Under the hard-headed guidance of Loris De Filippo, Argos VIP has revolutionised Italy’s FBO provision in little more than a decade
Italy’s most prolific FBO provider, Argos VIP operates ten facilities in mainland Italy, two each on Sardinia and Sicily, and an office just across the border in Switzerland. Fourteen FBOs is a serious holding, but it’s Argos VIP’s rate of expansion in the face of Italy’s complex operating environment that’s most impressive.
Chief Executive Officer Loris Di Filippo is surprisingly candid on the challenges of the Italian market. “It’s completely different to the US and UK, for example. Almost all airport facilities are government owned and managed, and the same management often provides services. It means there’s little competition and any that does exist is accepted under sufferance.
“In the past there was only monopoly and some industry players want it to remain that way, so it’s very difficult for us to open our independent FBOs; our only boss is the market, our customers. The responsibility for what we do is with my people and I, we look to ourselves for improvement and welcome the role competition has in making us do better and providing us with the opportunity to grow. But that’s not generally the way in Italy, where competitors are regarded with disdain and there are frequent conflicts of interest.
“Many sectors are monopolistic, including the huge airports authority, which decides whether or not to allow us to create our facilities. We still have to rely on lots of other people to deliver our services, but I think if we all work fairly, following the rules and working hard, we do well together. That’s why I rely on my people to tell me the best way of doing things and why we commit time and effort to completing projects.
“It’s very difficult for a foreigner to come to Italy and do business. You need to have a feel for the way things are done, understand the market. I think I’m very lucky,” he says, rapping the table with his knuckle, “…because my head is very hard! When an airport authority places an obstacle before me, I just keep working away at it until I achieve my goal.”
A Decade of Growth
All the more remarkable then that Argos delivers all services through its own FBO facilities, and that Di Filippo and his team have established the business in little more than a decade – a rate of more than 1.5 openings annually. “In fact, sometimes we open two or three in rapid succession,” he says. “At the end of 2015 we opened Milan Malpensa, then in early 2016 Cagliari and Verona simultaneously. I’d begun the regulatory and certification process for them at the same time and with that completed I wanted to open them before the summer. The traffic in Italy is heavy during the summer, especially at Cagliari, because it’s a very beautiful place.”
The northern sites are particularly important since they serve the country’s business and industrial heartland. In some cases, Di Filippo fought unusually long and hard regulatory and political battles to acquire them. From Rome Ciampino northwards, the facilities are typically busy year round while others, notably in the south and on the islands, show definite seasonal variation, becoming far busier in summer. Naples, for example, is popular with US visitors travelling on to the island of Capri, a journey for which Argos arranges either helicopter transfers or luxury boats.
Currently Argos VIP’s only presence outside Italy, the Lugano branch office plays a key role in the northern Italian market. Di Filippo explains: “It’s important for Milan. Fog sometimes closes Linate in the winter and flights go into Malpensa or Lugano instead. It means that even though we don’t have an FBO in Lugano, at least our office there can guarantee our customers the standard of service they expect from us. It forms one corner of a triangle with Linate and Malpensa that encloses Italy’s most important business region.”
It’s typical of Di Filippo’s hectic life that his phone rings during the interview. After the call, a brief glimpse of his lock screen shows a photo of three smiling children. Surely the energetic Italian doesn’t find time for a family and a rapidly expanding business? “I have two little girls and a young boy. I remain in constant touch by phone and I use our platform a lot, helping me manage flights remotely. I maximise the quality time we have together, but it’s always difficult to travel, not only abroad, but also in Italy. Sometimes I have to see my people and I spend lots of time visiting our FBOs.
“My staff are excellent and support me in everything. I think I’m very lucky to have them. They share in my ideals and the effort it takes to make things happen. We have around 60 people at the facilities and five more with me in the management team. A month or so ago we had a strategy meeting to explain the big picture to all our FBO staff and make plans for everything from ground support equipment to marketing.”
The challenge of Italian politics could daunt all but the most inspired entrepreneur, but Di Filippo has also led Argos through turbulent times. The effects of the global recession on business and VIP aviation were felt industry wide, while conflict has troubled the Mediterranean region, notably in 2011 with the NATO action against the Gadaffi regime in Libya and now through the international operation over Iraq and Syria. “When I say that I’m independent, I’m also saying that I’m not afraid of anything,” he asserts. “I listen to everybody and understand what’s going on, and I always follow the rules. It’s difficult, but because I respect the rules, I have nothing to fear and I’m free, no one can tell me I broke my word or did anything incorrectly.”
Service quality is considered essential at every one of Argos VIP’s 15 facilities and Di Filippo extends this to the highest international standards, welcoming audits and inspections as a means of proving his product. “We have continuing ramp inspections, for example. In November we have our first check towards IS-BAH certification; we’ll be the first Italian company to qualify. The Italian authorities don’t require that we have it, but I immediately understood how important it is to our customers.
“So regardless of events or politics, I always do my best for my customers. If I need a facility and the local authorities make demands upon me, I’ll satisfy those demands and always follow the rules. And I persist. I needed an office in Milan, for example, and there was a conflict of interest to overcome, but I persisted and after ten years I had my facility. Perhaps I’m crazy, but I’ll only do things properly. I’m clear about my aims, I identify what’s possible and I do it.”
He’s also particularly pleased with the company’s online platform. It’s offered to customers free of charge, and it’s typical of Di Filippo’s philosophy that he considers the transparency it offers Argos VIP’s clients its greatest asset. It enables management of the entire trip process and connects the Argos FBOs with the operations control centre (OCC) and administrative office. Information may be shared with the aircraft operator, suppliers and agents, as well as the FBOs, and Di Filippo sees it as the future of ground operations, as operators increasingly chose to communicate directly with suppliers.
“We’re continuing to implement new features. At last year’s EBACE we offered some of our customers a facility where operators and suppliers are invited to share cost information to achieve total transparency. It means invoices are completely up to date, because if a supplier or cost changes, the system immediately adapts. Our clients are already telling us how pleased they are with the platform; the process is straightforward and fast, while our OCC can immediately see what the customer requires and how much a service costs.”
Customers logging into the secure platform can manage their trip, as well as reviewing services and checking the latest information on departure times and other data. Argos has been using the platform since 2015, but there was a will to prove it extensively in daily operation before offering it to the entire customer base. The company sees it as a particularly important means of avoiding hidden costs, especially when a trip involves stops away from familiar FBOs.
Di Filippo offers catering as a typical source of unexpected cost, surprising operators when their invoice comes in and it has gone over budget. With the Argos platform, there are no surprises. Operators and company staff also have the option to use the system during a trip, checking services have been, or are going to be delivered as expected.
Given Argos VIP’s extraordinary success, Di Filippo could be forgiven for resting on his laurels, but he’s obviously a driven man – he has his sights set on expansion into Spain. “I know it won’t be simple. There’s considerable competition and the market is difficult, but I’ve had a lot of practice with regulations, certification and officialdom.”