By Clayton Moore
One of the most successful Cessna dealerships in America is furthering its already ambitious operations. Tom’s Aircraft, based at Long Beach Airport (LGB ) in Long Beach, Calif., recently expanded its product line and is boosting its sales presence in a new territory, Arizona.
The company specializes in sales of new and used Cessna aircraft, as well as maintenance and repair operations, warranty work and other services tailored to its loyal community of Cessna owners. Boosted by a dedicated sales team led by Rich Manor, the company leads the country in new aircraft sales; Cessna consistently recognizes it as the number one dealer in the world.
“For people who are familiar with airplane sales, our sales figures probably look like big numbers,” Manor said. “But when you look across different industries, you realize it’s a relatively small volume business. That gives us a unique opportunity to really get to know our customers and build a relationship beyond simply having a business transaction.”
Despite Manor’s modesty, the numbers speak for themselves. Since 2001, the company has consistently sold 40 to 50 new piston-engine Cessna aircraft as well as doing a respectable business in used aircraft sales.
The company expects those numbers to increase, as Tom’s Aircraft has recently expanded its line to include the Cessna 350 and 400, formerly produced by Columbia Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation. It’s also widening its target market by offering the new Cessna Caravan Turboprop. For its part, Cessna couldn’t be more pleased with their relationship.
“We’re proud to be partnered with Tom’s Aircraft and look forward to continued growth in the business as we expand our product offering,” said Chuck Bates, Cessna’s West Coast regional sales manager.
The basics of selling airplanes
Tom Jacobson and his wife, Linda, originally established Tom’s Aircraft in 1983. His introduction to general aviation came in 1976, when he moved from Colorado to California to pursue a job with the Riley Aircraft Corporation. He spent several years at Riley and subsequently on the maintenance crew of Long Beach-based Steward Davis Inc., before leaving to start his own maintenance operation.
His original intent was solely to operate a successful aircraft maintenance business. But as the entrepreneur began building affiliations with Cessna Aircraft Company in the early 1990s, entering the sales market became an attractive idea. In 1994, Congress passed the General Aircraft Revitalization Act, and in 1996, Cessna came to Tom’s Aircraft with the opportunity to sell aircraft.
Meanwhile, Manor was getting a first-hand education in how the airplane business works. A graduate of the University of Kansas, Manor started his career as a sales manager with Cessna. Based in Independence, Kan., he was in charge of the entire single-engine division for the Western U.S. But a new opportunity came knocking in 2000.
“I was working for Cessna, and Tom was one of the dealers I called on regularly,” Manor recalled. “He didn’t have a good salesman to help him take advantage of this new opportunity. To make a long story short, he and I concocted an agreement to start selling airplanes.”
Although Jacobson hasn’t flown solo since forming the company in 1983, his understanding of the aircraft sales business is first-rate. He and Manor began carving out a sound philosophy on which to base their expanding business.
“We both felt there was nobody in the territory that was really focusing on selling these new airplanes,” Manor said. “In my experience at Cessna, I had seen other businesses around the country that had put more focus and energy into new airplanes, and they were doing better financially as a result. Southern California, from Cessna’s perspective, was grossly underperforming. Our philosophy was simply to take care of the fundamentals and really put some focus into it. Obviously, there were sales to be made.”
Over the course of the next few years, Jacobson and Manor proved themselves to both Cessna and to the aviation community in their sales territory. Tom’s Aircraft soon rocketed from being Cessna’s 18th best-performing sales organization to the number one dealer in the world.
“We’ve been the top performer in terms of volume for five out of the last seven years and in the other two years, we came in second,” Manor said.
Expanding the line
The company’s bread-and-butter products are the ever-popular piston-engine aircraft manufactured by Cessna, including the 172, 182 and 206. The dealership is proud to be the only Cessna Sales Center in the U.S. to represent the complete line of Cessna’s propeller aircraft, including the Skyhawk, Skylane and Stationair.
Tom’s Aircraft has recently added the Caravan and Grand Caravan to its offerings and is responsible for representing the aircraft in California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii.
“With our affiliation in the turbine business with Cessna and the Caravan, we’re seeing more and more opportunities,” Manor said. “We’ve only been selling these planes for a year and we’re seeing a lot more growth and exposure in our penetration into the turbine markets.”
New products on the horizon are the recently released Cessna 350s and 400s. Jacobson is particularly pleased with the former Columbia products that began arriving in February. In fact, Tom’s Aircraft has already sold nearly a dozen of the new planes.
“We’re very excited about having a more complete offering of products in the Cessna family,” Jacobson said. “The new Cessna 350 and 400 will certainly be very competitive products in the four-place, high-performance, piston-engine market segment, and we’re proud to represent these fine aircraft.”
Manor also thinks the new aircraft are a boost both for Tom’s Aircraft and for Cessna, who gained the new products when it acquired the Columbia Aircraft Company in November 2007.
“Cessna is really growing, too, with the purchase of the Columbia 350 and 400,” he said. “That’s going to be another 10 to 15 airplanes per year that we can sell. It’s a big opportunity for our business all across the board.”
Tom’s Aircraft will also have customers lining up for aircraft from further afield, with its recent expansion into Arizona. Cessna recently awarded the dealer the sales rights to the entire state, and the company is capitalizing on the opportunity by opening a new aircraft sales office in Phoenix. Jacobson also plans to open a Cessna Service Center in the area within 18 months.
