He well could be The Most Interesting Man (in the Private Jet) World. He also could be the future King, one of the very few that may eventually unseat Warren Buffett and NetJets. While the Oracle of Omaha bought the private jet leader in 1998 because as a customer, he liked it so much he wanted to own it, Thomas Flohr, a sometimes-professional race car driver and full-time finance wizard, came, didn’t like what he saw, and in less than two decades he has staked his place at the head table in an industry where naysayers predicted his failure.
At the outset, critics said his idea of a floating fleet for charter aircraft wouldn’t work. Then they said his approach of buying new aircraft directly from a manufacturer and making them available for charter flights was a bad idea. Too much capital, not enough commitment from customers, they said. Now they are cynical about crowdsourcing and whether shared flights are a viable segment. They are equally skeptical that he can create a real-time marketplace connecting consumers and the long tail of charter operators that still makes up most of the market. Of his current initiative to lead industry consolidation in a fragmented market, they say anyone can buy a bunch of companies. They ask if Vista Global’s founder and chairman has figured out how to put all the pieces together.
“I was very frustrated as a charter client with that experience, and when I talked to one of the fractional guys, since my background is asset finance, I just couldn’t get my head around it.” – Thomas Flohr, Vista Global Founder and Chairman
“Sometimes one plus one plus three or whatever he is at now is still just one,” says a rival executive. However, another, who has worked closely with him, says, “Thomas is the smartest person in the room. He’s operating a dozen steps ahead of other people, and he doesn’t necessarily show his cards. The model he created with VistaJet is truly disruptive.”
Fan or detractor, there is no arguing that Flohr has built Vista Global into one of just a handful of providers with the chance to eventually knock NetJets from its leadership perch. According to WingX data, with 350 private jets in its fleet, Vista Global is now the second-largest charter or fractional private jet operator globally. Outside the United States, it is already the leader. In the world’s largest business aviation market, in less than five years, Flohr has gone from also-ran to power player.
When I caught up with the Swiss entrepreneur in a conference room at Bombardier’s headquarters in Montreal at the end of March, he was busy fielding calls. Another impromptu meeting and then a flight to London was ahead. Just seven hours earlier he arrived from Germany after convening with the team from Air Hamburg, one of seven acquisitions since September 2018. In between he accepted delivery of VistaJet’s 10th Global 7500, his ride back to Europe.
Casually, he lets out he is thinking about adding three more of the $75 million jets to his delivery schedule through the end of the year, an increase from the previously planned seven additional ultra-long-range jets. Asked about his rumored acquisition of Jet Edge, he deflects. The next day, Vista Global made it official. It would indeed acquire the eighth largest U.S. charter/fractional operator. In June, both the Jet Edge and Air Hamburg deals closed.
Put together with his previous acquisitions of XOJet, JetSmarter, Red Wing Aviation, Talon Air and Apollo Jets, it’s quite a journey for somebody who entered the industry as a consumer of private aviation, and who like many others, felt there were gaps and flaws in the way the industry operated.
In a market that regularly welcomes new entrants and then promptly spits them out, Flohr is casual about his path to success. “I was an occasional user of the charter market in the early 2000s. What really struck me was the inconsistency of what you’re getting when you arrive at the airport, and you don’t even know what you get because you booked a plane and then one that shows up doesn’t look like what was in the pictures.”
He adds, “If you compare this to any other experience in that price category, there are global brands, there is consistency, there is customer expectation, and it seems to be that in this industry, it’s whatever’s there and it doesn’t always match what you were promised. I was very frustrated as a charter client with that experience, and when I talked to one of the fractional guys, since my background is asset finance, I just couldn’t get my head around it…I could only buy fraction through them, and I could only sell the share back to them. That is what I call a captive market…where you’re locked in.”
Flohr says figuring out the details of fractional ownership was too much work. “They sent me proposals for share purchase agreement, operating agreement, management agreement and, I don’t remember, 30 pages, 50 pages, 80 pages. It was too complicated. I said, ‘Guys, I just want to fly, but I want a guaranteed product so I want to know what I get,’ and nobody could offer it.”
