““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
When Steve Hankin left Starwood Hotels & Resorts to become CEO of Sentient Jet three years ago, the Weymouth, Mass.-based jet-card provider was "a very small company," he said recently. It's bigger now, but exactly how much bigger is anybody's guess. As Hankin told us when we asked about revenues and hours flown, "We've never revealed that. We're a private company and we keep most of our statistics to ourselves."
Still, it's probably safe to conclude that T.H. Lee Putnam Ventures-the equity firm that owned Sentient until recently-has been pleased with its progress. (Sentient was acquired shortly before we went to press; see 'Sentient Joins JetDirect' below.) Hankin did reveal that in the past 24 months, Sentient's revenues, number of hours flown annually and number of clients have all approximately tripled. He also told us that the latter figure now exceeds 2,500 and that the company is profitable.
"We obviously have gotten to be one of the larger players," added Hankin, who met with us at the Teterboro [N.J.] Airport offices of Atlantic Aviation Flight Services, an aircraft charter and management firm that Sentient bought in 2005. "I think people see the scale of our operations."
Not surprisingly, Hankin attributes that growth at least partly to advantages he believes jet cards have over fractional shares, which he considers his main competition. (We hope to publish the fractional providers' side of the story in future issues.) But some of his other comments- such as what he had to say about coach-class airline tickets-were less predictable.
When you came to Sentient, you were new to business aviation. What surprised you the most about it?
I've certainly learned that being great is a challenge. Every flight's different and every client's needs are different, so meeting people's expectations in this industry is extraordinarily challenging.
When Sentient hired you, it cited your marketing background and branding experience. How have you applied those assets at Sentient?
When I came aboard, I don't think it was clear what the brand stood for. So a lot of what we've done is try to figure [that] out and then communicate that and build the credibility of the brand.
So what does the brand stand for?
I think originally the brand stood for flexibility-in other words, it was an easier way to get national coverage, one-way pricing and guaranteed availability. When we think about the market, there are five of us that provide national guaranteed availability.
The other four being the major fractional providers?
Yes. There are other large brokers and things like that, but we're more similar to the fractionals in that we have fixed pricing, we take the one-way risk and we have guaranteed availability with 10 hours' notice. So early on, our point of differentiation was just that [Sentient] was an easier way to get that. I think today, the brand stands for service and safety and choice. So it's a more complex brand today. And the value proposition to the consumer is a lot stronger. I don't think three years ago we were known for quality of service. I don't think we had the safety culture that we have today.
How much growth potential do you see beyond the 2,500 clients you have now?
When we first started growing, even our board was hesitant to believe that we could continue to grow at the pace that we are. But if you measure us against the number of people that can afford to fly privately, actually we're quite small. So I see no reason we can't continue to do the same type of growth in the next three to five years. That's certainly what we're planning for.
What's your biggest current challenge?
Being great at service. I was reading about the new head of Home Depot, who's going back to a very simple strategy of making stores great. He's articulating that a company can't focus on a hundred things; they've got to focus on the one thing that really makes a difference, which [for Home Depot] is making stores great. Our mission every single day is to be great at the service we provide, and I don't ever want to deviate from that.
Do you think that focus explains why you're doing well while some fractional providers are struggling? Is their service worse than yours or is it something else?
Certainly over the last 18 months, there were service issues [with fractional providers] that were frequently documented. And their prices have risen substantially. The cost, when you consider the loss of residual value, for many clients was more than they expected. I think they've gotten to a point where the consumer doesn't quite see the value proposition that they might have years ago. And that has given us an opportunity that I didn't see as much when I joined [Sentient] three years ago.
Do you think your business model is more viable than the fractionals'?
I think it has advantages and disadvantages. From an advantage standpoint, we generally have more flexibility because each plane is not scheduled to the degree to which a fractional plane has to be to meet its hour requirements for the year. So I think we have a structural advantage from an efficiency standpoint.
And the disadvantage?
We rely on others for the most part to operate the flights.
What percentage of your flights does your own Atlantic Aviation subsidiary now operate?
It's still single digits. And it's more complicated to deliver our service through our partners rather than most of it coming from ourselves. But I think we've figured out a delivery model that works very well. Over a third of our volume is flown on planes that are essentially dedicated to Sentient. A couple of years ago, that number was virtually zero. Between Atlantic and planes that we have contracted on a long-term basis to be flown only in support of our operations, we do have more consistency and a closer relationship with people who fly for us than perhaps we did two or three years ago.
