Petaluma’s Solairus Aviation grows by focusing on service

Dan Drohan was ready to work for a bigger aviation company in 2007 when he sold his North Bay air charter business. Today he has his wish, but only because he first helped build a new enterprise from the ground up.

Drohan is the CEO and majority owner of Petaluma-based Solairus Aviation, a company that manages 80 jets for businesses and wealthy individuals. Solairus has about 400 employees in 20 states and reports 300 percent growth in revenues in the past five years.

He went from leading a charter company managing 20 aircraft to one that takes care of all the details of its clients’ flight operations and jet maintenance. To make the switch, Drohan adopted a partner’s model of providing each client with a team of four staff members who are tasked with keeping the customer safe and satisfied.

“It’s our secret weapon,” Drohan said of the company’s approach to client service.

Solairus began in 2009, a time when both the business jet market and the global economy were in a nosedive. Sales of business jets eventually fell 50 percent, dropping to 672 in 2012 from 1,372 in 2008, according to the General Aviation Manufacturer’s Association.

It was also a time when business jets became a target in a wider debate over economic fairness. In 2008, members of Congress derided Big Three auto CEOs for flying private luxury aircraft to Washington in order to seek public bailout funds, and President Barack Obama campaigned on ending tax breaks for business jet owners.

Experts see better times ahead

Six years later, experts see better times on the horizon for the industry. Sales of business jets climbed 12 percent in the first six months of the year to ?318 aircraft, according to the manufacturer’s association.

Moreover, over the past half-century, the number of planes has grown in step with economic growth, globalization and wealth creation.

“If you believe in those trends continuing, then this industry will prosper,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.

The U.S. has about 15,000 business aircraft, according to the National Business Aviation Association. The business jet sector employs more than 1.2 million people and contributes $150 billion in economic output.

A business jet can range in price from $4 million to more than $70 million, Drohan said. An owner may spend $200,000 to more than $2 million a year to maintain and operate the aircraft.

Drohan, 42, started Novato-based Sunset Aviation in 1992. He sold the company in 2007 to Pennsylvania-based JetDirect Aviation. At age 35, Drohan said, “I wanted to be part of something bigger” and was looking forward to a role in an enterprise that had bought more than ?10 aviation companies and by some accounts was managing more than 300 aircraft.

But JetDirect soon ran into financial troubles and declared bankruptcy in 2009. Drohan was unable to get Sunset back, so he banded together with others to form Solairus.

The new company’s three owners included Jake Cartwright, vice chairman, who had been CEO of TAG Aviation USA in Burlingame. TAG’s staff had developed the team model for serving clients, and Solairus adopted that approach for its operations.

Different approach taken

Some management companies discourage the flight crew from building a relationship with the client, partly for fear that it might lead to a customer hiring away a pilot and dropping the company’s services. But Solairus takes a different approach and designates an aircraft’s pilot or maintenance supervisor as one of the four support team members for each client.

John King, another Solairus owner and its president, said the aim is to build relationships, with the hope that the client will say of the crew, “I feel comfortable with them. I know them. They know me.”

“I think our secret sauce is personalized service and getting to know the client,” King said.

Besides a staff member based with the aircraft, Solairus provides the client with two ?office-based team members. When taking on a new client, both of those members will meet face to face with the client’s executive assistant or other representatives to learn about the customer.

Among other things, they want to know what the client wants to eat on the aircraft, what movies, magazines and newspapers should be on board, and what ground transportation should be waiting upon reaching a destination. As well, the team members seek to gain a sense of the client’s expectation of service, ranging from hands off to high touch.

One of those two team members is assigned to make the necessary arrangements for each flight. The other member works with crew and client on other day-to-day issues that arise, including the adjustment of the number of crew members or flight attendants needed, based on the amount of travel over a given period.

The fourth member of the team is a company officer who has the authority to respond immediately to any concerns and who has the ultimate responsibility for a client’s satisfaction. For example, Drohan said, the Solairus officer would get involved if a mechanical issue forces a flight cancellation.

When safety is at issue, Drohan said, “our clients are paying us to say ‘no.’”

Such a system not only builds stronger relationships, but also allows for sensitive matters to be handled between the office-?based team members and the clients’ executive assistants, said Linda Holmes, a senior vice president who oversees flight coordination and client services.

When a pilot is interacting with the client, Holmes said, “they won’t broach touchy subjects. They leave that to us. And the owners do the exact same thing.”

Drohan said the team model is based on a simple principal: “I think we as human beings ultimately want to please. … The key is finding the people” and giving them what they need to do a good job.

Seeing significant growth

The company doesn’t reveal its financial details or name its clients. But it has grown significantly from 75 employees and ?30 aircraft when it began five years ago.

Today, the company has about 35 employees at its First Street headquarters in Petaluma, with other offices in Burlingame, Denver and White Plains, N.Y.

About 25 of its aircraft’s owners are located in the Bay Area. About 40 percent of the aircraft are based east of the Mississippi.

Clients include about a dozen publicly traded companies, said King. The types of businesses include both financial firms and manufacturers.

Perhaps 1 in 10 clients owns the aircraft strictly for personal use, Drohan said.

On Thursday, the electronic flight board at the Petaluma office displayed 35 different flight “legs” that would occur that day. The company always has at least one person on duty to assist both its domestic and international flights.

About a third of the clients have contracted with Solairus to generate extra revenue by chartering their aircraft when available. King likened it to a property owner who rents out his or her Lake Tahoe vacation home when not in use.

Wayne Starling, senior vice president of PNC Aviation Finance in Boise, Idaho, called Solairus “a great company.”

“They’ve just got great customer service and they really take care of their clients,” Starling said.

Strong sales this year

PNC, the top business jet lender by sales for the past five years, works with virtually all of the business jet management companies, he said. This year, he said, sales have been strong “across the board,” including small jets of less than eight seats, mid-size jets of six to 10 seats and large aircraft with up to about 18 seats.

The large jet business didn’t see a significant drop in sales during the recession and its aftermath, said Aboulafia, the aviation analyst.

Instead, it was the smaller jet segment that “really got clobbered,” mainly due to a tightening of credit.

The experts agreed that growth in the business jet segment is tied to the strength of the economy.

“Our industry follows corporate profits very closely,” Starling said.

Drohan found it ironic that his plans to join a bigger company worked out, but not in the way he had planned. He said he takes extra pride in Solairus because the owners and staff had “the benefit of being able to build it ourselves.”

You can reach Staff Writer ?Robert Digitale at 521-5285 ?or robert.digitale@press? On Twitter ?@rdigit.

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