By W. Stephen Dennis
Franchising concepts within the aviation service industry are virtually non-existent. This may be, at least in part, due to the independent business philosophy of many aviation business owners, combined with the organizational and legal costs associated with developing franchise opportunities for a relatively small aviation service industry segment.
Aviation Resource Group, in its 2002 count of active fixed base operations in the United States, identified 3,165 active companies. Presently, the only FBO chain operated as a franchise is Million Air, the third largest FBO chain in the world, which, with 24 locations, serves 15 states, Canada and the Caribbean.
“We’re in a unique situation, being the only FBO franchise,” said Paul Milam, VP of marketing of Million Air Interlink, Inc., headquartered at Hobby Airport in Houston. “The nucleus of our business model is designed to increase revenues, lower cost and provide the finest customer service in the industry. That puts us light years ahead of the non-franchised competition and gives us a product that adds tremendous value to our franchises.”
A recognizable name seems to be half of an FBO’s battle; customer service is the other half.
“Our best marketing tools are the success enjoyed by our franchisees and the great experiences shared by our customers,” said Roger Woolsey, CEO of Million Air Interlink.
“There are trendsetters in almost every industry,” Milam illuminated. “Take Sam Walton at Wal-Mart, Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines and Jack Welch at GE. These are people who transformed the landscape of their industry, and created a model of success for others to follow. That’s where I see Million Air going—where I see Million Air leading the rest of the industry.”
In 1985, Richard Rogers, co-founder and present CEO and president of Mary Kay Cosmetics, founded Million Air at Addison Airport (ADS) in Dallas.
The idea was to create a first-class facility that would offer superior service to customers and cosmetic sales representatives when they arrived at the local airport. Rogers’ goal quickly expanded into a new service concept known as the “Million Air Experience.” Ultimately, several independent FBOs came aboard to form the Million Air franchise system.
In 1997, Atlantic Aviation’s Lou Pepper acquired Million Air Interlink. Pepper had been intimately involved with the system virtually since its inception, and was known by many as “Mr. Million Air.” Million Air Interlink would later become a wholly owned subsidiary of Executive Air Support, of which Pepper serves as CEO, which was founded with an ultimate goal of amassing a chain of about 20 FBOs across the country.
The first acquisition came when EAS acquired the Million Air franchise at Republic Airport (FRG) on Long Island, N.Y., as a “company store.” That was followed by the acquisition of two franchises in Connecticut—Million Air Hartford (HFD) and Million Air Bridgeport (BDR). Those three facilities became Atlantic Aviation FBOs.
In January 2002, Woolsey, president and CEO of Houston-based REW Investments, Inc., acquired Million Air Interlink from EAS, after initially acquiring Million Air Houston at Hobby Airport (HOU) in spring 1999.
Entrepreneurial from birth, Woolsey was born in Alaska; his passion led him to obtain an A&P mechanics and commercial pilot’s license by the age of 18.
“One year after I received my license, I started my own company, Prestige Touring, Inc., flying legendary rock-and-roll groups on tour around the country,” Woolsey remembered.
By 1990, Woolsey operated seven aircraft flying 90 percent of the bands on tour. Diversification led to the formation of a private air charter company, American Jet International, in Houston, launched in 1991.
“It has grown to become the leading jet charter company in the Southwest, with over 19 aircraft,” said Woolsey.
His desire to provide superior quality led him to search for his own FBO; since he acquired it, Million Air Houston has seen revenues grow more than 300 percent.
“After purchasing my local Million Air, I decided that I wasn’t getting the assistance I needed in building my FBO, so I wanted to make an offer to purchase the franchise, which was not for sale at the time,” he said.
These days, Woolsey, who has said he’s always looked in awe at what Pepper did with Million Air, and Pepper are “friendly” rivals.
When Woolsey acquired Million Air Interlink, he had a vision for the future.