Your goal, I assume, is to further increase the percentage of dedicated aircraft.
Absolutely. In the next year to 18 months, I'd like to see it go well over 50 percent.
How are you doing with your new program that gives an approximately 6 percent discount in exchange for committing to $150,000 of flying in a year?
It's been out in the market for just a couple of weeks and we've gotten a tremendous response. It looks and feels a little more like frax in that it expires at the end of the year.
Yes, I was a little surprised to see you introduce it, because you've really touted the fact that Sentient hours don't expire.
In many ways, we wanted to make the comparison to the fractionals a little bit clearer. We basically said, "If you're someone who is not concerned about making the commitment to that much volume in a year, that's great and we're willing to give you something for that." So in that case, our value proposition relative to the fractionals improved.
You and other jet card providers advertise that clients don't have to worry about depreciation, positioning costs, maintenance and so on. But don't your customers ultimately pay for all that? You're just bundling everything to make it simpler.
In many ways, we are selling simplicity. Many people have told us they don't want to own planes; what they want is a different service level than they were getting. So that's what we aspire to give them-a simple way to get a different service proposition without owning a plane. If you said to clients in the fractional industry, "You could get the same product and service without having to put up the capital and take residual value risk," I think many of them would say, "Great."
But it shows you the extent to which many people wanted something different because to get a different service level they were willing to put up capital and take residual-value risk. That's an astonishing commitment from a client and a statement about the service that they were getting prior to that.
Why did you buy Atlantic Aviation?
Primarily for supply. We have, as I said earlier, a strategy to evolve our supply situation to one that would use fewer operators. When you're flying 10 flights a day, it's OK to work with 10 different operators. When you're flying 150 or 200 flights a day, it's very complex. So to reduce the complexity and gain access to supply, we bought Atlantic.
It's also taught us a lot about what it means to sit on the operator side and understand the pressures they're under and their economics and to work on the relationship between an operator and Sentient.
And why did you team up with Air Partner [the UK-based air charter broker]?
That was really in response to a lot of questions we got from clients: "Can you help me overseas?" So Air Partner was a very logical partner for us. We think culturally the same; and they have a ton of knowledge about flying around the world-we certainly didn't want to go and figure that out ourselves. So we allied with them a couple of years ago to provide access to flights anywhere in the world. And also to provide price and service consistency throughout Europe with a card structure that's pretty much the same as ours.
Are you keeping an eye on operations like Eos Airlines and thinking of getting into the transatlantic market?
I don't think we'll get into it. We certainly have a great relationship with Eos and we help them with lift on each side. With the Concorde going away and things like that, we've seen people matching up private jets on either side of their transatlantic flight. And we've certainly been doing a lot of that.
What do you consider the single biggest factor driving your customers to fly privately? Is it avoiding security hassles? Comfort? Speed?
I think it is that they value time differently than others. From a business productivity or personal luxury standpoint, there's nothing that would change a lifestyle as easily as this does. It's a very busy group of clients and they have a lot of pressures on themselves and this creates time, and there's not a lot of things that create time. Either squeeze one more business meeting into a day that you couldn't do [if you flew] commercially or the vacations where you get more precious time with your family-this is what does it. [Flying privately] takes a terrible trip and makes it a gem and it begins a vacation five hours before it would have begun. Those things to a client that can afford it are enormously valuable.
Look into your crystal ball. In five years, where will business aviation be? Who will have a bigger customer base and who will be smaller?
We're going through a very good time for the industry. I'm certainly not going to profess that the bad cycles are over but I do think there are many factors that are going to continue to drive a lot of growth. When you look at who's winning and losing from a share standpoint, you'd have to say charter is winning over the fractionals. Clearly the [charter] industry is growing at a rapid rate. And everything I see from looking at the fractional statistics suggests they are not growing as fast. Obviously, more flying is [being done by] people either flying their own planes or flying on charter. I think that trend will continue.
How about VLJs?
VLJs will be great for the owner/flyer. But even for that group, there's a lot to be worked out, a lot of safety and insurance issues. On the taxi side, we may be wrong and there may be huge taxi businesses in three years, but I just haven't been able to figure out a way to get the economics to work.