His answer was to buy his own plane, a Learjet. Unimpressed by its standard white exterior he had it painted silver with what has now become the company’s signature red stripe that adorns his VistaJet fleet and is now being adapted to its other operators as well. Since Switzerland, where Flohr is based is not part of the EU, he chose an operator in Austria. They pitched him that he could offset some of his ownership expenses by chartering his airplane out when he wasn’t using it.
He was quickly struck by the inefficiency of returning the airplane to its base after every flight. “Somebody would fly to Cairo and then they would fly it back to Zurich empty. It made no sense.” Despite stern resistance, something Flohr watchers say makes him push harder, the new kid on the block implored the veteran executives at his management company to look for clients who were flying from Egypt or wherever the plane had dropped off its passengers to somewhere else. The only caveat was returning the jet to base when he needed to use it.
“When the plane always flies occupied with very little to no empty legs, we know the (positive) financial result,” he says. After seeing the profits, he bought a second airplane, ordering his management company to use the floating charter model he had just created. As the revenues piled up, within about a year he decided to buy three more airplanes, this time telling the owner of his management company he was either going to start his own operator or buy him out. In 2005, Flohr became the owner of Air Executive.
Where did the VistaJet brand come from? Not impressed by the bland name he inherited and wanting something that would be easily recognizable to a broad audience of business executives, he eschewed suggestions to hire a branding agency and “spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.” At the time Microsoft was launching Vista, and over drinks with a Bombardier executive, scribbling ideas on cocktail napkins, he decided, “Microsoft has a big marketing budget. The word vista makes sense, looking at the window of an airplane…Let’s get on the back of Microsoft. Vista and jet, VistaJet, that was it done for the price of a few drinks.”
Calling it “the biggest risk of my life,” Flohr decided private aviation was going to be his full-time focus, which he says meant battling an industry that didn’t like change. “If somebody tells me that’s not how we do business, then trust me, I’m going to oppose the idea. It was then that we grew relatively fast to five, seven, eight airplanes, and we needed more airplanes.”
It also launched Vista’s symbiotic relationship with Bombardier. In 2008 he bought Skyjet International, the OEM’s charter arm with offices in London, Dubai and Hong Kong, which he viewed as a competitor. It followed a $1.2 billion order for 35 Bombardier private jets with an option for additional 25 aircraft, and it foreshadowed what would be an even bigger order that would position VistaJet as a global player.
Of course, there was the 2008 Financial Crisis. It caused NetJets, with its U.S. focus, to post a 2009 loss of $711 million and saw the exit of its Founder Richard Santulli. It also provided Flohr the opening he needed to start attacking the leader. “We came through (the Great Recession) with the same revenue. We never had a revenue decline. The product was accepted. We benefited from the typical trickle-down effect as people sold aircraft but still needed to fly. They loved our product. We kept on flying and we came out of the Financial Crisis as a stronger company. We bought more airplanes. We started then offering guaranteed availability market. Prior to 2008, we didn’t offer guaranteed availability. Then we did, and we said, ‘Well, let’s offer an alternative to fractional.’ We told customers, ‘Finally you have an alternative.’”
Success, however, was causing problems. With a fleet of mainly Learjets and super-midsize Challengers, VistaJet wasn’t well equipped to handle needs of customers to fly longer distances to more remote parts of the world. “When airplanes had to fly outside that region, it destroyed the availability within the region, and I ended up with what I was swearing to myself never getting into; that I had to fly them back empty because they needed to come back into our home market.”
The answer for Flohr was to think even bigger. He tells, me, “There was only one simple solution…We had about 30 airplanes in 2011…If we were to sell the Learjets and replace them with Globals, and make the world our region, at least nobody wants to fly outside the region.”
With private aviation still deep in post-Recession crisis, Flohr gave Bombardier its largest business jet order ever, a $7.8 billion deal which eclipsed the previous record, a $7.3 billion order from NetJets. The deal was purely for Global aircraft, the Canadian OEM’s ultra-long-range private jet that battles Gulfstream for the ability to fly nonstop between far flung destinations oceans away.