“My vision included creating consistent high-quality customer service, implementing state-of-the-art technology, and bringing more top-quality facilities into the Million Air family,” Woolsey said. “We have a great reputation in the industry and it is my goal to build on that strong foundation.”
Woosley’s vision comes to fruition on a daily basis. Million Air is in a constant state of growth, adaptation and change. The company has added new programs and systems that produce the ultimate experience for corporate pilots and their invaluable passengers.
Raising the bar
In terms of how quality, prospective franchisees are subject to strict evaluations, Million Air is particularly interested in highly qualified individuals joining the family as new franchisees. Business and/or public service experience, personal financial qualifications and a proven track record of success are important factors in the company’s evaluation of prospective franchisees.
Also of special interest are individuals who have proven successful ownership or management of an existing FBO that meets the Million Air standards of market potential, physical plant, appearance and service.
“One of the most important standards is that we will value our employees,” Woolsey explained. “We realize that in developing our new strategy we must build a setting that people enjoy working in. If your people are not having fun, there is something wrong. We respect the employees and allow them to have input in the planning of the work that affects them.”
How does Million Air help attain and maintain these superlative standards? In September 2002, Million Air Interlink launched Million Air University, which offers a wide variety of seminars and workshops for leaders and teams within the Million Air system. The powers that be have implemented a proprietary high-impact employee selection process, the Talent Plus Program, designed to help screen, recruit, interview and select employees who are perfectly suited for their positions, producing the maximum positive impact on the company’s future.
The company has also re-launched its website, complete with high-tech graphics and its first Intranet, where a prospective franchisee can get more information. The site also allows customers to make online reservations for aircraft fuel and servicing.
One would think there would be plenty of challenges to face, while leading a pioneering business adventure into the uncharted field of aviation franchising. Million Air’s only challenge seems to be growing at the rate of interest and demand.
“With a larger percentage of affluent individuals and companies utilizing private aviation instead of facing the uncertainties, inconvenience and safety issues associated with commercial aviation, we’re in demand,” Woolsey explained.
The prospect of success defined by the fertile environment of private aviation, combined with a successful business plan, gives Million Air a certain advantage.
“The past five years have seen a rapidly expanding private aviation fleet with limited airport space to accommodate them,” Woolsey related. “Since 9/11, FBOs are even more coveted. Scheduled new aircraft deliveries have further stretched the capacity of the nation’s FBOs. These developments are dramatically enhancing the value of the Million Air franchise and providing new growth opportunities.”
Million Air’s care in recruiting, selecting and training franchisee candidates and their unique relationship with individual owner-operators have been key factors in fostering the company’s growth and that of their franchisees. For that reason, Milam says his responsibilities center more on franchise selection than marketing. A pilot since 1977, Milam is no stranger to massive action. He managed Century Aviation in Dallas from its inception and grew it from a one-aircraft company into the largest charter company in Dallas, prior to when the company was bought out. In 1997, Milam, who had known Woolsey for years, joined him to help him grow his charter company.
“We more than tripled the size, and saw a fantastic unrealized opportunity in the Million Air franchise,” he said, adding that they have people constantly knocking on their door, wanting a franchise.
“We have to conduct ourselves like the Marines,” he said. “Not everyone qualifies. We have to keep the bar high because we want to insure an exceptional experience for everyone that visits a Million Air.”
As far as working together with his long-time friend to make this FBO franchising dream a reality, Milam commented, “It takes someone with vision, passion and most of all courage to become a leader in their industry. Roger Woolsey possesses those attributes. I’m proud to be on the same team. We have a tremendous group of talented, energized people committed to excellence. The real winners will be our customers that experience the Million Air difference every time they visit one of our locations.”
Franchising into the Future
Million Air’s network of independent franchisees has always been the key to their success.
An equal opportunity franchiser, the company remains committed to franchisees and their dedication to excellence in the true entrepreneurial spirit. Through the years, minorities and women have become a large and valued part of the Million Air family. Without their valued management and customer service skills, the Million Air chain could not have achieved the success or reputation it enjoys today.
