And he's taking on Warren Buffett's NetJets.
Thomas Flohr spends about 800 hours in the air each year. It’s not unusual for him to start the week in Los Angeles, meet with clients in New York, pop over to Dubai and end the week in Hong Kong.
In his mind, distance is irrelevant; time is the ultimate luxury. So he built VistaJet, a global private jet luxury brand, on this single premise. His target demographic? Ultra-wealthy executives and entrepreneurs like him.
For $11,000 to $16,000 an hour – yes, you read that right – VistaJet will fly you almost anywhere in the world with just 24 hours’ notice. The onboard service is bespoke; the company launched an app this month that allows clients to pre-select anything from entertainment to catering. This means fliers can enjoy sashimi from Nobu while watching Spotlight and have a private car or helicopter meet them when they land.
Crazy as it sounds, the concept appears to be working. Founded in Europe in 2004, VistaJet claims to be the fastest-growing private jet company, boasting 20 percent year-over-year revenue growth. Flohr chalks this up to the company’s ability to provide a consistent, high-quality experience across the globe.
“If wealthy people have one thing in common, it’s that they’re brand-affiliated,” says Flohr, who resides in a massive James Bond-inspired home in his native Switzerland. “They just want to have a guaranteed experience. Whether you stay at The Peninsula Hotel or you buy an Hermès handbag, you know for sure you’ll get a satisfying experience.”
Unlike private aviation companies that offer fractional ownership, where each aircraft is owned or leased by multiple people, Flohr owns 100 percent of his company and its fleet of 60 silver-and-red jets. Customers buy a certain number of hours per year and are able to fly at a set hourly rate. VistaJet will fly anywhere with an adequate runway, making it an attractive option for companies which have traditionally relied on small-scale charter services to shuffle employees from locale to locale, says Flohr.
“These hundreds of small mom-and-pop shops who operate airplanes and occasionally charter them out are not an alternative to a globally trusted brand,” he says. “If you’re a CEO of a company, would you send your executives on a random airplane from Johannesburg to Nairobi? Hopefully the answer is no.”
The company has logged 65,000 flights and carried 190,000 passengers to date.
VistaJet was born out of Flohr’s own experience as a private-jet traveler. As an asset finance executive in the early 2000s doing business abroad, he realized how much the customer service varied from jet to jet. He noticed the executives were eating bland airport sandwiches and drinking “coffee that looked like tea” served in Styrofoam cups. This was his wake-up call. He scanned the private aviation market and saw that fractional ownership companies like Flexjet and Warren Buffett’s NetJets were the dominant forces.
Frustrated with the complexities of the fractional business model, Flohr, who had made his fortune in finance, bought his own plane and began chartering it out when he wasn’t using it. It became so in-demand that he bought a second one. And then he bought three more. He was then determined to create the first truly global private aircraft company with a non-traditional business model.
“What makes a great entrepreneur success story is when you find something that doesn’t make any sense to you but no one else sees it, so you’re fighting the big tidal wave of the established market,” he says.
In 2013, VistaJet entered the U.S., the world’s largest aviation market. The company faces fierce competition from established incumbents like NetJets and individual airplane purchasers. To get a foothold in the market, VistaJet partnered with U.S.-based private aviation company, Wheels Up, which allows Wheels Up’s own customers to book flights on VistaJet planes. VistaJet also tapped Ron Silverman, who previously held executive roles at Wheels Up and NetJets, to head its U.S. initiative.
“Everyone used to talk about the infamous Thomas Flohr of VistaJet, but I didn’t know who he was or what he did,” says Silverman. “When I had the opportunity to meet with him, he just told me, ‘I want VistaJet to work in the United States.’”
Flohr as an entrepreneur
That kind of decisiveness is precisely what makes Flohr an efficient, no-nonsense leader. Flohr says he has made “some pretty significant mistakes” in his 14-year career as an entrepreneur, and they all come down to hiring the right people. As the company has grown to a team of 800, Flohr has seen how employees import “political behavior” from previous employers.
“When you see the slightest sign of politics, you have to cut through it like a knife and stop it,” he says, pounding his fist on the table. “We had a specific situation of someone doing it last week. You have to see it, smell it and act on it.”
The biggest lesson Flohr has learned is that time is sacred. His advice for young entrepreneurs is to focus on building the mainstream business first and foremost and keep the internal politics and external distractions to a minimum.
“When you have that gut feeling that something doesn’t smell right but you do it anyway, you’ll pay the price,” he says. “And the price is time.”