There have been no serial acquisitions and don’t expect any future M&A sprees despite the frenzy of deals in private aviation. There are no plans for an IPO, although a public offering was just a day away during the 2008 Financial Crisis. The product of a father’s wish to ensure his son grew up with more than a passing knowledge of cricket instead of baseball, Surbiton, England-based Air Charter Service will tally its third straight year of billion-dollar revenues with plans to keep doing what has made it successful since Chris Leach founded the company in his basement a few miles from its current headquarters back in 1990.
While about 40% of sales now come from private jet charters, the company’s foundation is built on Leach’s two decades of cargo and group charter experience before he started ACS, as it is referred to. During that time, he has been able to outmaneuver companies “with a story” designed for the public markets. He says his foundational principle is running a business that generates revenues higher than expenses and, if sales dip, he takes an even harder look at the expenses.
Leach admits he was tempted with an IPO once. It was due to be launched as the 2008 Financial Crisis was unfolding. As bankers kept urging him to lower the offer price and value of his company, he decided to pull the deal. He instead gave company stock to every employee, something that he says led to strong growth despite the adverse economic conditions.
ACS prides itself on cultivating homegrown talent. Virtually all of its leadership started as trainees, and in an industry where “there are lots of part-timers,” its brokers go through a month of training at its headquarters just outside London. It even owns apartments to house them during their stay. Leach says his background as a teacher instilled the importance of formal learning instead of the sometimes learn-as-you-go ways of brokers.
Company CEO Justin Bowman is typical of the management team via his multiple decades tenure. He first met Leach while renting a room from him when he was attending university. Back then, Leach’s wife Christine (a non-executive director and former head of administration and legal) answered the phone so it wasn’t apparent the company was operating out of their basement.
Even today with over 450 employees, many senior leaders have had their metal tested under conditions that would make most charter brokers blush. The core business of ACS in the early years was organizing relief missions and evacuations from remote locations around the world. In addition to meticulous planning, there was always a need to improvise, often in countries where you traveled with armed escorts.
Leach says experience dealing with charter flights under fire was helpful during Covid when its cargo business boomed, and other providers stressed the challenges of navigating demand versus operational constraints. ACS was one of the few jet card providers that didn’t change terms midstream, although it discontinued its fixed/capped rates in Europe when it determined it was a recipe for racking up losses. It still offers a dynamic pricing product there and around the globe and it has two fixed/capped rate guaranteed availability products in the U.S.
The company’s global expansion aims launched in 2002 has resulted in more than 30 offices spread across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia, and both North and South America. The think local, act global approach enabled ACS to develop not only personal relationships with customers but also the operators it sources for clients, be it sports teams, movie productions, manufacturers that are losing millions of dollars waiting for a missing part, or an increasing portion of private jet flyers who want both resources of a big company and the personal attention of somebody in the same city.
“We thoroughly enjoy working with their team, toward our common goal…providing safe operation and servicing their passengers well,” says Christopher Tasca, President of Fly Alliance, a top 20 charter operator in the U.S.
Scott Musselwhite, Senior Vice President, Commercial at Thrive Aviation, another large charter operator, adds, “Their team possesses a unique blend of superior client advocacy, balanced with a deep understanding of flight operations – a depth that is often lacking in today’s market.”
While the company invests millions of dollars in technology annually, its CMO, Leach’s son, James, says ACS isn’t chasing the digital dreams of on-demand private jet charters that regularly capture the headlines.
Lack of relevant data makes pricing “more than a guess and just isn’t available in real-time,” he says.
The younger Leach says despite proclamations by other brokers about being the Uber or Amazon or private jet charters, the industry is still doing business the old-fashioned way – by phone, email, and text.
Embracing reality instead of selling press release fantasies enables ACS to negotiate better prices, passing the savings on to customers, according to the CMO.
He says, “The prices you see online are never the best prices.”
What’s more, he estimates only around 30% of the aircraft available for charter are listed in the online directories brokers use to source aircraft.
He says since the online directories charge by the airplane, operators will often just list one of each aircraft type in their fleet, knowing availability and pricing need to be worked out manually in the end.
With managed aircraft, there is often still the need for owner approval on a flight-by-flight basis.
Since even the biggest charter operators that have their own direct digital offerings also need wholesale business, ACS executives say they can always get better pricing by pitching rival operators against each other.
However, Leach says it’s more than just about smart buying. It’s about understanding what the customer wants and understanding that also changes trip-by-trip.
“Sometimes it’s for a quick business trip or sending engineers to a remote factory, and they don’t really care about how nice the cabin looks. They just want a reliable operator that will get them where they need and back. Other times, they are with family or clients, and they want a cabin that gives them enough space to socialize, or they want a jet that is new or has just been refurbished,” he says.
Those details are hard to figure out online, and then there is the factor that sometimes less is more.
For example, the most convenient airport may not have a runway long enough for a larger aircraft, so it makes sense to squeeze and save a 90-minute drive.
Interestingly, ACS has a dedicated helicopter charter desk. “It’s different operators, and it’s a different business,” Leach says. However, it is also a strong source of new business. “People who charter helicopters tend to charter private jets, and some of the biggest companies in our space don’t have expertise in helicopters,” he says.
In an industry where new players often claim to be tech disruptors, the founder says it’s still about people. Bringing brokers together from its global offices for training develops relationships so when they go home, they now have local contacts for when clients are traveling to distant places, something he says is valuable whether its people or cargo.
Offering an inclusive experiences means more than just booking flights and ground transportation. The company also has in-house travel agency with advisors who can organize everything from business hotels to a safari.
Of course, it could have been very different. While enjoying life as an expat working in the United States, the elder Leach became concerned when a young James only showed an interest in baseball instead of cricket. The response was a move back to England, and a humble basement start for a now billion dollar business.