“I love representing a company and a product I believe in—one that offers real value and real leverage for your investment,” Milam said. “I like to see people succeed; it gives me a great deal of satisfaction knowing we’re helping them meet or exceed their goals.”
As for Woolsey’s role, it is to “lead the franchise’s new journey.”
“I have a vision to have customers choose Million Air above all other FBOs, and I must focus on consistency in the chain, new and improved facilities, customer’s safety and ‘values over processes,'” he said. “I believe I have a great team of ladies and gentlemen that are up to the challenge.”
Though there is a standard formula for the success of each franchise, each Million Air location is unique; many boast prestigious FBO awards and recognitions of their own.
Million Air Houston, located just minutes from downtown, features a plush spacious lobby, theater lounge, fitness center and swimming pool. Million Air Dallas has consistently been rated the #1 FBO in Dallas, and has consistently rated high in both the Professional Pilot’s PRASE (Preferences Regarding Aviation Services and Equipment) and AIN Surveys. Million Air San Antonio (SAT) has served the aviation community at San Antonio International since 1961.
Million Air Van Nuys (VNY), located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, is a great alternative to busy Los Angles International. Million Air Long Beach (LGB), located between LAX and John Wayne airports, with easy freeway access to both the LA and Orange County areas, has excellent ground connections to Staples Center, Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Long Beach Aquarium, Queen Mary, Carnival Cruise Lines and many other entertainment sights. Million Air magic happens at Palm Springs International Airport (PSP), where the friendly professional staff is anxious to create the ultimate resort experience, starting with the ease of access on the huge 8,000-square-foot ramp. Million Air Monterey (MRY) was recently voted #1 best U.S. FBO in Pro Pilot’s PRASE survey. Besides providing easy access to various world-class golf sites, Million Air Monterey also provides easy access to the Monterey Aquarium, Cannery Row, The Steinbeck Center, Big Sur and many other area attractions.
Million Air Chicago is conveniently located at Chicago’s Midway Airport (MDW) and Million Air New Orleans (NEW) is ideally situated for pilots, both corporate and private, visiting the Crescent City and attractions such as the French Quarter, Convention Center and Superdome. Pro Pilot has consistently voted New Orleans in the Top 50 FBOs over the last eight years. It was voted seventh best in the U.S. this past year and has been the highest rated FBO in the state of Louisiana. The down-home Cajun cuisine provided by local caterers for chartered flights adds that extra southern touch.
Million Air Teterboro (TEB) has been providing exceptional services to the aviation community since 1958. Starting as a flight training and maintenance facility, the company has expanded services to culminate in an award-winning FBO. Located within seven miles of New York City, the FBO was voted the #7 facility in the U.S., by Pro Pilot; Customer Service Manager Betsy Wines was recently voted the #1 Customer Service Representative in the U.S., for the fifth year in a row.
From 1999 through 2002, The PRASE survey listed Million Air Nassau, located at Nassau International Airport (NAS) and established in 1997, as the #1 FBO in the Caribbean.
Million Air has been the only franchise concept introduced to the aviation service industry that has succeeded. It stands to reason that a well-organized and actively marketed structure for affiliating independently owned FBOs would have appeal to those companies that are seeking a means of increasing their market exposure through cooperative advertising and intra-network referrals of customers.
While a franchise identity is not for everyone, it may be just the right choice for an FBO seeking business development support and professional operational assistance.
Million Air’s innovative concept of the FBO franchise might be a novel idea, but it is quickly gaining ground.
For more information on Million Air, visit [http://www.millionair.com].
W. Stephen Dennis is the founder, CEO and president of Aviation Resource Group International, a leader in aviation advisory services since 1975. He has more than 25 years of varied aviation industry and executive and senior management experience covering specialized areas such as operational efficiency, profitability conversions, business development, strategic planning, marketing, and corporate restructuring.