President and CEO John “Lites” Leenhouts has been at the helm of SUN ‘n FUN for over a decade and has worked in the industry for 48 years. During his tenure, the organization has transformed not only the operating state and organizational culture but also the perspective from which it operates. Tracy Neal, Chief Financial Officer, attests, “He was the perfect addition to our team. I don’t think we could have found anyone with more experience or excitement about aviation. He jumped right in and helped us transform from a Not-For-Profit living on a line of credit to a Not-For-Profit able to survive the COVID pandemic. He has guided the team through major improvements across the entire campus, including our latest addition of the Ramus SkyLAB Innovation Center. He has forged bonds with volunteers, donors, and students that will be remembered for years to come.”
After ten incredible years of resurrection, realignment, rebuilding, and expansion, the leadership of the Aerospace Center for Excellence and the SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo, is about to change. At the completion of SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo 2022, John “Lites” Leenhouts will retire from the President/CEO role, but will continue to be an active advocate for both ACE and SNF. ACE Board Chairman Rick Garcia ascertains, “Lites has done so much for ACE & SUN ‘n FUN the list is too long, it has been an honor to work with Lites for the past 11 years.”
Since arriving in August 2011, Lites led the ACE/SUN ‘n FUN team from an extremely challenging fiscal situation into a position of financial strength for the first time in over 30 years. Lites has continued to pour millions into capital improvements on the SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo Campus, created a world-class event venue attracting dozens of multiday events annually, built the world’s largest high school flying club, and consistently increased attendance at the annual SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo. Fittingly SUN ‘n FUN 2021 became the biggest and best in its 47-year history. Additionally, he conceptualized and established the Aerospace Center for Excellence, home of the Ramus SkyLab Innovation Center, as the premier Aerospace-based, hands-on STEM education ecosystem in the nation. Board Member, Gene Strickland, recognizes, “John’s leadership during the past ten years has enabled SUN ‘n FUN to achieve remarkable success. More importantly, John’s influence has resulted in SUN ‘n FUN being recognized for its education of our next generation of aviation professionals. A big thank you from Lakeland’s new young pilots and its’ aviation technicians.”
The new workplace ambiance took time, but the change nourished a shift that has sustained a space where employees can be successful, transparent, and empowered. Executive Events Director Laura Vaughn maintains, “Although the SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo began many years before Lites’ tenure at the helm, his focused efforts provided a purpose and relevancy for the SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo to continue and to give the gift of flight to future generations. A legacy to be proud of!”
From his 27 years as a US Naval Aviator to 11 years at Northrop Grumman Corporation, all the way through his tenure at SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo and the Aerospace Center for Excellence, and the Florida Air Museum; Lites has consistently delivered high-quality performance, solid dynamic leadership, and a value-driven work ethic. From SUN ‘n Fun Board Chair, Dr. Harley Richards perspective, “We are grateful for the dedication that John “Lites” Leenhouts has given to SUN ‘n FUN, the community, and the Aerospace industry. His knowledge of general aviation as well as his organizational and communication skills have enabled him to take SUN ‘n FUN and ACE to a level we could have never imagined. We are anxious to begin our new relationship with Lites as he becomes an Ambassador to ACE and SUN ‘n FUN helping us grow and expand our Aerospace Education footprint.”
“Lites’ has been a driving force and a tremendous advocate for the significant growth of the SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo, and the development of ACE along with the youth aviation education programs produced by ACE,” said Gene Conrad, Lakeland Airport Director. “We will miss Lites’ passion and energy here at the airport, but we know he will continue to be a staunch advocate and cheerleader for all things Lakeland Linder International Airport and ACE. We wish him all the best and much success in his next chapter.”
After serving with Lites from the very beginning, Marketing Director, Melissa Goodson, states, “The strength of his leadership is inspiring trust, proving to be challenging at times; this led staff, volunteers, and Board to follow his lead. Also, returning confidence to us empowered us to take responsibility for our decisions from an organizational standpoint. When we followed his lead and stuck with him, he instilled in us the belief that we did this together. Remaining as a unit for many years now, we have developed the strong communication necessary for where we are today. Being a part of the Aerospace Center for Excellence process has allowed me to fully appreciate and remain blown away with what we have accomplished with him at the helm. The imprint he has left is embedded in our history now”.
When asked what do you attribute to all these many successes, Lites quickly stated, “Can-do spirit and total team effort on the part of Board, Staff, and Volunteers…it has truly been an honor to serve alongside them in our adventurous journey for this noble cause.” He went on to say, “Of all the wonderful accomplishments that I have been privileged to be a part of while here, the most rewarding experience has been observing average kids populating our ACE/SNF campus and over a very short period of time evolving into competent, capable, and focused young men and women who have become good citizens with bright futures.”