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Planning for growth

Neil Cochrane, co-founder and group chairman of 51 North, on expansion through acquisition, Brexit, and working with family members 


So, you’ve just acquired a management and charter operation ...
That’s right, Executive Aviation Services (EAS), based at Gloucestershire Airport in the UK. We’re a private jet management company at TAG Farnborough Airport, and for a while we’d been looking at getting an Air Operator Certificate (AOC), which we felt could expand our operation. We looked at setting one up ourselves and also going the route of acquiring a company. It just so happened that we ended up meeting Peter Turner, the chairman and founder of EAS, through his daughter Kirstie and son James, who work with him, and he mentioned they were looking at either selling or changing the company somehow. 

How has the acquisition affected your business?

When we announced the acquisition, we heard back from a lot of people who had previously expressed an interest and had been saying, “As soon as you get an AOC, let us know.” But the decision was correct, let’s put it that way. 

What’s the setup of the AOC? 

We said as part of the transaction that we would keep the EAS name and location for at least a year, so that we could best understand how to go forward. We liked the idea of having another location and we like being at Farnborough – it’s more suited to larger aircraft than Gloucestershire. But now we’ve got more flexibility, more scope. 

We don’t feel we’re overstaffed, and we have no desire to change the staffing. Kirsty Murphy, 51 North Group’s managing director, works at both locations, and I get on very well with Peter, who is staying on as chairman of EAS. 

Have there been any challenges or difficulties?

Our biggest challenge was completing the deal. Peter and I were very clear early on what the deal should be, it was just the process of getting the documents drawn up and all the admin. But we were both champing at the bit to move forward. 

Do you have any more acquisitions planned? 

We have an ambitious five-year plan mapped out, and the first stage of that was getting an AOC – I’m delighted with the one that we got. But yes, we will be looking at other acquisitions, both geographically and in the areas of business we don’t currently operate in. 

You appear to view consolidation as the way forward ... 

It is. The way I see it, the industry is becoming more regulated, and that means you need more staff for the various duties this involves. In the past, it might have been possible for a pilot and co-pilot to run an aircraft, but it isn’t these days – so you can either outsource more people or have them in-house. But the people who own these jets, they’re actually very cost-conscious, so if you’re looking after two or three jets as a management company, it makes sense to consolidate, overlapping the crew and staff members between the aircraft, so they won’t cost as much to maintain. You reduce your overheads. 

Is Brexit a worry?

It’s hard at this stage to know what will happen, but you can’t stop planning or growing on that basis. You just need to plan for the different eventualities – have a plan B ready, or a plan C. In my mind, I’m already thinking about two years down the road if we don’t have an option for trading in Europe. We might no longer be part of the EASA... I would like to think that whatever happens, we will be able to deal with it. 

You and EAS are both family-run companies. Is that an advantage?

The foundations of what we’re doing now with 51 North, and the other businesses I’ve had – they have all been family-run, by myself and my brother. Sadly, he passed away five years ago, but I’ve always been used to the concept of having a family member involved. 

There are benefits, as you have more trust and tolerance with each other, and it can make you a strong team. My daughter, Lorna, works with me now, and my eldest daughter, Elaine, is at Utopia West, an associate company specializing in executive and exclusive travel. We work closely with her, and she owns that company jointly with myself. Peter likes a similar setup, and I find it a benefit, I have to say. 

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