Job Interview: Private Jet Service took off despite recession

Last modified: 12/18/2012 12:47:39 AM
The recession has been good to Greg Raiff. Despite the economic downturn, he has managed to grow Private Jet Service, which is what the name implies: a private jet company. Its revenue has doubled since 2009, he said. Further, the nearly-10 year-old company is on track to grow 35 percent over 2012 in 2013.

The company handles more than 1,000 flights a year and employs 2,300 people across the country. It counts among clients Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, high-profile celebrities, private fliers and government workers.

Raiff recently shared his thoughts about how he managed to find success up in the air in a down economy.

Tell me a little bit about how you got into this business. What were you doing before?

I paid my way through Middlebury College running spring break trips and student travel and eventually sold the business. (I) swore that I would never again sell a product or service to a customer base that graduates every year and who will jump to a competitor for a dollar.

So what we do today is 180 degrees from student travel. Instead of selling seven days in Cancun, including air and travel, meals and all-you-can-drink rum punch cruises for $399 per student, now we sell flights to Cancun for $39,900. And that’s just one way.

So how did you make that transition? What did you know already about private flights and what did you have to learn?

I started this business in 2003 and made a lot of mistakes along the way. I would tell you that PJS is the great, strong, growing company that it is today because of the errors and mistakes I’ve made along the way. The company has been growing at a rate of almost 50 percent a year for the last three years, and I attribute that to figuring out how to hire people well.

What were some of those mistakes and what did you learn from them?

The most important lesson was to earn loyal customers. You have to provide them the best value, but not always the best price. The second is that, if you take care of customers, even in the short term, even if that means losing money on a particular flight or spending an inordinate amount of time that you don’t get paid for, solving a project for them, it’s worth it in the long run.

Can you give me an example of that?

There was a NHL playoff game for a bunch of folks that went on to win the Stanley Cup. And they were playing up in Montreal for game six. And if they were successful in coming back and tying the series at three-three, game seven would be back here on their own turf. Anyone who knows anything about hockey in Montreal, knows that everyone there is a rabid fan, which unfortunately also includes everyone who works at the airports. So to run a 48-minute flight, which obviously doesn’t pay a whole heck of a lot, we used two airplanes, four airports and filed no less than six different flight plans before we figured out a way to get the team out quickly, under the radar and on time so they could get back and be well rested and go on to win the seventh game. We didn’t get paid any more for it, no one sent us a thank you card or a fruit basket, but they then went on to sign a seven-year contract with us.

So going back to your first point, having the best value doesn’t mean having the lowest price, talk to me about that. What do you mean?

PJS is still flying today the first three customers we ever sold services to back in the first year of the company. If we had offered them a lower price on a shoddier airplane, or cut a corner on the catering, they may not have been as happy. They might have had a problem or a mechanical delay and decided, “You know what, maybe this is such a huge purchase, maybe we should go ahead and shop around.” I think the guys at Microsoft pioneered the phrase “the pain of switching,” and we live by that. Our customers are corporations and large entities, like sports teams.

They are willing to pay a premium to ensure that things run flawlessly. And I love what we do because we get paid to deliver success, every day, without fail.

What are some things that you need to work on? You’re still a young company, so where are places you want to improve and expand?

I tell people that PJS is a 10-year-old startup that happens to make money. And you’re right, it’s still a very young company. In 2013, we’ll see the company grow another 35 percent. And we have planned a series of senior management hirings that will help strengthen and reinforce our senior management team. I’ve come to realize that to be a successful CEO, I need to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am, have more experience than I do and are specialists in their practice areas. And I’m really looking forward to meeting some of these people and working side by side with them, next year and many years into the future.

What do you think major airlines could learn from private jet businesses?

Since the beginning of mankind, aviation has the single largest net operating loss of any industry ever. Even the guys with buggy whips learned pretty early on when it was time to cash out. Aviation is a romantic industry, but it’s still a business. I could never imagine having a customer come to my store, which I think of as the airport, and not greet them until two hours after they hit the curb. You check in for an international flight on the best airline you can name and when you first meet, the first crew member of your flight is inside the airplane as you’re carrying all the bags and they clasp their hands in front of them and they say welcome aboard. There’s no, “Let me take your luggage for you,” like you get at a Four Seasons hotel. There’s no doorman to greet you at the curb who will say, “Welcome to our airline.” If anything you have a security officer telling you that you can’t park there.

That’s not how my mother raised me, that’s not how we treat our customers and we will never do that. I would rather run a smaller company than a larger company that took less pride in the care we give our customers.


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