“We already had the Arizona territory for our Caravans, but now we handle the whole line,” Manor said. “One of the dealerships sold and Cessna asked if we would be interested in expanding. We said, ‘Of course,’ so now we’re the exclusive dealer for Arizona.”
The company employs 22 people, and the sales force includes two sales professionals in Arizona as well as Manor and three other staff in Long Beach. Now that the company has a qualified team in place, Manor intends to create a more stable balance between new and used aircraft sales.
“We’ve hired good people and they’re doing a good job putting the numbers up,” he said. “That gives me time to step back and focus on growth, recruitment and getting our used airplane program off the ground.”
While Tom’s Aircraft has always had a robust market for used aircraft, its intense focus on the new aircraft market has meant that used aircraft haven’t always gotten the attention they deserve.
“Our pre-owned sales have fluctuated a little bit,” Manor said. “When we get good salespeople, they start out in pre-owned aircraft but then migrate over to new airplanes, so the used business drops off and becomes a secondary concern. We have some growth plans for our used aircraft sales to make them more consistent. We have a lot of resources that apply to new airplanes, so it only makes sense to utilize those same tools in the used market.”
While the numbers don’t yet match those of the company’s impressive new aircraft sales, they still represent a valuable opportunity for regular customers.
“We may have five to seven new aircraft on site at any one time,” Manor explained. “Then if one of our existing customers decides to upgrade and has one to sell, we may buy that one from him and sell him a new one. In a really strong year, we’ll sell an average of 30 used airplanes.”
A well-rounded business
Aircraft sales aren’t the only component of the company’s success. The company’s service center also represents a significant source of income, with sales totaling $6.5 million in 2005. Tom’s Aircraft operates two hangars at Long Beach Airport, totaling more than 25,000 square feet, and has created dedicated space for both aircraft sales and service.
“Our business is centered on Cessna service and sales,” Manor said. “It’s kind of like a car dealer in that we handle parts, service and aircraft sales, which are the three big components of our business.”
Jacobson’s employees have also worked hard to establish a rapport and a genuine connection with their customers. Their target market includes business professionals using the aircraft for regional travel as well as new aviation buffs who are eager to get started flying.
“Typically, the people who buy our airplanes are people who have been interested in flying for a long time and are finally at a point financially where it’s time to explore it further,” Manor said. “They typically have a need to travel, but it’s driven more by their interest in flying than a need to get to a specific destination. They’re basically entrepreneurs, business owners, doctors, lawyers and other professionals with that combination of time and money it takes to fly.”
With its proximity to Hollywood, Tom’s Aircraft also does business with some well-known names in the entertainment industry, although Manor remains mum when it comes to naming names.
“There are a lot of celebrities who are into airplanes, so we get some exposure to their circle,” Manor admitted. “That’s an industry and a market that we’re really starting to tap into, so we don’t broadcast who we deal with. Discretion goes a long way.”
All of the company’s sales professionals are pilots and are fully qualified to take customers up in any of Cessna’s remarkable products.
“Being able to fly, having a flight instructor rating and being an experienced pilot is pretty much a requirement for this job,” Manor said. “Because of the types of aircraft we sell, it makes sense that we would do all the demonstration flights ourselves.”
Tom’s Aircraft also maintains a strong relationship with several flight schools in the region. Jacobson actually started his own flight school in 2001, but sold it a few years later to Keith Furlong, president of California Flight Center.
“It’s one of the larger flight schools in Southern California and it’s based right here at Long Beach,” Manor said of Furlong’s popular training center. “He has a lot of new Cessnas to rent and it’s a really good flight school. It’s also a good source of leads for us because the demographic of someone who buys a new airplane is that he or she is a relatively new pilot. The flight school affiliations that we have really pay off in terms of aircraft sales.”
While other airports around the region are as large as and sometimes even busier than Long Beach Airport, the staff at Tom’s Aircraft finds it the perfect base for their business, especially Jacobson, who has called the airport home for 20 years.
“It’s a good airport and I’ve learned a lot here,” Manor said. “It’s unique because we have commercial airline service, flight schools and a wide variety of operations under a class delta airspace. It’s a very unique airport and it’s centrally located in our territory, so it’s perfect in that respect.”
Manor gives credit to the airport authorities and the other businesses that make up the tightly knit Long Beach Airport community.
“The airport has a good balance of general aviation and light aircraft, and I think the people managing this airport realize the value of that balance,” he said. “I’ve definitely seen a strong interest in creating a platform where general aviation remains strong for what it does for the big picture and the economy.”
Combined with its staff’s passion for aviation and the dedication of Tom’s Aircraft to its customers, it looks like nothing but blue skies for the company. It’s a sweet spot to be in, even if people misunderstand the unique attraction of selling airplanes from time to time.
“When I say I sell airplanes for a living, people sometimes give me this look like I must just be scraping by,” Manor laughed. “There’s this weird perception out there that nobody is making money selling airplanes. I can tell you for a fact that our salespeople do really well. If you like airplanes and flying and people, it’s a great job—even better than being a professional pilot, in my opinion.”
For more information on Tom’s Aircraft, visit [http://www.tomsaircraft.com].