There are many contradictions about Thomas Flohr. Being Swiss by blood, Mediterranean by nature and totally international may have something to do with it. Flohr has the steely business drive of the Swiss, mixed with the unbridled charm and charisma of the Med. He is as shrewd as any successful entrepreneur, yet he struggles with his ideals of honesty and integrity when he has to take on his requisite tough business persona. As modern as he is, Flohr secretly yearns for the days of old when people said what they meant and meant what they said.
Untill, despite any misgivings he has about today’s business world and the dismal state of the current world economy, Flohr is confident enough to manage his life and business on his own terms. He embraces his contradictions and allows them to make him totally unique. In fact that is how Thomas Flohr has always lived and how he continues to shape his destiny.
From an early age Flohr stood out from the crowd. Growing up in a small Swiss-German town was always a bit stifling for Flohr; as much as he loved his family and his surroundings, he soon dreamed of bigger, better things. As Flohr explains, “I was always very competitive and motivated to do something out of the norm. I always felt I had to challenge the system, challenge my parents; whatever the existing structure was. I wanted to find a different way to do things and make them better.”
Being the black sheep of his family also meant that as soon as Flohr finished his schooling, his international journey began. His first destination was the prestigious University of Munich where Flohr studied Political Science. Yet even as a student, Flohr’s fascination with aviation took hold. He applied to be a pilot at Lufthansa but was told he “did not have the skills to become a pilot” and was advised to study business and apply for a management position. So Flohr put his aviation dreams aside and focused on his studies. Yet after a taste of life outside of Switzerland, there was no turning back…
Forgive the jet metaphor, but right from the beginning Flohr was moving up and moving fast. His first career move was to an American IT company Comdisco, where he was given the opportunity to build their European business. It was during this time that Flohr’s international lifestyle and persona evolved. As he explains, “I spent a lot of time in the US at the company’s headquarters, flying back and forth from my base in Geneva.” Because of his sheltered background, Flohr worked extra hard to learn and succeed. “I knew that understanding the macroeconomic and political environment would give me the best insight into other cultures and systems,” he explains. “It was a great opportunity at a very young age. At 26, I had a Fortune 500 company giving me tremendous responsibility”. Flohr lived up to the responsibility and then some. Yet instead of looking for his next move, Flohr’s loyalty and integrity prevailed. “I stayed with Comdisco for 14 years, maybe a few years too long; but the experience allowed me to build capital, learn and gain worldwide experience.”
This experience also gave Flohr the confidence to leave the corporate world and break out completely on his own. “That step was very difficult but I never regret it. Your willpower and character are much more challenged if you’re on your own. But this gives me the fulfillment and energy to work very hard to this day.”
Unlike most entrepreneurs starting their own businesses, Flohr was completely independent, having gained the knowledge and capital needed to venture out and venture big. As Flohr states, “In the early stages of building a company, it’s extremely important that you act swiftly and with dedication in order to execute your vision completely. The more shareholders you have, the slower you can take advantage of market opportunities. At a certain stage, investors are beneficial, but in the first few years of a company, the ability to be decisive is extremely important.”
And decisive he was. Using his business savvy and expertise, Flohr created Comprendium, focusing on technology and financing. As he explains “that was the framework I felt most comfortable in and I was very successful early on.” And as his success grew, so did Flohr’s needs and expectations. “I grew increasingly frustrated flying commercial airlines, so in 2003 I bought my first private jet.” Extravagant? Maybe, but this investment changed both his life and career path. “I had chartered jets before, but the planes and the service were never consistent. The product was rarely equivalent to its price. So I bought my first jet out of frustration, and created a beautiful jet catered to my needs.”
Yet Flohr’s purchase was almost too well done, as soon he was inundated with requests from contacts who wanted to charter it. “After three months my jet was never there, because it was always chartered!” Flohr recalls. “The jet had an Italian-designed interior and outside it was silver metallic with a red stripe. The look and feel was immaculate, so it became very popular.” So much so that Flohr was no longer able to use it for himself… yet his business side was comforted that the plane now paid for itself.
Thus Flohr decided to buy a bigger and better jet for his personal use, but soon Flohr found himself in a similar dilemma; he owned another beautiful plane that was constantly chartered. And after the events of September 11th, 2001, Flohr was able to buy his planes at discounted rates and capitalize on the booming new Eastern European market. Soon his business savvy kicked in again and Flohr realized he was sitting on a fantastic opportunity. “I employed analysts, studied the market and realized that this was a dollar denominated industry, where I was earning in euros at a very favorable exchange rate. The aircraft market was on its knees and interest rates were rock bottom at the time. These three elements had never come together before in private aviation, so I knew this was the time to seriously invest.”