At the time Flohr said, “This order is the most significant milestone for VistaJet and is a testimony to our successful strategy that focuses on global coverage. Our customers need to fly point-to-point across the globe, and in many instances at short notice. Whether it’s a direct flight from Los Angeles to Shanghai, from London to Luanda or from Kinshasa to Ulan Bator, we are seamlessly connecting our customers to every corner of the world in unrivaled levels of style and safety.”
Still, it was a major bet, the type of crossroads decision that makes or breaks a business. Why sell the smaller jets and give up that market? “We couldn’t financially afford both,” he recalls.
By 2014 Flohr had planted his flag in the U.S. via an agreement with Wheels Up to act as its sale agent, something that lasted less than a year before VistaJet opened its own offices. “We massively expanded our Global fleet. We took delivery of 36 Globals and we ended up having the 36 Globals and 36 Challengers. That build out happened in ’15, ’16, ’17. It was only then that I had proven to the world that this business model works,” he says.
Of course, that was merely a preview of what was ahead. If organic growth and a streamlined product offering had been his hallmark, Flohr was now ready to become a dealmaker, with a view that he could consolidate what is a fragmented industry and expand into other segments.
In 2017, Rhone Capital invested $200 million in VistaJet in a deal that valued the company at $2.5 billion and allowed Flohr, who previously owned 100% of the company, to retain a large majority stake. At the time, he told Corporate Jet Investor, “With the investment announced today, we are ideally placed to take advantage of market consolidation, and to build on our position in the sector.”
From there, Flohr set the stage for the next scene. In September 2018 he created a Dubai-based holding company Vista Global Holding. Weeks later, he snapped up XOJet, at the time the third largest charter operator in the U.S. Since foreign entities cannot have a controlling stake in American operators, he kept the planes, took a 49.9% stake in the operator, and spun off the brokerage side of the business to create XO Global.
Always on the prowl for opportunities, Flohr next took advantage of the troubles at JetSmarter. He bought the embattled digital broker that had made its mark by democratizing the market, selling seats on private jets instead of the entire aircraft. He quickly merged JetSmarter into XO, leveraging the latter’s well-regarded brand and the start-up’s technology, including its slick app and innovative concepts such as crowdsourcing flights. “The customer books an entire airplane to fly New York to Aspen. It costs maybe $25,000, but they can bring the price down to $12,000 because they sell four seats. That is not possible through salespeople,” he says.
Next to be acquired was light jet operator Red Wing Aviation, which plugged the gap at the entry level with a fleet of Citation jets. Flohr explained that not everyone is flying from Paris to Buenos Aires. He was going to cater to folks flying from Oklahoma City to Little Rock, and he quickly said the plan was to triple the fleet, something that he has been doing buying used aircraft and refurbishing and repainting them, as you may have guessed, with the same silver exterior and racing red cheat line that adorned his first Learjet. “We went back to the light-jet market because in the Covid world, we saw that people enter this industry not by flying a Global; they want to first try the industry on small airplanes, so we came back to the light charter market and here we are.”
A deal to buy Apollo Jets, a New York-based mega-broker with $250 million in annual charter bookings followed, and brought with it Talon Air, another operator, but unlike the owned fleets of XOJet and Red Wing, a stable of managed aircraft, and a new line of business – aircraft management. In February, Vista raised $1 billion through a bond offering, so the Air Hamburg and Jet Edge deals of 2022 are less a crowning achievement, than a coach finalizing his line-up for the upcoming season.
At the end of 2021, according to Argus TraqPak, the 10 largest fractional and charter operators in North America – Vista Global ranked fourth and remains so even after adding eighth ranked Jet Edge – controlled just 45 percent of the market. If you factor in aircraft privately owned that are not on the charter market, that number shrinks to less than 25 percent. In other words, there is a lot more to accomplish.
Part of the to-do list is how to integrate Jet Edge and Air Hamburg. While the latter adds more managed aircraft, it was mainly selling wholesale, so immediately as providers try to cope with record demand, it secures more lift for customers of the subscription programs that drive both VistaJet and XO sales.
On the other hand, Jet Edge had enjoyed rapid growth mainly by transforming itself from the wholesale market to a consumer brand, launching a jet card program branded under the Reserve label, and like VistaJet, specializing in super midsize and large cabin jets.
