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Legacy Spotlight: Casa Unlimited

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

By Ramon Lo, Thought Provoker | Creative Thinker | Constant Innovator | Problem Solver | Idea Generator

This series aims to capture a moment in time, talking to airport concessionaires about how their lives and businesses are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

A career in airport concessions was seemingly not in the cards for Joya Kizer Clarke. In fact, she had quite a reaction to pursuing a degree in business when her mother, and CASA Unlimited founder, Yolanda Kizer approached Joya about a pivot in that direction. “Genetics and organic chemistry sounded a lot better at the time,” confesses Joya, who graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in Zoology. It just so happened that in the summer of 1998 Joya was finishing her time at Arizona State University and found herself with a bit of time before graduation. Her mother’s partner, Host Marriott, had recently completed an acquisition of a small local business. It was then that Yolanda asked her daughter to assist the company where she could, beginning with simple data entry. Almost instantly, whether by fate or by entrepreneurial instincts embedded in her DNA or simply a mother’s intuition, Joya caught the airport bug. And despite the seemingly vast differences between the world of business and the world of science, Joya found ways to apply principles from her initial passion to her current passion. “What I love about science is it’s a world of puzzles,” Joya explains. “Science is problem solving. It developed my analytical skills, taught me to see systems holistically, to utilize deductive reasoning, and organization.” Currently, CASA independently operates three retail units in Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in addition to partnerships in five units with XpresSpa, three units with InMotion, five units with Stellar Partners, and several units with SSP America, a contract that, according to Joya, is currently not yet executed. But the nature of a contract business is analogous to the ebb and flow of a tide. As a wave rushes in bringing with it a bounty of treasures and rewards, so too does it recede and take with it those same rewards. This results in entrepreneurs like CASA, having to constantly be creative and to constantly reinvent. And when significant events, such as 9/11 and the most recession, strike an industry, there is no immunity. “Life is full of ups and downs both in business as well as in life,” Joya explains. “And in a family owned business, those often overlap. Each of those events brought its own experience with fear and sadness in addition to courage, resilience, discipline and lots and lots of hard work and harder decisions.” Intertwined within those events was the sudden medical leave of the family matriarch in 2012. A succession plan had already been in place but Yolanda’s condition hastened Joya’s ascension to the role of president and CEO. The transition came at a time when the company was during a bid at PHX. A Mohs scale measurement of the family’s hardiness would be tested again, much like the entire airport concessions industry would, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though previous events prepared them to apply best practices, nothing could stanch the bleeding. Revenues fell precipitously alongside the equally rapidly falling passenger traffic. From a personal standpoint, the furloughing of employees was difficult. Many were with CASA for almost if the company existed, and all continue to have their medical benefits paid for by the company. From a small business standpoint, it is not just about lost revenue. It is the fear of a much deeper loss than dollars. The company’s stores in PHX’s Terminal 4 were financed largely through SBA loans that require collateral and personal guarantees, explains Aaron Kizer, Joya’s father and the secretary and treasurer for CASA. “A 100% of revenues have stopped, but many of the monthly bills necessary to support our infrastructure continue,” explains Aaron. “Because of these loans--if our business fails--our family will lose, at a minimum two houses, an office building, and our savings accounts.” Despite the dark clouds and seemingly no relief in sight, Joya remains optimistic, knowing that it is the duty of a small business to be agile and adjust accordingly. Aaron agrees, noting that resilience and grit are in the genetic makeup of entrepreneurs and of CASA. “Entrepreneurship is all about the pivot,” he says. “We are in constant reinvention, responding to the consumer climate, the pressure of competition, the innovations of the marketplace.” The optimism, though, comes with a caveat. Joya is confident that both CASA and her fellow operators will capably adjust with what comes next, if airports play an active, participative role in the pivot. Survival, let alone recovery, is made much more difficult when requests for rent relief are denied, especially for small businesses. Joya shares that currently the Phoenix City Council has not come forth with any form of rent relief amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Ultimately, the viewpoint cannot be one of landlord versus tenant but one of landlord and tenant. The outcome? A symbiotic relationship and unified effort resulting in the industry’s collective survival and eventual success.

About the Author

Ramon Lo, Thought Provoker | Creative Thinker | Constant Innovator | Problem Solver | Idea Generator

Endless curiosity and a willingness to learn is Ramon's fuel, while passion and creativity are his tools. Ramon's focus is to develop a means to maintain a brand’s relevance and utility with its audience.

The victory comes in overcoming the habit of doing the same thing over and over again.

View Ramon Lo's LinkedIn here.

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