Using his acute business sense and long-held passion for aviation, Flohr swiftly acted to create his own high end private jet charter company, Vistajet, making his vision a reality. His main competition was the market leader Net Jets, who had succeeded in making business jets an acceptable business tool. Yet once again Flohr quickly realized the inadequacies of the Net Jet business model and set upon improving it to suit his clients’ needs. As he explains, “The fractional ownership model is over 20 years old and needed to be updated. Owning a fraction of a jet is not a physical asset, giving clients very little flexibility and making it difficult to finance and dispose of. I also wanted to minimize the ‘empty legs’ (when a plane flies empty to reach a client), so in my model I combined the guaranteed availability of fractional ownership, with on-demand charter for outside clients. Thus capitalizing on and eliminating the ‘empty legs’. In our model, the ownership is clear; either we own the jets and sell hours to our members, or a client owns one of our jets and we give them a guaranteed monthly reimbursement. Either way, all our clients always get the service and planes they require.”
And Flohr has managed to offer this consistent service by ensuring all the planes Vistajet operates offer the same quality and standards. As he explains, “All our jets look the same, no matter what size or model they are. So clients know exactly what to expect: an Hermès style interior, silver metallic exterior with a red stripe and unrivalled Vistajet service.”
As a result, Vistajet soon made waves in the industry. Its utilization rate was significantly higher than its competitors, allowing them to pass on their cost benefit to their customers. “We use our assets a lot better and don’t insist our clients own a fraction of our jets. We’re happy to let them use a certain amount of hours with no commitment. And most importantly we strive to provide the ultimate in service, style and comfort. We want to be the Four Seasons of private jets.” Not surprisingly, Flohr soon found himself impacting the private jet business and gaining market share, as his pioneering developments moved the private jet model to the next level.
“In every industry, every 10 to 12 years a new company emerges to challenge the existing system. That is what Vistajet has done.” And with 25 planes and another 35 planes on order, Vistajet’s service and market share is set to increase even more. As for the future? It seems Vistajet has captured both Flohr’s heart and imagination. “I spend 70% of my time focused on Vistajet; the opportunities for it are just so big right now.” Although Vistajet has already benefited from the current economic crisis, as more people prefer to charter rather than own jets, it is really the next five years where Flohr sees the most opportunities. “The US and European private jet markets are relatively saturated, whereas in Asia you have billions of people and maybe 200 to 300 private jets. So I’m now planning to build Vistajet on what I call the ‘old silk route’; from London to the centre of Europe to Moscow to the Middle East and India, then down to South China, Malaysia and Singapore.”
And it seems the further Vistajet goes East, the more its high-class service and attention to detail is appreciated. As Flohr explains, “we want to be known for the best and most consistent service in the industry around the world. And we now have a fantastic relationship with the Malaysian government, where we have our new Asian base.” Thus Asia seems to be where Flohr’s sees the most potential and where Vistajet can expect its next big boom.
The lucrative Middle Eastern market is also attractive to Vistajet as private jet travel grows in the region. “The Middle East is a very strong, established private jet market and the wealth there is enormous. Our challenge is that there are a lot of privately-owned aircrafts leased to friends at below-market rates.” Yet leasing private planes to friends is illegal without a commercial license, although it is often done. And of course hiring a friend’s plane rarely comes with the reliability, professionalism and service guaranteed by Vistajet. So Flohr remains characteristically optimistic, “The Arab world is very service-oriented, as customers want the best product and service, all with a local flavour. That’s what Vistajet can provide around the world.” And with their Middle Eastern base in Dubai and their sights set on Saudi, Lebanon and Egypt, Vistajet’s Arabian future looks very bright indeed. The Middle East also falls at the centre of Flohr’s old silk route, making it particularly attractive to him: “ I could see Vistajet eventually becoming a Middle Eastern based operation, because we can cover both Asia and Europe from there. There’s also a lot of aviation knowledge and know-how in the region, which is very appealing from a human resources point of view.”
Whether it’s operating in the Middle East or Europe, perhaps what makes Vistajet most appealing is how Flohr’s dynamic personality seems to be embodied in both his planes and his company. When asked about his personal passions, Flohr lights up, “I love travelling, exploring nature, skiing, being on the sea and visiting places by boat. I also love people and am very family-oriented, so personal relations are very important. ” These ideals permeate his company and the service they offer and are felt by Vistajet’s exclusive client base.
Yet what motivates Flohr the most is his David versus Goliath mentality, his inspiration to challenge the status quo: “if there is a long established system in place in any field or relationship, it becomes complacent and inefficient. It requires continuous investment and often a challenge to the existing norm is necessary; otherwise you reach a standstill. After all, there wouldn’t have been a Microsoft if it had not challenged IBM, and there wouldn’t have been a Google if it had not challenged Microsoft. This type of intellectual challenge is a passion. I have this passion.” And with this type of drive and passion, the sky’s the limit for both Flohr and Vistajet…