Talent, Hard Work and Passion Bring Success
By Dawn Robinette
Photography by David Teran
Considering that she’s a CEO and has been chief financial officer for two public companies, it’s hard to believe that Bianca Rhodes had no idea what she wanted her career to be.
“I had no idea about different careers. I don’t remember ever having a career day at my high school. The only thing I knew about careers was a little bit about what my friends’ parents did for a living.”
Graduating from UT Austin, the Rio Grande Valley native wasn’t sure what industry was a fit. Commercial lending drew her in. “I thought it would be fun to be a banker and work with all kinds of companies. That’s what commercial lending was for me: exposure to a lot of different types of companies, manufacturers, leasing companies, and service companies. I had a little bit of everything, and I got to know a lot of different industries. I really liked manufacturing. I thought it was especially rewarding when you actually see something come out of a factory that you’ve built.”
That’s exactly what she gets to do now as President and CEO of Knight Aerospace, which specializes in roll-on, roll-off medical aircraft modules for the medical evacuation of patients across the world, as well as roll-on, roll-off palletized, and modular systems and ground support equipment to more than 35 countries.
“Our specialized roll-on units are loaded onto aircraft to help safely transport the military, humanitarian relief organizations, and private clients. It’s literally a room that rolls onto the back of cargo aircraft, and it locks in to go anywhere,” explains Rhodes. “The medical module is really a flying hospital room.”
With the ability to treat patients in the air, “You’re doing everything you would do in a hospital, but in the air. So you’re going to improve your medical outcomes because you’re treating them so much faster. And when you take it off the aircraft, you can operate it like an ICU or remote clinic. It gives people more flexibility. It’s an instant hospital you could have in a very remote area.”
But Knight Aerospace is far from the first San Antonio company to benefit from Rhodes’ talents. From her time in banking, she went in-house with a customer, ultimately positioning the company to be sold to Intelogic Trace (NYSE: IT), where she became the Chief Financial Officer. She then joined another of her bank clients, Kinetic Concepts Inc. (NASDAQ: KNCI), and one she helped to take public a few years earlier. As its CFO, she engineered a turnaround which more than quadrupled the company’s value and enabled its private offering just three years later, at a valuation of approximately $1 billion.
“That’s how I got to be the chief financial officer of two public companies before I was 35 years old,” she explains. “I’d like to tell you that I knew what I was doing, but I was very fortunate. I had a lot of people who helped me along the way – great mentors and a lot of sounding boards.”
“It’s why I’m a super advocate for STEM education and spend a lot of my free time focused on that. I think it’s amazing what we do now and how we expose children to different careers. And I think the earlier, the better, because it is hard when you don’t have that in your natural surroundings.
It’s a long way from where she started. “We were very poor when I was growing up. My parents were not educated. We did not have “The Wall Street Journal” laying around the house,” she explains. “Everybody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said, “Not poor.” That’s what I wanted to be.
“It’s one of the biggest things that shaped me: being poor when I was young. I consider that a gift. It made me appreciate all the blessings that I have today. It made me aspire and be driven to be successful. It helped me value things, take care of things, take care of people and prioritize. I don’t think I’d be here if I hadn’t had that as an experience. It was a blessing, I didn’t think of it at the time, but it was. It builds your character. It makes you creative. It makes you independent.
“I was the first on either side of my family to go to college. Neither of my parents even finished high school. When I announced I was going off to college, it did not go over well. That’s not what you were supposed to do. You were supposed to get a job, stay home, bring money to help the family. And I am doing it differently than that. That sense of independence is something that’s really hard to teach kids now.”
Rhodes, who has been married to her husband Jim for almost 35 years, decided to shift focus after KCI. With three young children at home, “I thought ‘I’ll stay home and raise them, and that’ll be fun.’ And so I retired. Except I didn’t like being retired. I found out that was a much harder job than what I had,” she laughs.
She began consulting for a number of private enterprises, specializing in financial and operating issues, always taking clients around her children’s schedule. “I have a very strong work ethic. I’ve been working since I was 13 years old. Maybe this is old school, but the more you put into anything, the more you invest in something, the more you’re going to get in return from it.”
“I’ve been learning how to work smarter as I get older, making sure that my time is well utilized. But I wake up every day, assess the gifts that God has given me, and wonder, ‘How do I deploy them to the best of my ability?’ I think if you do that, you’re going be successful no matter what you’re doing.”
I’ve had great mentors in my career, so many great people that paved the way, people that opened doors for me. That’s why I think it’s so important that we do the exact same.
“I feel very strongly that my purpose here is to advance God’s kingdom and to care for one another and to be of service to others,” explains Rhodes. She gives her time in two areas: education and programs impacting women. “Education because of the impact that it had for me, the life-altering experience it was for me.”
She also helped found Any Woman Can, a San Antonio ministry that provides a safe environment where people are empowered to make informed decisions on unplanned pregnancy, sexual health, and mental health concerns. “I realized as I was volunteering that most women needed counseling and free counseling is very hard to come by. We’ve changed a lot of young women’s and men’s lives because we counsel couples, too.”
She believes in giving grace, something she learned from one of her bosses. “I had loaned money to a company that was now having financial problems. I remember going in, talking to him, and being scared to death. I remember the grace that he showed me and him saying, just pay it forward. If you can always think, ‘That is someone’s son or daughter.’ Really care, give them every benefit of the doubt, and help them to know that it’s not the end of the world. We can solve this.
“The older I get, the more things just run off my back. There’s always tomorrow; there’s always the next opportunity. You would think the older that I get, I would feel like there are less and less opportunities, but I don’t.
“I look back on the hard moments, and I think I was so upset or I was so distraught. And now I think that was nothing. God is good. He has a plan. It passes, and you move on to the next thing. You can’t let any one thing or experience dictate who you are and the trajectory of your life at that point. Stop, make an assessment, go a different direction. Learn from it and become better.”
“I’ve loved my career. I wouldn’t have traded it. I was just really fortunate that I landed in something that I was good at and was interesting to me. I think as long as you’re passionate about what you’re doing and it’s enjoyable to you, you’re on the right track.
“You always want to do something that inspires you, that makes you passionate, that makes you excited about getting out of bed in the morning. If you don’t have all of those things, you need to be rethinking where you’re at.”