Cox Eyes More Growth
GRAND RAPIDS — Chuck Cox has had a passion for aviation since his youth. His older brother was an airline captain with United Airlines and his family’s farm bordered the Ionia Airport. In fact, Cox and his dad were part of the construction crew that built the runways at that airport.
“Having a brother involved in aviation and having grown up near an airport, I decided to get into aviation as well,” recalled Cox, president of Northern Air and its subsidiaries Northern Jet Management and The Company Jet. “I flew solo at age 16 and got my private pilot’s license at age 17.”
Today, Cox has more than 25 years of aviation and travel industry experience. He and his former business partner, Greg Vogel, founded the aviation consulting firm of Cox & Vogel in 1977 and sold aircraft in addition to consulting clients. In 1983 they segued into the travel business, joining — and later purchasing — Travel Consultants, a travel agency that became West Michigan’s largest travel management company and one of the 35 largest travel management agencies in the country.
In 1995 Cox and Vogel acquired AMR Executive Charter, which they renamed Travel Consultants Aviation and later, Northern Jet Management. Northern Jet is sister company to Northern Air, which Cox and Vogel bought in 1997.
“The opportunity to get involved in this business has been terrific,” he said. “At the time, I’m not sure that we had the vision for what was going to happen with the corporate aviation and general aviation businesses but our timing was good.”
Back then, Northern Jet Management was selling fractional shares of two small corporate aircraft to a few local executives. Cox said he wasn’t planning to expand on the fractional share part of the business, but then Sept. 11 happened.
“After 9/11, we knew that travel was going to get more difficult on the airlines,” Cox reflected. “We felt there was a need for a fractional jet company that specialized in business travel and that proved to be true.”
That led to the formation of The Company Jet, a subsidiary of Northern Jet Management that offers Midwest companies on-demand access to corporate jet service through the purchase of fractional shares of aircraft. When a company buys a fractional share, it owns a corresponding time-portion of the aircraft, Cox explained. A 12.5 percent share of a plane, for example, entitles that company to 100 hours of use per year. The Company Jet started with four aircraft, two of which were under fractional share ownership. Today the fleet stands at 13 aircraft, of which six are owned by multiple shareholders.
There has been a steady surge in both the charter business and in the purchase of fractional ownership since 2002, a trend Cox attributes to business travelers’ growing frustrations with the airlines.
“I would say the majority of our growth has come in the last five years,” he noted.
Cox bought out his partner and became sole proprietor of Northern Air and its subsidiaries in January 2006. Beginning last year and extending over the next two years, Cox is investing $80 million to replace The Company Jet’s existing fleet of Cessna Citation Bravo jets with Bombardier Learjet 40 XR aircraft. The aircraft has an enhanced engine that enables it to land and take off from shorter airstrips and delivers faster “time to climb” performance.
“We would like to expand the Northern Jet Management and The Company Jet programs nationally over the next few years,” Cox said. “We’ll open up another base probably in a year or two and expand by opening other bases.”
Cox said the second base will probably be located somewhere in the lower Midwest, lower Ohio Valley or the Indiana area. The company could establish another base either by buying a large corporate hangar that has been vacated or by acquiring a fixed base operator at a smaller or a mid-sized city airport, Cox explained. He said the second base will cover a large number of metro markets, including Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Akron, Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville and Indianapolis.
“It gives us that next very large market, which we think is a great market for the businesses that we go after. Plus, it’s in close enough proximity that when we need airplanes in one place or another we can share them,” Cox noted.
Cox said he’s extremely grateful for the customer-oriented and dedicated team he has working with him.
“And I love seeing how our customers use their airplanes,” he added.
“I’ve seen companies that have expanded and done things that they never expected to do when they bought their first share in an airplane. It opened up areas of business for them and enabled them to open offices in other locations.”