venues in and around the Magic City from July 7 through 17. Mathieu considers this event one of his most important initiatives to date because “the first thing people will notice when they fly into Birmingham to participate in [TWG 2022] is the airport,” he said.
“We need to make sure we make a great first impression [because] we have an opportunity to put Birmingham in the spotlight,” Mathieu added.
To that end, the CEO has budgeted $8.3 million for improvements at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth airport, including parking deck elevator modernization, Wi-Fi and cell service enhancements, and terminal terrazzo floor updates. In addition, all passenger loading bridges will be refreshed with new carpeting and fresh paint, and all terminal seating will be replaced to optimize passenger comfort and capacity.
“My number-one goal is to make sure that when people arrive, they have a smooth transition in and a smooth transition out,” Matthieu said, adding that he is paying attention to details large and small to “make sure everything is the way it should be.”
“[There will be] new striping on the roadways, new lighting for the crosswalks. The garage is going to have a new LED lighting system all around it so we can light it up in recognition of whatever the event is—whether it’s pink, whether it’s blue, in fact, in full [TWG 2022 colors]. The garage will be illuminated all around with the different colors of the International World Games Association,” said the airport CEO, who is also a board member of TWG22.
Mathieu made his way to Birmingham by doing something he’s done for the past 33 years—listening to his wife, Yasmine. In 2019, Mathieu was at an Aviation Issues Conference in Maui, Hawaii, when an industry professional walked up to him and said, “Ron, we have an opportunity we think you’d be interested in.” Mathieu asked where, “and they said ‘Birmingham.’”
Mathieu told the professional that he needed to call his wife, which he did. “I had [Yasmine on via speakerphone], and they said to her, ‘I have an airport that your husband just might be interested in.’ … My wife asked, ‘Is it Birmingham?’ She had been wanting to relocate to Birmingham for at least five years at that point.”
When Mathieu was preparing for the interview at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth, his wife gave him words of advice, he recalled: “Be yourself.” He listened, and he got the job in 2019.
It didn’t take long for Mathieu to get to work. Less than a year into his tenure, the Birmingham Airport Authority (BAA) Board of Directors voted to restructure the outstanding debt of the BAA’s revenue bonds, which resulted in interest savings of more than $33 million. Other moves were made to decrease annual debt service payments from $16.6 million to $10 million. “By restructuring our debt, we are forging a path to reach our ultimate goal of being debt-free,” said Mathieu.
Adapting to the Culture
Moving from Haiti to the U.S. was an adjustment on several fronts for the young Mathieu. “We eventually adapted to the culture,” he said. “For some people, that is a huge deal. For my family, it was our new norm now that we were in the [U.S.]. We didn’t lose our heritage. … We were just in the big melting pot of New York.”
Mathieu kept in mind something his father, Emmanuel, used to say: “The United States doesn’t promise you anything. It gives you the opportunity to be who you want to be, but you’ve got to put in the work for it.”
“It was really important to [my father] that our family worked hard for what we had and excelled at all we did,” said Mathieu, who was educated in the New York City public school system.
When Mathieu attended Forest Hills High School in Queens, New York, he had a teacher who oversaw the aviation club.
“We actually ended up spending a lot of time together,” Mathieu remembered. “We would sit in the control towers of local public airports and watch airplanes. … Once that happened, it was over. I knew that’s how I wanted to spend my life and career. I loved airplanes.”
After graduating from high school, Mathieu enrolled at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT), in Melbourne, Florida, where he studied aviation management.
“Along with my acceptance into FIT, I was accepted into Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, [which has main campuses in in Daytona Beach, Florida, and Prescott, Arizona], and Purdue University, [in West Lafayette, Indiana],” he said. “They are both very remarkable flight schools.”
While at FIT, Mathieu acquired his pilot’s license and spent his summers interning at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, JFK Airport, and consulting firms.
“My dad was always encouraging me to get active and involved all throughout college,” he said.
Three months before Mathieu’s graduation, his father was diagnosed with cancer.
“The doctors actually gave him less than two months to live,” he said. “My dad really encouraged me to stay in school when he was sick.”
Mathieu honored his father’s wishes and graduated. His father passed away in 1986 at age 53.
After receiving an offer from the U.S. Marine Corps, Matthieu declined the commission due to his responsibility as a son. “As the eldest son, it was my responsibility to help take care of my family,” said Mathieu, who has an older sister and younger brother.
Family is still one of Mathieu’s top priorities. He and his wife have two sons: the older one, Elliot, works as an actuary for a major finance and insurance company and recently relocated to Houston, Texas; the younger one, Logan Alexander, who attended college in Florida and graduated during the COVID-19 pandemic with a degree in criminal justice, now attends the Birmingham School of Law.
Fueled by His Passion
Mathieu’s passion for “things that fly in the sky” has fueled his career journey.
His airport leadership took off in 2002, when he became director of operations for the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where he oversaw and managed activities that ensured and enforced compliance with federal, state, and local regulations.
In 2006, Mathieu relocated to Little Rock, Arkansas, home of the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, where he started in the role of deputy executive director. “I felt like I could really be a benefit at that location, and I really loved the area,” he said. “I felt like I could really raise a family there.”
In 2007, Mathieu was named executive director of the Clinton National Airport, a position he held for 11 years. From there, Mathieu landed in Birmingham by following the sage advice of his wife of more than three decades: “Be yourself.”
“When I came [to the Magic City], my goal was this: ‘Five years from now, I want Birmingham-Shuttlesworth … to be the best small-hub airport in the nation—the best managed [and] the best financed with the best customer service, the whole nine yards.’ We want people to compare themselves against us,” Mathieu said.