Mesinger Jet Sales' Jay Mesinger
Long before he established one of the world’s most respected aircraft brokerages, Jay Mesinger was a boy living in Houston’s celebrity-packed Shamrock Hotel with a famous mother. Known as “Miss Moonlight,” Houston Chronicle society columnist Maxine Mesinger had divorced Jay’s father (whom she would later remarry) and moved to the hotel with her son. The idea was that living there would make it easier for her to raise him while also writing the column.
Jay Mesinger credits the lessons learned during his unconventional upbringing for much of his success. After getting his pilot’s license in high school and working for many years as a Piper Aircraft dealer, he started Mesinger Jet Sales in 1982. Today, the Boulder, Colorado brokerage is a flourishing global family business. Working alongside Jay is his wife and chief financial officer, Sandra. Their sons Josh and Adam serve, respectively, as vice president and director of business development.
The Mesingers have a reputation for being hard-working, detail-oriented, and passionate. They are also known for their philanthropy and service on multiple boards. Jay’s speaking skills and market expertise have made him a familiar face at industry events, where he always makes time to welcome and encourage newcomers to the field and stays until he has answered everyone’s questions.
What was it like growing up in the Shamrock Hotel?
It was this gorgeous, opulent place. The whole hotel staff participated in my upbringing and made sure I was safe. I ate breakfast in the coffee shop. The bell captain took me to school every day. The biggest celebrities—Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr.—were close friends of my mom’s. They would come up to the apartment.
What did you learn from your mom?
She had a great work ethic, and I learned from an early age to see celebrities as people. She had the most fabulous reputation for integrity and the finest ethics. A socialite in Houston might be getting a divorce, and my mom might have known it before the other spouse knew it, but she would never write about it; that wasn’t her style. She was very grounded. She raised money for amfAR for AIDS research and before she died [from complications of multiple sclerosis], she raised all the money to open a big research and medical center in Houston called the Maxine Mesinger Multiple Sclerosis Clinic. Much of who I am today as a parent, businessman, neighbor, and friend came from her.
Did she shape the way you view women?
Absolutely. She taught me a lot about respecting women and respecting all people. In fact, at the time I didn’t connect the dots, but the first two salespeople I hired as a Piper dealer [in the 1970s] were women. Unfortunately, they were ahead of their time in our [male-dominated] industry, and it didn’t work for all the wrong reasons. But I never thought twice about hiring women. I always hired people only because I thought they would be perfect for the job.
How did you start selling airplanes?
I was a multi-engine flight instructor [before graduating from the University of Texas], but when I got out of college I didn’t know what to do. I went to work for my godfather, who was a Miller beer distributer in Houston. After about six months, he came into my little cubby where I was counting money and measuring it against beer sales and said, “You know everything there is to know about airplanes and I want to buy one.” So we went to the Piper dealership in Houston. It was going out of business and we bought it.
I was 21 years old, and I knew nothing about business. I certainly didn’t know everything about airplanes, but he put me in charge, and I learned quickly. The first year we took it to be Piper’s biggest dealership in the United States, and within a year and a half it was Piper’s biggest dealership in the world. After about three years, [my godfather] gave me the choice to come back into the beer business or stay at the Piper dealership. He gave it to me, signed for a line of credit, and it was my business.
How did you start Mesinger Jet Sales?
Many of my customers in Houston were growing out of their Piper airplanes, and by then, all I really loved to do was sell. I didn’t have much interest in [the sub-businesses within the Piper dealership such as] maintenance, FBOs, charters, or the flight school, so I went to Piper and proposed that I just sell aircraft. [Eventually that morphed into] Mesinger Jet Sales.
When did your family get involved?
My wife Sandra came into the business about 24 years ago. She’s a CPA and I am a salesman and never the two shall meet! [Laughs.] I would never be as successful without her. Josh, my oldest son, got out of college 16 years ago. Sandra and I asked him to come to work for us, but he said no because he wanted to go to third-world countries and bring technology and communications. We said, “That is a terrific idea, but would you just work for us this summer?” He never left.
[My other son] Adam went to NYU, got married, and was successfully working in the film business. Sandra and I went to visit him in L.A. and we said, “If you ever want to come and work at our business, there is plenty of room for you.” He came in about six months later and has been with us for six years.
We also have two daughters, who aren’t in the business. One is a tax attorney and one is an interior designer.
How many of your customers are new buyers?
