Sentient Gets New Funding and New CEO

 - July 9, 2008, 11:41 AM

Sentient Jet Holdings, parent of Sentient Flight Group, today revealed that its financial backers have agreed to provide a new supply of funding to help the charter, aircraft management and jet card firm continue growing and address a cash-flow problem that has resulted in delayed payments to vendors. Sentient also revealed that Gregory Campbell, Sentient’s chairman of the board of managers, is assuming the role of CEO. Former CEO Steven Hankin will continue in a full-time position, working in an advisory role to Campbell and also leading some strategic initiatives.

Campbell, who was JetDirect’s CEO before the two companies merged last April and Sentient CEO before Hankin took over in September, is also senior managing partner of CD Ventures, one of Sentient’s investor group, which includes Argosy Capital, ABS Capital Partners, Brantley Partners, HSBC and AIG. Since the merger, Sentient has acquired five charter and/or management companies, including TAG Aviation USA, and now has 300 aircraft under management and more than 200 on various charter certificates that it owns.

Sentient’s cash-flow problems come at a time when the charter industry is under pressure. (See “Charter Industry Changes May Have Significant Effects” from yesterday Charter revenues have dropped in the U.S. by between 10 and 25 percent compared with last year, according to Joe Moeggenberg, president of ARG/US. Sentient’s charter, aircraft management and jet card businesses, according to Campbell, have not declined but their growth has slowed. Sentient’s combined fleet flew more hours in June than in any previous month, he said, and Sentient added 19 new charter aircraft in the last 90 days and has 14 under letter of intent. The company tripled the amount of retail charter delivered in June compared with last year, and Sentient added more than 400 new jet card membership clients since the beginning of the year.

The cash-flow problem stems from the merged company’s challenge in integrating 13 different accounting systems, according to Campbell, all from various entities that eventually joined to became Sentient. The company has been working on consolidating 13 charter certificates into one, and this effort is on track for completion in November. Currently, about 125 of the more than 200 charter airplanes in the 300-airplane fleet are under the Sentient Flight Group certificate, which is overseen by the FAA’s Portland, Maine FSDO.

Sentient is now working toward merging two accounting platforms. “In migrating to those two platforms,” Campbell said, “we ended up with fairly substantial delays in billing.” Typically, Sentient bills customers within two to three days of completing a trip, “which is pretty typical in the industry,” he said. Around the end of May, he added, “our billing cycle had stretched to 31 days because of some of the issues that arose out of the back-office and accounting integration. When you’re doing $800 million a year in revenue, that’s quite a bit of working capital to tie up in a fairly short period of time. So that truly did create some issues with payables.”

The infusion of the investor funding and cash generated internally by reducing the billing cycle from 30 days to two to three days “will generate a substantial amount of cash for the company,” Campbell said. About one third of the vendor cash-flow delays have been resolved already, and he expects the rest to be back to normal in 60 days, “from a back-office management standpoint.” The funding, he added, “will be used primarily for bringing vendor payments back into line. We anticipate this is probably a 60-day hiccup for us that we’ll get over quickly.”