If you go to any business aviation show, you’ll likely find yourself caught-up in a tide of grey suits and even greyer hair. As NBAA 2013 draws to a close, it’s somewhat of a culture shock to meet Kenny Dichter early in the morning in the lobby of a Las Vegas hotel, dressed in a black zip-up tracksuit jacket, shorts and baseball cap, despite a hairline that many of his peers would envy.
It’s easy to make cheap shots at aviation’s ageing industry, but Dichter is clearly a man cut from a different cloth to the majority of his colleagues and competitors. For starters, he doesn’t hold much affinity for aircraft. He’s a sports-loving, streetwise businessman; fast-talking, almost imposingly forthright and with such brazen ambition, it takes a while to acclimatise to his confidence.
Before he sits down to discuss Wheels Up, his latest aviation venture, he spots a table made up of aircraft lenders and Bombardier executives eating breakfast. He approaches the group without hesitation. After making introductions, he jokes that he is about to attend a meeting to discuss the merits of Bombardier, before politely excusing himself.
Dichter takes control of our conversation, delivering plenty of sound bites and making sure he’s never misquoted. He wastes no time explaining his intentions to grow Wheels Up from barely past the point of inception to become the biggest brand in private aviation in no more than five years. He doesn’t dwell on the past too much, but points to Marquis Jet as the proof that he has what it takes to match the kind of success enjoyed by online giants like Facebook and Google in the private aviation sphere.
Dichter founded Marquis Jet in 2001 and consequently, the concept of the fractional jet card. The company did extremely well, but struggled in the downturn. NetJets eventually bought the company in 2010, after it had traded as a subsidiary for almost a decade, and made Dichter vice chairman, working alongside CEO Richard Santulli.
Dichter has over 20 years’ experience as an entrepreneur. His CV is extensive and includes Juice Press, a New York raw food and juice company; SportYapper, a social media app for sports fans; CYC, a cycling studio targeting at universities; Cirrus, a fitness company specialising in the customisation of premium exercise equipment; Varsity Entertainment, a TV and video production company; Alphabet City, a sports marketing and music company; Tequila Avion, an ultra-premium Tequila brand that enjoyed some free product placement on HBO’s ‘Entourage’ courtesy of Dichter’s friendship with the show’s creator ;” MGX Lab, an independent brand consultancy; Tour GCX Partners, Inc., a private golf members club; and Action America, a post-9/11 charity aimed at promoting positive action amongst Americans.
On a number of his projects – notably Marquis Jet and Alphabet City – Dichter has worked with his friend Jesse Itzler, an American entrepreneur and former-musician, who is known for running 100 miles non-stop for charity, as well as recording rap songs with titles like ‘College Girls (Are Easy)’ and ‘$55 motel.’ Dichter once told Business Jet Traveler that Santulli decided to take a gamble on Marquis Jets, a company run by two aviation rookies without an MBA between them, because he saw a younger version of himself and Jim Jacobs, NetJets’ vice-chairman, in Dichter and Itzler.
There are clear parallels between the membership strategy devised by Marquis Jet and the one now used by Wheels Up – not to mention many of the same members – which was enough to convince Thomas Flohr, founder and CEO of VistaJet, to work with Wheels Up as he tries to crack the US market in 2014. “It is my personal belief that Kenny has the most experience in sales in the industry,” says Flohr. “He has sold $4.5 billion of guaranteed availability over the last ten years and has built the most amazing sales and management team.”
Having only launched this August, Wheels Up is still a company in its infancy. Dichter heads the company from an office in New York’s Times Square, but employs a quarter of people that worked for Marquis Jet at the height of the company.
Dichter is so confident about the Wheels Up’s potential that he has invested an eight-figure sum of his money into getting the company off the ground. “It’s not how much you have, it’s how much you can borrow,” he told CNBC. “Beechcraft is helping in that they’re giving us an exclusive. You’ve got Bill Boisture and Shawn Vick over there, tremendous leadership in Bob Johnson who runs the board. They bought into our vision and they believe we can do it.”
After telling Corporate Jet Investor about his lofty ambitions to “democratise the aviation pyramid,” lower the industry’s entry by re-positioning the somewhat humble King Air as a VIP charter aircraft and roll-out Wheels Up’s membership programme across Europe and beyond, we hand Dichter a whiteboard and ask him to write one word to describe the current business jet market.
He pauses for a moment and asks if he can write two words. When we ask if he can keep it to one, he fills the board with two broad capital letters: “Up.”
After that, he poses for a quick photo, taking care that the Wheels Up branding on his cap and lanyard is visible. He asks to see the photo and then he’s off to meet an Indian start-up company who are already gathering behind us.
Make sure you also read Corporate Jet Investor’s guide to Wheels Up and Kenny Dichter.