With VistaJet, XO and Jet Edge, how does Flohr bring these three overlapping brands together? How does he position each in a distinctive swim lane, in an industry where there is plenty of crossover between access solutions and aircraft flown. Can he keep both customers and brokers who have relationships with the high spenders in the fold as VistaJet, XO and Jet Edge evolve?
Some of that is now being answered. VistaJet had required customers to commit to a minimum of 50 hours per year for entry into its Program, which offers fixed rates and guaranteed availability. Earlier this month it launched VJ25, a program that starts at just 25 hours per year and gives customers access to the group’s entire fleet, including those Global 7500s. It also offers flyers fixed rates and guaranteed availability for trans-Oceanic flights and Hawaii.
At the same time, the company is phasing out the Jet Edge Reserve program and has ended XO’s fixed rate, guaranteed availability Elite Access program, moving XO memberships to exclusively dynamic pricing. That’s where each trip is priced on market rates based on where you are going and when you call to book. While the XO website offers instant booking for many routes and access to the group’s fleet, it still makes it hard to budget your private flights. It also encourages customers to shop around, to compare current pricing.
Can Vista move customers who were in the XO and Jet Edge fixed-rate programs to the VistaJet or XO new memberships? Currently there is no fixed-rate, guaranteed availability light jet program in the group and only a limited midsize program. Detractors say they that while it may be more profitable to eschew contracted fixed rates on light jets in the current market, in a market where there is a high cost of acquisition, the decision will allow customers to leave the fold.
Then there is the XO crowdsourcing, which opens the market to folks who only want to share or can afford to buy individual seats. Like Wheels Up he is betting that market grows beyond its current niche. Flohr also wants to expand XO’s scheduled by-the-seat shuttles, where JSX and Aero are still trying to prove the mode, and where he takes the risks of filling airplanes. And of course, there is the grand vision he shares with Wheels Up to become an online marketplace for the charter industry. The goal is to instantly sell flights for the long tail of operators via its online platform instead of just providing quotes that need to be confirmed. 95% of U.S. charter companies have less than 10 jets on their certificate.
One thing is for sure. Flohr isn’t flying by the seat of his pants. He says decisions are data driven. Like the race car driver, he is, his approach is strategic and always assessing the risks, say several executives who have worked closely with him. To the point, when I ask about how he monitors his sprawling empire, he shows me a dashboard on his smartphone, noting, “I have every single data point you can think of all automated live. There are so many tons of data on yield…I can dig down to every single flight.”
When I ask Flohr if he keeps a list of the folks who have criticized his moves, he tells me, “Vista today is too big to copy. You can’t do a Vista 2. People who didn’t take us seriously missed an opportunity, because I saw the opportunity and I took it…I want to spend all my positive energy on building the future, not somebody who had an opinion in the past. This is their problem, not mine.”
At the same time, Flohr has also shown he is willing to snipe back from time to time. At the outset of the Covid pandemic when private flying took a dive, he sent a letter to customers pointing out that Vista hadn’t laid off employees, linking to a trade article reporting on furloughs at NetJets.
As Vista enters its next chapter and new challenges, it faces turbulent skies ahead. Yes, there are more Ultra High Net Worth households than any time in history, a number projected to grow. And yes, airline woes are driving more rich folks to consider private flying. However, calls to ban private jets and shaming of private jet flyers are again on the rise. Global economics and geopolitics are unstable at the same time flight costs are at record highs, and the competition is stepping up expansion into markets that have been strongholds for Vista. Last year NetJets made a return to Asia with an investment in Shenzhen-based Amber Aviation. Kenn Ricci’s Directional Aviation is expanding its Flexjet fractional ownership program in Europe along with its PrivateFly charter brokerage. After dueling Flohr for acquisitions, Kenny Dichter and Wheels Up also want to expand beyond their U.S. base. Earlier this year, Dichter bought U.K.-based charter broker Air Partner.
When I recently mentioned to Ian Moore, VistaJet’s Chief Commerical Officer and longtime Flohr sidekick that the company still has a fair share of doubters, he simply tells me, “Great. Then they won’t be copying what we are doing.”
Let the games begin.