Comlux Group’s Richard Gaona
Even in an industry where large personalities aren’t in short supply, Comlux Group CEO and chairman Richard Gaona is widely regarded as one of the biggest characters in the pack.
Though now happily billing himself as “a sales guy,” he started his career in 1982 as an engineer with France’s Airbus (known at the time as Aerospatiale). Then in 1999, he was asked to lead Airbus’s new Executive and Private division to launch the Airbus Corporate Jetliner. One of his proudest moments with the company was negotiating the sale of the VIP A380 “Flying Palace” to Saudi Arabia’s Prince Al Walid bin Talal al Saoud (a deal that was ultimately canceled many years later). He also launched the A318 Elite.
Then in 2007, after more than 25 years with Airbus, Gaona was recruited to head the relatively new business aviation services company Comlux in its efforts to take on larger and longer-established firms in a crowded market. He has helped to transform the Zurich, Switzerland-based corporation into a diverse global operation that offers aircraft sales, acquisition, management, and maintenance services; cabin design and completion; and VIP charter.
Comlux isn’t as big as some of its competitors. Does that put you at a disadvantage?
I don’t believe big companies can serve the client at the highest level. In private aviation, the relationship with the owners and users is the key to success. If you don’t know your customer, how can you serve him?
I believe in a company structure that is not too big and not too small. This is exactly what we built in Comlux: a group covering a large scope of complementary services but at a human size. Each customer is in a direct relationship with the CEO of the company he contracted with. We have about 200 people [on the aircraft management side of the business], 20 aircraft, and 300 to 400 people in America [for the aircraft completions and maintenance business]. When we had 600 people in the U.S. it was becoming too impersonal.
My experience is that VIP clients want to be able to call someone. Sometimes a client is calling me because the coffee is cold, and it is good I pick up the call. With some of my competitors who have 200 or 300 aircraft, how can the customers know who they should call [if something is wrong]?
But surely you have to delegate and can’t control everything.
We do delegate. Every client has an account manager who handles every aspect of the relationship.
I insist that our senior management visit [aircraft charter and management] customers at least twice a year to ask them to their face: “Is everything OK? Is there more we could be doing?”
I think these small details make a difference. If the CEO is personally responsible for 50 or more clients, there is no way he can give this level of attention. So two years ago I created what I call my Top Ten [management] team—two or three guys in each division who have the power to do what needs to be done to keep customers happy. In some cases, I am directly involved because I know the clients.
Imagine you were retired from the business and Comlux didn’t exist. How would you advise friends who were looking for a company to manage an aircraft?
You need to be clear that the company is being transparent with invoices. Sometimes we [at Comlux] have had to challenge costs for things like maintenance services and we found that [vendors] had been generating “hidden profits” by padding invoices. I would recommend to select an operator that is neither too small nor too large. A small company will need to buy every service from other vendors, and this can lead to hidden charges. We give our clients all the invoices that we have and invite them to audit them. With us there is one flat management fee and everything else is done at cost.
How can an aircraft buyer get the best deal?
An aircraft in excellent condition at a higher price is sometimes a better option than a deal at a lower price. But most people need professional help to know the technical status of the aircraft and all aspects of its past life. The professionals at Comlux can also help buyers evaluate the potential cost of maintenance that is due and cabin upgrades that might need doing.
Buyers need guidance on certification issues that they might face depending on how they intend to use the aircraft. They also need guidance on what the value of the asset might be within several years of the purchase and the terms and conditions of the purchase agreement.
Sometimes, our biggest competitor in situations where we are evaluating an aircraft for a client is the pilot who is pretending to be an [impartial] advisor. With a new aircraft, you know that it is free of defects, but with a preowned aircraft you have to be careful. If you don’t know all the details about an aircraft the price means nothing.
Comlux has a lot of experience operating long-range, large-cabin business jets. Is there a model that you most recommend?
Most of the aircraft in this category are good. I always urge buyers to consider questions such as how many passengers will normally be flying and what is the range required for most of your trips. For example, if a client needs to fly 15 to 25 people, I would say the choice is between Airbus [ACJ] and Boeing [BBJ]. If it’s only three to four passengers and the budget is only $15 million, I would go for a Bombardier, Gulfstream, or Dassault aircraft.
Cabin size does matter for long-range trips. It’s important to consider the cabin’s altitude environment and noise level. You also need to consider the potential resale value after three years and what budget you will need to operate long range. It is no good advising someone to buy an aircraft if it would be too expensive for them to operate.
How can owners ensure that they get what they want from a cabin-completion project?
The role of an independent designer is important, and you also need an experienced completion manager. At Comlux, we always recommend that the client hire the right people to work for them, to interface with the vendor on all the technical and commercial issues to deliver the best cabin available for the budget.
Are you optimistic about your industry’s future?
Even if the market will never again be as positive as the years before 2009, I remain positive for the future. Clients are becoming even more demanding and I believe that the largest companies will struggle to survive. The future will belong to human-sized companies that are more flexible and able to reduce their fixed costs and be more competitive with pricing.
We expanded into North America because that is the land of business aviation expertise. We certainly want to grow more in the U.S. and we are evaluating locations for expansion. We have also expanded into the Middle East with our new venture in Bahrain. I am a strong believer that a group like Comlux must remain operating in various parts of the world to be close to their clients and that’s why we have almost 35 nationalities among our employees.
Do you see differences between European and American charter customers?
Flying a corporate jet is certainly more common in North America, mainly because the perception [of private aviation] differs between the continents. In the U.S., flying for business is natural while in Europe it is perceived as more of a luxury way to travel. I hope in the future that the use of corporate jets will have a better perception in Europe, too.
What is the biggest misconception about flying privately that you see among new charter customers?
That it is OK to fly commercially on an aircraft that is only permitted to be operated privately. That’s called the gray market.
What’s your life like outside work?
I like to travel for pleasure. When I can, I go to Miami, a place where I love to be and have a good cigar with friends. And I am a passionate fan of rugby—a sport where you can win only as a team.
What book or film, having nothing to do with aviation, is among your favorites?
Glengarry Glen Ross. A good movie for a sales guy.
Charles Alcock is editor-in-chief of AIN Publications, which publishes BJT. This interview has been edited and condensed.