How about the airlines? Will they keep declining?
I've always had a slightly different view n this. From the consumer standpoint, the airlines have always been fabulously successful and I would argue that the consumer has spoken. They like to go New York to Orlando for $79. So while it may not be easier for people who flew 10 years ago or for business people to fly [commercially], I think the airlines are giving consumers what they want. Anytime they've expanded legroom, they've gone right back and said, "Hey, the consumer actually won't pay $20 more for legroom."
You've made no secret of the fact that you fly on the airlines. You said, "I'm not going to pay a thousand dollars to go to Denver."
Did I say that? That's great. I certainly fly privately enough to understand the product. But I absolutely fly commercial.
So exactly how much would you pay to fly to Denver? Do you travel coach?
Mostly coach. I'm not a model for our clients, that's for sure.
Industry Insider Résumé: Steve M. Hankin
Position: President and COO, Sentient Jet, Inc.
Past Experience: Before joining Sentient in 2004, was chief marketing officer and president, Starwood Technology and Revenue Systems unit of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc., owner of Westin, Sheraton, St. Regis and other hotel brands. Before joining Starwood in 1999, was partner at McKinsey & Co., Inc., the consulting firm, where he specialized in the travel and transportation industries.
Education: MBA, Darden School, University of Virginia. B.S., Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
Personal: Age 46. Lives in New York City with wife Lisa. In spare time, does "a lot
of biking and I torture myself on the golf course."
Sentient Joins JetDirect
After we conducted the accompanying interview, Sentient Jet announced that it had been acquired by Berwyn, Pa.-based JetDirect, another operator and manager of charter aircraft and purveyor of jet cards. Cards of the two companies will be integrated and all charter operations will be combined. The new organization-which will be known at least initially as Sentient Jet-will have more than 110 aircraft under management. JetDirect CEO Gregory Campbell will be CEO of the combined company, while Steve Hankin will be president and COO. We reconnected with Hankin to ask how the changes came about and what they mean to customers.
Is this a merger or an acquisition? I've seen it reported both ways.
Legally, it was a merger. In reality, it was an acquisition. There was a set of investors, most of which were existing investors in JetDirect, that came together to acquire to Sentient.
How did this deal originate?
[JetDirect CEO] Greg Campbell and I were introduced last November by a mutual friend. We realized that we shared a vision for the kind of company we could build and how the industry was unfolding. We were just coming at it from very different points-they were aggregating supply and we were aggregating demand. It was apparent from our first meeting that the two companies together would form a great aviation company if we could work out the logistics of the deal. We spent the last four or five months trying to figure that out.
What does Sentient offer that JetDirect doesn't, and vice versa?
From the Sentient standpoint, over the last few years, we've changed our supply approach to one that was much more about getting aircraft that either were operated by us or with a very small group of operators. So in many ways, this was just a natural evolution of that philosophy-it makes a substantial change in our supply situation. And JetDirect has tremendous maintenance capability. So it really gives us the infrastructure to continue to grow and to change how we come to market with supply.
From their standpoint, they were in the midst of the supply development but really had no demand development. So everything we wanted they had, and vice versa.
The press announcement said this merger "revolutionizes" the way customers fly privately. That sounds like hyperbole.
Well, if you go back 10 years, what the fractionals did is create a very simple product. People could pick up the phone, know they could always get a jet, know they always had fixed pricing and got airplane consistency and a commitment to safety-that's what the [fractional] revolution was. What I think the consumer has said is they don't want to commit the capital and they don't want the residual-value risk. And [our company now has] a source of supply that doesn't have to be owned by the people flying and we've structured the operation to run at the same quality and safety levels as the fractionals. We think we're the only company now that can provide, nationally, the type of service level and flexibility that people wanted in fractionals without them having to put capital at risk.
Which you couldn't quite do before you joined JetDirect?
We were headed that way. But this creates a company that has enormous scale. The known percentage of our flying that can be done now on a fleet is very different
than it was.
You've suggested how the customer might benefit from the acquisition. How do you and JetDirect benefit?
Obviously, Sentient benefits by getting supply and purchasing scale for things like fuel and maintenance. And we've gained more critical mass so things that matter, like mechanical recovery, are easier to deliver now. JetDirect is getting a well-established brand that has tremendous momentum.