Probably 20 to 25 percent. We are very sensitive to the learning curve and the extra patience required. We have developed a program [for these clients] where for a small retainer we do all the background work and build a specific mission-fulfillment plan with an annual-use budget. This way, for a small investment, you can know what the airplane is going to cost, what it can do, whether it works for you, and how many hours a year you are going to use it.
Who should be buying a business jet?
We think that if you’re flying around 200 to 250 hours per year, whole-aircraft ownership makes sense, but for some high-net-worth individuals or corporations, safety or security is more important than the number of hours flown. And there is usually not just one solution. Sometimes the solution is two aircraft or involves commercial travel. For example, if you are flying 85 percent domestically, buy an aircraft for that. For the 15 percent when you’re flying international, buy a row of first-class seats on the finest airline.
How did you learn to do business in markets like China and the Middle East, where the culture is radically different from America’s?
I understand that [someone else’s] culture is bigger than me and I am not just going to go in and say, “I have arrived and you are going to do it my way.” The first seven years we were in China, I thought no one was listening to me about why they should use a broker—and then the market shifted, and we started to get calls. Last year we did five transactions in China. It was the result of friendships, patience, and time.
What is your advice to young people wanting to go into the aircraft brokerage business?
Our industry looks pretty sexy and flashy and wealthy from the outside, but I know how hard it is to get a client and to sell a plane. So the first thing I tell somebody is that the way to get into it is not just to have a business card and a cell phone and tell people you are a broker. You need to earn your place through learning the industry.
We have one of the most unsophisticated/sophisticated industries in the world. One area that is unsophisticated it that there is [no official record] of selling prices. Sellers say they got more, buyers say they paid less. Calling out daily into the market and talking to other brokers, dealers, owners—that is the way to start in our industry. Before you know it you will have created a network of friends.
What mistakes have you made as a broker?
In the beginning I had many typical failures, because I didn’t have a solid foundation in the industry. People would say, “Just tell me what your best price is,” and I would do it! Boy, was I dumb. [Laughs.] I had to learn how to sell and how to articulate things correctly and still allow the other side to feel they were participating in a process. I didn’t always make good business decisions when I was younger, especially when I didn’t have Sandra next to me. But I have never misrepresented something to somebody or made a sale that wasn’t client-centric.
Is it challenging to work so closely with your family?
It is rewarding, challenging, and an integrity- and transparency-building exercise. I might be on the phone in the middle of losing a deal and Sandra will walk up to my door. So I don’t even have time to spin it before getting home at night so I can explain it in a softer way! [Laughs.]
One thing that Josh and Adam have that I didn’t have is me. I can help them to not have some of the initial struggles I had, because when I started, I had no clue. They have to work through their own things, but they don’t have to work through them alone like I did in the beginning.
The sustainability of the company in great part will not be about me. It is going to be about Josh and Adam. One interesting thing about a non-brick-and-mortar business is that it’s worth only a little bit of your last commission and an even smaller piece of your next. But when your kids come in, all of a sudden it has sustainability. It has value way beyond me.
You are outspoken and passionate about business aviation. Why do you choose to spend so much time speaking and writing about the industry?
The National Business Aviation Association [NBAA] really legitimized my segment of business aviation. Many years ago, the [broker/dealer] community wasn’t perceived with the same value as it is today. About 12 years ago, I was the first broker to be asked to serve on NBAA’s AMAC [Associate Member Advisor Committee]. I got to bring something to the table and exchange ideas with people who didn’t have my perspective about the preowned segment.
Also, speaking and writing about [the preowned market] is a non-threatening way to contribute and introduce concepts. If you do it right, it is a method of getting to know, building, and strengthening your community. Sandra and I believe in giving back in this way, not just in this industry, but in all the concentric circles of our world.
NAME: Jay Mesinger
BORN: September 27, 1952
POSITION: CEO and president of Boulder, Colorado-based Mesinger Jet Sales, which he founded.
FORMER POSITION: Piper Aircraft dealer in Houston
EDUCATION: Business degree from University of Texas
PHILANTHROPY: Morris Animal Foundation, CSU Flint Animal Cancer Center, Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art
BOARDS: Jet Aviation Customer Advisory Board, Airbus Corporate Jets Business Aviation Advisory Board
PERSONAL: Wife, Sandra. Four children, four grandchildren. Enjoys hiking and snowshoeing.