In a world where many marriages barely last a year and political alliances often don’t survive the night, a successful business relationship of 30 years is at the very least remarkable.
The partnership of TAG Aeronautics and Bombardier Aerospace began a little more than 30 years ago and was celebrated on Saturday evening with a reception and dinner at le Pavillon d’Armenonville in Bois de Boulogne. In many ways, it was a reunion of sorts, actually dating to 1976.
That was the year Canadair president Fred Kearns persuaded the Canadian government, which then controlled Canadair, that the company actually needed a product. That product was a twin-engine business jet based on an idea purchased from Bill Lear, which he had called the LearStar 600 and which Canadair later renamed the Challenger 600. As for the government, it agreed to back the program, but it had a condition–Canadair would have to come up with at least 50 orders.
Kearns brought in a group of people he thought were the best, including former Cessna Citation executive James Taylor, as well as marketing and sales professionals Dave Hurley, Bill Juvonen and Barry Smith. He then added Canadair vice president Benoit Kerub to the team. At that point, recalls Juvonen, “Fred pretty much gave us carte blanche to go out and sell airplanes.”
Meanwhile, attending college in Southern California were two brothers, Mansour and Aziz Ojjeh, who would soon make Kearn’s day and play a major role in the survival of Canadair. Their father, Akram Ojjeh, was the founder of Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG) and he had acquired a Boeing 707 with the distinctive green and white TAG logo on the tail. The boys, he thought, would quite properly follow in his entrepreneurial footsteps. And so they would, but with a few ideas of their own.
Aziz had learned to fly in 1975 while on summer vacation from Stanford University. His first lesson was in a Piper Cub on a blustery day, and he remembers wondering afterward if it was such a good idea. But by the time his logbook had totaled three hours, he said, “I liked it.” In fact, he liked flying enough that the next year the brothers acquired a used Falcon 20, in which Aziz went on to become type-rated in 1977.
According to Aziz, it was while on the way home on vacation in the summer of 1976 that he saw a Canadair ad for the 600. “I told my father, ‘This is the future.’” Akram agreed and gave the boys his approval to order two of the twin-engine business jets. And he also asked if they thought Canadair might be interested in having TAG as a representative in the Middle East, where the company had considerable resources.
In June 1977, Canadair showed up at the Paris Air Show with a Challenger mockup. Akram visited the exhibit and within a week had placed orders for a total of 19 Challengers.
Juvonen remembers talking with fellow Stanford graduate Aziz and asking how his father had come to such a relatively odd order number. “For a Stanford boy, you’re not very smart,” Juvonen remembers him replying. Aziz went on to point out that the order of 19 airplanes, plus the two already ordered, came to 21, which was three times seven, and seven itself was a lucky number. Juvonen remembered then that the tail number of the Ojjehs’ Falcon 20 was N777X. And Akram himself noted that 1921 (19 and 21) was the year of his birth. All lucky numbers, for TAG and for Canadair.
Soon after ordering the 19 Challengers, TAG Aeronautics was formed “for the purchase, sale, distribution and dealership of aircraft abroad, especially in the Arab countries.” And shortly thereafter, an agreement was signed with Canadair to make TAG the manufacturer’s exclusive distributor and representative in 22 Middle East countries and Turkey. A subsequent move by Kerub took him from Canadair to TAG Aeronautics, where he has remained since as head of TAG Aeronautics’ offices at Bombardier’s Montreal headquarters.
It was not a particularly auspicious beginning for the relationship, as the Challenger 600 and derivative 601 had limited range and were not very appealing to Middle East clients more accustomed to the Gulfstream III with 3,300-nautical-mile range. Nevertheless, TAG moved ahead over the next two years, ordering five more Challengers, and then 10 more, and selling them. Some historians believe TAG’s perseverance and loyalty were major factors in keeping Canadair afloat during those early years.
With the introduction in 1996 of the Challenger 604, with a range of 4,077 nautical miles, the company had a true Middle East market challenger, so to speak. And with a booming worldwide economy, the race was on.
By 1997, Canadair had long since morphed into Bombardier Aerospace. At the Paris Air Show that year, Mansour and Bombardier Business Aircraft president Michael Graff announced a $250 million order by TAG for five Global Express business jets and five more Challenger 604s. It brought TAG’s total firm orders at that time to more than 70 Bombardier airplanes.
Many years before, Damascas-born Akram Ojjeh, the holder of five university degrees and the French Legion d’Honneur, told French writer Jacques Derogy of the weekly news magazine L’Express: “I’m interested in money, in as much as it allows me to make people happy, to achieve certain goals, to negotiate difficult or intricate contracts, to create needs and fulfill them.” He was the master of “the art of the deal” long before Donald Trump wrote a book by that title, and Akram’s sons have continued that philosophy.
Today, Mansour, with a master’s degree in business administration, is president of the TAG Group. Aziz, who holds a graduate degree in architecture and a master’s degree in civil engineering, is the company’s vice president. Among TAG Group’s global holdings are: TAG Aeronautics, the exclusive distributor for Bombardier aircraft in the Middle East and Turkey; TAG Aviation, providing aviation services and aircraft charter, sales, acquisitions and maintenance; and TAG Farnborough Airport (a 99-year lease). Luxembourg-based TAG Group is also a 15-percent shareholder in the McLaren Group of Formula 1 auto racing fame. The TAG group remains privately held.
The group currently owns a Global Express (in which Aziz is type-rated) and a Challenger 300. TAG Aeronautics uses both as demonstration airplanes. On order is a Global XRS, which will replace the Global Express. TAG Aeronautics, said Aziz, has a standing order at all times for 20 Bombardier business aircraft–five of each model.
“We look at the 300 as an entry level airplane, and it has been selling well in the Middle East,” said Aziz. And while the Challenger remains the workhorse of the fleet, he added, the Global is the jewel.