Just a decade ago, Joshua Hebert established Magellan Jets with the aim of changing the private travel experience through a purely private,
personalised customer approach and unwavering commitment to safety.
Hebert began his career in investment banking on Wall Street at Shearson Lehman Brothers, moving on to Sand Brothers and then Paine Webber (today UBS). He subsequently transitioned to advertising, leading the marketing team at America City Business Journals.
In 2000, he founded Jets.com, an online auction for bizjet charter prior to the rise of technology in the private aviation space. Eight years later he sold the company and founded Magellan Jets, melding his passion for aviation and financial savvy. His expertise in business start-ups, transformations, search engine optimisation, and marketing has enabled him to grow Magellan Jets into the brand it is today.
The company has been recognised in the Inc. 5000 list of Fastest Growing Private Companies in America, Boston Business Journal’s Pacesetters (now Fast 50) list, and as one of SmartCEO’s Future 50. Launch of the One Way Leg Search app, the first online program enabling clients to manage their travel with one device, is among Hebert’s most innovative accomplishments.
EVA caught up with him at Magellan’s Quincy, Massachusetts headquarters.
How were you introduced to private flying?
I had a customer in the advertising business who owned a couple of private planes. His son was creating the technology for a reverse-type auction for business aviation and asked me to run the sales and marketing. I saw an opportunity: my first chance to become a partner, get equity in and grow a company. It was a risk to leave a full-time, well-paid job with benefits for a two-person start-up, but it was my first step into entrepreneurship and proved to be worth it.
We grew the company together, at a time when people were really friendly to private aviation. We were the only company with an online portal where customers could get quotes and so we grew rather fast. When I left it was about $40 million I think – I retired for a year and a half based on non-competes and non-disclosures, and then started Magellan Jets with Anthony Tivnan.
You founded Magellan Jets in 2008, considered by many to be the worst possible time. Why did you start then?
I saw a lot of inefficiencies. One of the big parts of my job at my prior company was to go out and see customers, retain relationships and put out fires if there were issues. I also heard what people really wanted in a product. I built a business plan around eight years of what customers had been telling me they wanted; but we couldn’t achieve that at my previous company. I realised customers were complaining about jet services because of the economic crisis and the suppliers couldn’t spend as much money as they thought they should.
We offered superior services; as new people came into the business we grew, every year, while everyone else was shrinking. So, what company did people want to do business with? The one that was growing and adding services, talent and people, or one that was shrinking and losing services? We also offered higher safety standards than the competition, spearheading some of the most comprehensive guidelines for aircraft and operator safety in the industry.
How did you make it work and what’s the secret to your continued success?
I think the secret to success is the people you hire, the culture. We have 15,000sqft with 12ft ceilings. We designed our office with everything on a window line. The kitchen is the biggest room in our office and it’s on a window line. We have games and beer fridges, golf, TVs everywhere, four or five big conference rooms, but then we also have small thinkpad conference rooms. It’s about keeping the people that you work with happy, which isn’t always easy. But if they’re happy, the customer can be happy.
Another important aspect is our flight support department, which handles all our members – all the staff are licensed FAA pilots. Most companies hire service people from the Four Seasons or the Ritz – great service people – and train them in aviation. We hire pilots and teach them service. We think it’s important for them to really understand aviation safety when they’re talking to pilots and looking at flights.
What was your intention for Magellan Jets?
Never to sell anything, but always to help our customers find the best private travel solution, even if that meant pointing them in another direction. It’s helped us build and maintain trust over the years. When we were starting the company, there was a year when we didn’t speak to customers. They’d call and ask if I could help them out and I’d say, “Unfortunately, not. I’ll give you a call when we are equal to or better than everyone else that you are doing business with.”
The jets Magellan offers are owned and operated by third parties. How do you ensure they match the standards of safety and service your customers expect?
We use two third-party auditing agencies, Wyvern and Argus, and there are probably 5,000 operators to whom we have access. Last year we only used 80 and, based on our safety standards, we could only use about 120.
