Rob Wells leaves TAG Aviation: “It’s been a good ride”


Rob Wells leaves TAG Aviation

After 16 years at TAG Aviation, and 12 years in Europe, Rob Wells has returned to the US. The company he has left is very different to the one he joined in 1999.

Wells moved to Geneva to become chief executive officer of TAG Aviation Europe in 2002. The company had bought one of Europe’s oldest operators, Aeroleasing, three years before and it was still integrating the business into the TAG Aviation Group. At the same time, TAG was ambitiously working to convert a military airfield in Farnborough UK, into Europe’s first dedicated business aviation airport.

While TAG had committed owners, Wells was told that he needed to make TAG Aviation constantly profitable: a difficult task when the industry was undergoing dramatic change and Europe had just entered a recession.

Wells’ solution was to emulate the model used by TAG Aviation USA and shift the company’s focus from charter to aircraft management. Rather than owning aircraft itself, the company would manage aircraft for owners and use a portion of the fleet to continue to provide charter services. At the same time, the Geneva maintenance department was refocused on third party aircraft services, and the previous in-house handling operation became an FBO, catering to any business jet operators. Although aircraft management is now the typical business model in Europe, it was a major cultural shift for TAG and the European industry at the time.

“No one could have predicted how the market would grow from 2003 to 2008”

In retrospect, the switch from charter to management was the right decision. The timing was also fortuitous. “We did not realise it in 2002 that we had placed the company in the perfect position to respond to the unprecedented fleet growth that followed. No one could have predicted how the market would grow from 2003 to 2008,” says Wells. When he arrived in Switzerland, Europe’s fleet was 7 per cent of the worldwide market. By 2008 it was close to 20 per cent.

Unlike US corporates that often set up flight departments and manage their own aircraft, Wells says that new European owners recognised that the regulatory and operational complexity outside the US made professional aircraft management the logical option. “The great thing is, once we had decided on the strategy of vertically integrating the services needed by owners, we had the rising tide in the European economy that allowed us to fully execute our plan,” says Wells.

In fact, Well’s biggest challenge during this period was keeping up with demand. TAG expanded quickly with the formal opening of TAG Farnborough Airport in 2003. It also created TAG Aviation Spain in 2005, TAG Global Training in 2007 and TAG Aviation Asia in Hong Kong in 2008.

TAG’s managed aircraft fleet grew quickly in the mid-2000s. Helped by the emergence of Farnborough Airport as a hub of business aviation, but even more so by the new found attraction of UK aircraft registration, TAG Aviation UK grew from two aircraft in 2002 to more than 50 today. TAG Aviation Asia has also seen a rise in demand especially since 2010 as Chinese demand for business jets grew dramatically. “When we launched TAG Aviation Asia, no one could have imagined that we would become the largest operator in the region, with more than 50 aircraft in operation today,” says Wells.

The growth of all of the TAG Aviation meant that Wells needed to find qualified staff who would focus on customer service. In the US it would have had no problem finding people with business aviation experience, but in Europe it was much harder. Wells says that the company employed a new strategy for business aviation, recruiting highly capable senior managers from the airline industry, including Brandon O’Reilly, CEO of TAG Farnborough Airport; Graham Williamson, president of TAG Aviation Europe’s aircraft management and charter services; and Carlos Gomez, CEO of TAG Aviation Asia in Hong Kong.

Wells is also keen to highlight that this was not a multinational take-over by a US company. Since TAG Aviation was created in 1998, Wells and Roger McMullen, his predecessor and now chairman of the board, are the only Americans to serve in management positions outside the US. A remarkably small number know that TAG now has more than 1,200 employees.

“I did not set foot outside the US until I was 42 years old,” says Wells, “and I did not speak any language apart from English.” so clearly it was business aviation and not international experience that was key to TAG recruiting me.

Though French lessons have improved his communications with the Geneva based employees, Wells says that promoting Franck Madignier, now president of TAG Aviation’s engineering and FBO services, was an important strategic move that provided both engineering depth and a more diverse management culture.

“The challenges that we faced in 2009 and 2010 sometimes kept me awake at night”

Wells says that that the global recession that started in 2008 was arguably the most difficult challenge that he experienced with TAG. The European fleet has barely grown since 2008 and the business aviation industry has been tough for all particapants. “The challenges that we faced in 2009 and 2010 sometimes kept me awake at night,” he says. “This was because we had a successful company with terrific employees, and we needed to preserve our position in the market and continue to diversify. In many respects, the dire conditions of 2002 were simpler because we were all focused on executing the same strategy.”

He is, however, confident that things are changing. “Europe is emerging,” says Wells. “We may not see the growth we saw between 2003 and 2008, but growth will return. We as a company and as an industry help our clients’ businesses by connecting people and there will always be a need for this.”

“I am also keen to see what Christof [Späth, the new CEO] does. I’ve observed some great ideas just in the last 60 days since he took over. Christof comes from a maintenance background – whilst I came from the pilot side – so in a funny way, I think he may have more new ideas for growing the company because he has a fresh viewpoint.”

Wells started his career as a flight instructor, followed by a stint flying Cessna 185s between fishing villages in Southeast Alaska and other jobs focused on building air time, before returning to school for a MBA. His business background involved aircraft sales and a succession of general management positions before joining TAG Aviation USA in 1999. After five years with TAG in Switzerland, he assumed the role of TAG Aviation Holding’s CEO, which he held for seven years before his long planned return to the US.

“It’s been a good ride”

Will he miss TAG? “I am not someone who looks back. If you had told me that I would have been CEO of a company like TAG back in 1969 when my only aspiration was to become an airline pilot, I would have just laughed,” But it’s been a good ride, and I have been incredibly fortunate to work for one the industry’s most respected companies,” says Wells.

“But to answer your question, yes, I will miss my contact with all of my dedicated colleagues at TAG and the clients that we have developed from all over the world. It’s been a rare privilege to be part of such exciting and challenging times.”