It’s late morning at the San Luis Jet Center, and several airplanes gleam under bright hangar lights as the maintenance crew tends to them like spoiled children.
Nothing is left to chance. Jets are checked, and double- and triple-checked. Engines are tuned. Fine upholstery for seats is mended in-house or replaced if necessary, and the planes, shiny as white patent leather, are stocked with passengers’ favorite snacks.
“Quality is everything,” said Bill Borgsmiller, president and chief executive officer of Aviation Consultants Inc., which operates San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles jet centers and a self-serve fuel facility at the Oceano County Airport.
Attention to detail, focus on safety and anticipating client needs has paid off for Borgsmiller, who established the global aviation company at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport after noticing the area did not have a thriving corporate aviation market.
“Monterey had one and Santa Barbara had one,” he recalled. “I looked at SLO, and we had everything they had and were just as appealing as the other two places. I said, ‘Why can’t we have it?’ ”
A pilot who fell in love with flying as a child, Borgsmiller earned a degree in aviation from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, and he started the jet charter service in 1999 after moving to San Luis Obispo.
In the beginning, it was Borgsmiller and one airplane, and he launched the business with financial help from family and credit cards.
“There was no money,” he said. “I was just starting cold turkey and had no real resources. I had to keep expenses to a bare minimum. You can go a long way on $500 a month if you live in your office.”
And live in his office he did. During the day, his futon served as a love seat in the reception area. At night, it was his bed.
“It has been little steps at a time,” said Borgsmiller, noting that those early years living on the west side of the airport made him “appreciate what I have.”
During that time, he never lost sight of the goal of “building a world-class aviation organization.”
Borgsmiller believes he’s accomplished that and more.
“We fly planes all over the world, and we have good relationships with aviation businesses and professionals all over the world,” he said. “And I think we have an excellent reputation.”
Growth in an intemperate climate
Under his watch, and that of Andrew Robillard, vice president of FBOs and facilities, the privately-held company has seen significant growth in recent years, expanding its workforce, space and services.
Five years ago, ACI had 46 employees. Now, it boasts 85, with the majority of new hires in highly skilled positions such as pilots, mechanics and line-service specialists (employees who perform a range of tasks from refueling planes to towing them), Robillard said.
The company declined to disclose financial data but noted that revenues have grown more than 50 percent since 2009. Its growth facilitated the need to build a 36,000-square-foot hangar and maintenance facility, which opened in December 2012. The company spent $7 million on the maintenance hangar and site M ramp — the concrete parking area for planes in front of the hangar — and invested an additional $500,000 on maintenance equipment and tooling.
At the Paso Robles Municipal Airport, it operates the Paso Robles Jet Center, which provides fuel from trucks or from a self-service island. The center, located inside the terminal building, is staffed daily and available 24 hours a day, year round. The company took over operations there in 2009 after it was brought in on an emergency basis because the airport ran out of fuel.
“We were the nearest company that could provide it, and they asked us,” Borgsmiller said. “We had fuel there the same day. We put a couple of trucks on a trailer from SLO and sent them up there.”
The firm operated on an interim basis in Paso Robles for 10 months to a year before it won the bid to operate at the airport.
Since 2012, Paso Robles Jet Center revenues have grown 25 percent.
In addition, the company operates Oceano Fuel Service at the Oceano County Airport, which has a self-serve fuel island. The company plans to add a weather and flight planning computer by the end of April.
The company continues to grow despite the rising cost of doing business in California, which Borgsmiller said has discouraged some business owners.
“A lot of customers that have corporate jets have left the state as the tax climate has gotten worse,” he said. “Fidelity National Title, for example, left the state and moved to Tennessee. Some companies that we’re doing business with right now are saying they are going to relocate. As a business, it’s tough to argue against it.”
Flights for the savvy business person
The good news, though, is that many up-and-coming firms are starting to use aircraft, Borgsmiller added.
For many firms, chartering an airplane is a more efficient option than flying commercial, he said, particularly when a team of employees needs to get to a destination quickly or fly to a remote location.