We make sure pilots have the proper time in type and time in total. We’re passionate about both – we need 300 hours in type and 3,000 hours total. It’s difficult, especially with the pilot shortage, to find suitably qualified pilots. The other thing is that we have an insurance policy under which we have to adhere to our safety standards or lose the policy.
Are you engaged in a constant auditing process to check your suppliers’ standards?
We are. We have one gentleman in our Preferred Network department and that’s solely what he does. We also vet operators on a daily basis. Todd Weeber, our director of flight support, has 15,000 hours in Citation X training. He and everybody else in flight support are all about aviation and safety. We’ve been doing that for almost 19 years and never had an incident. We’re not the cheapest, but we are certainly the safest.
Do you see people moving away from jet ownerships towards charter or cardholder membership?
Depending on their routings and how much they fly per year, owning a jet is not appropriate for most people and we think membership is the way. We look for customers who already own a plane. Let’s say they have a G450 and their business partner needs it but it’s down in Florida; then it’s down for maintenance 25% of the year or everybody wants to use it on the busiest days… Instead, you buy a 50‑hour card on a G450 with us.
One of our differentiators is that we’re jet specific. If you want a G450 we’ll always give you one. Something I found is that when someone buys a BMW, they want to drive a BMW. They don’t want a Mercedes because they’re not used to it. That’s why people who own planes usually come to us, because we’re one of few jet-specific companies.
How flexible is Magellan to increasing demand?
We’re over-infrastructured and always have been. We could probably increase sales or revenue by a 100% today and not need to add another person.
The US is your primary market, but what trends are you seeing in Asia?
We did a lot of work in China for about two years and found the different level of service there compared to the US a problem. There are also substantially fewer aircraft than in the US, but the major problem in Asia is the lack of airports, although the region’s charter market is still growing.
How do apps fit into the Magellan business model?
We had our first app in the iTunes store in 2011. Now we also have our Global Card web app. It enables customers to specify the card and benefits they actually want – customers don’t want or care about a lot of the benefits providers typically offer, but they pay for them. In our programme, if you don’t want it, then you don’t pay for it. It’s a huge feature of our company and a big reason people come to us.
Where do you see the technology of customer service going?
I think the bigger, better companies will have less AI than everybody’s talking about and more people, because people want to talk to people. Look at the banking world: it got so big you could never get a person on the phone. Now we have personal bankers coming into the office every three weeks, acting like they’re the bank down the street. I think technology plays a huge part internally and externally to make it comfortable for the customer, but it should be 25% of the service benefits of that company; 75% should be coming from people.
Thinking about the senior management team, what would you say is the driving passion?
I think we’re all fascinated by aviation/private aviation because it’s a fun, cool, sexy business and it continues to change. But what we also really love is growth. We’ve grown on average 36% over the last ten years. Our management team doesn’t mind solving issues. They don’t mind change. I’m getting older and kind of get sick of change, but my management team says change is good and that’s a high for me.
How do you perceive the state of the business/VIP aviation market?
We’re just one of the industry players, probably in the top five biggest companies in this space, and every year we see growth. There’s a lot of room in the sky and a lot of congestion on the roads. The other thing is that even the operating costs of a VLJ are high. But our biggest worry is that we’ll have a pilot shortage. It’s a serious issue.
I see planes becoming more autonomous and while I don’t think we’ll have planes with no pilots in the next five years, I do think there might be charter flights with only one pilot. I like the redundancy of two, so I don’t see us going there anytime soon.
What is Magellan Jets doing to celebrate its tenth anniversary?
We’re offering a limited number of special 10-hour jet cards, available in the last ten days of each quarter. It’s a nice way for people to try out our service, because the threshold of our space is usually 25 hours. And we’re launching some really exciting partnerships in a series of events, including one with Worth Avenue Yachts. We’re doing promotions with them throughout the year.
What’s coming in the next decade?
We’re talking with a company similar to Uber. I can’t tell you their name because we’re under NDA, but we’re talking about doing a strategic partnership in the next couple of months and looking at drone companies that we really like. We see the future being in drones. Magellan is not just a private jet company, it’s also a transportation company. With the arrival of drones, our life is going to become way more transactional on the transportation side. For the last year, a good 25% of our conversations were about how we help consumers with drone transportation.