“It’s not necessarily about luxury,” Borgsmiller said of business clients. “In most cases, they are paying for time. Some business owners are the most frugal, practical people.”
Whether clients insist on luxury or not, ACI’s fleet consists of sophisticated, well-appointed aircraft. It operates the Citation CJ2, a light jet that can accommodate six passengers for hops around the West Coast; a Citation Excel, with seating for up to nine passengers; and the Citation X, which seats nine and is the “fastest corporate jet in the world,” Robillard said. The Citation Excel and X typically travel to destinations in North America.
Other company aircraft include the 10-seat Challenger 604, capable of reaching Iceland to refuel before traveling on to Europe and even Africa. The Gulfstream GIV-SP seats up to 12 and has also flown many times to Europe and South America, Robillard added.
The company averages about three flights daily on its own airplanes; another three business jets that are not based out of the county travel through San Luis Obispo each day. That’s on top of small, private pleasure aircraft stopping over, service on commercial airlines and military traffic.
“If you arrive in a private aircraft, you come through our facility,” Robillard said.
Clients, most of whom are business owners and teams of middle to upper management, are willing to pay thousands for private aviation services.
Although prices vary depending on the type of aircraft, destination and duration of the trip, a flight to Los Angeles for the day on the company’s smallest jet costs $5,500. A weeklong trip to London on its largest jet runs about $185,000.
The average trip cost that its customers pay is around $20,000.
“A lot of it is demand charter,” Robillard said. “Someone could call us today and say, 'We want to go to Chile,' and we make it happen.”
A bright future on the horizon
The success of Borgsmiller’s company is in many ways tied to the success of the county as a whole.
Michael Manchak, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Vitality Corp. of San Luis Obispo County, said ACI helps the county’s economy by providing head-of-household jobs, contributing taxes to cities and the county, and helping to spread the word to business people outside the area that “San Luis Obispo County is a great place to do business.”
“Through its operations at the San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles airports as the fixed-base operator (FBO), as well as providing services at the Oceano Airport, its founder and CEO Bill Borgsmiller empowers his team of professionals to be ambassadors to visitors who may want to invest in our community, and provides planes for local travelers to conduct business in faraway places,” Manchak said.
The firm has a shared interest with the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, said Kevin Bumen, airport manager. San Luis Jet Center provides fuel for commercial aircraft, does ground handling for some flights and performs a variety of maintenance services.
“They need our facility to be in business, and we need their services to provide a high level of quality at our facility,” he said.
There may be bigger players in the private aviation market, but Bumen called ACI a “quality player.”
“Like in other industries, there’s always someone bigger,” he said. “In the aviation industry, service and quality is a huge piece of the success of a business.”
Meg Williamson, Paso Robles assistant city manager, had high praise for ACI’s operation at the Paso Robles airport. Airport services had been languishing until Borgsmiller’s team came on board in 2009, she said.
“They have started providing a level of service to general aviation visitors that matches the experience that they give to their jet customers,” Williamson said.
Moreover, the firm’s performance is good, prices are stable, and supplies and service reliable for high volume needs, she said. Annual fuel volumes have doubled in the past three years, she said. They have been as low as 300,000 gallons before 2010 and are trending upwards of 600,000 gallons.
The city has a commitment from ACI for a 10-year lease, and now, after its first three-year lease that expires in June, it is negotiating with the company on its next three-year lease option. Williamson anticipates that lease being extended.
“They have been a great partner, and they are really working hard to build a solid business platform out there that is general aviation related but diversified,” she said. “They are catering to the military community trying to support their exercise operations, which helps with fuel sales, and they take it on themselves to attend national conferences to get exposure to the aviation industry and for Paso Robles in general.”
Borgsmiller is determined to keep the company’s horizon bright.
He still aspires to grow his business. He would like to expand maintenance, streamline the fleet and build a new office at the San Luis Obispo airport.
Still, he said, quality is a greater priority than size.
“We’re large enough to have the capabilities of a huge company, but we’re small enough that it’s more personalized,” he said. “It’s like a family organization.”