Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Northern Jet Management and Orlando, Florida charter provider SpeedBird are merging, with the transaction expected to close in the second quarter. After the merger, the companies expect to generate annual revenue of more than $110 million with a fleet of 37 aircraft flying more than 20,000 hours a year and 209 employees, of which 98 are pilots.
The combined fleet includes Cessna Citation CJ3s and Xs and Bombardier Learjet 40/45s and 70/75s and Challenger 300/350s and 605s. Hangars and offices are located in Grand Rapids (30,000 sq ft), Naples, Florida (24,500 sq ft), and Orlando (32,500 sq ft).
SpeedBird launched about a year ago as the charter/management division of Orlando-based The HeliTeam, which was founded by Christopher Bull. The business jets and one Airbus EC130 helicopter operated by SpeedBird are flown on The HeliTeam’s charter certificate, but after the merger, the two charter operations will eventually be merged into one. “For the time being we will run the two in parallel,” said Bull, “until we determine which certificate to move things onto. There will be a consolidation at some point and we will merge them.”
After the merger, The HeliTeam will continue as a separate company flying specialized charter, aerial application, electronic news gathering, firefighting, external load, and utility transport with its own fleet of airplanes and helicopters.
The motivation for this merger developed after Bull and Northern Jet CEO Charles Cox met about eight months ago and realized that both companies share the same focus on customers and fleet quality. “We found a ton of synergy and geographical benefits,” Bull said. “We struck a strategic partnership in January to evaluate some of those synergies. We were pleasantly surprised at how many exist between the two to allow us to deliver exceptional customer service to our combined customer base.” Many Northern Jet customers have homes in Florida and fly there from the upper Midwest.
Following the merger, Cox will become chairman and will own 50 percent of the merged company, while Bull will be CEO and own the other 50 percent. A choice of a new company name hasn’t yet been decided on but is being considered during the time until the transaction closes.
Of the existing fleet of 37 aircraft, 25 come from Northern Jet and the rest from SpeedBird, including one EC130. Most are available for charter, and Cox said he expects to fleet to grow to more than 40 in the next few months with the addition of two more Learjets and a Challenger 604 and 605.
The larger jets will help make the combined companies an attractive place for pilots to work, according to Cox. “That gives our flight crews more chance to move up. Now that we’ve got more [larger] airplanes, we’re hoping to grow that end of the business.”
Keeping employees happy is critical for a growing charter/management company, and Bull is well aware that it’s hard to compete with some of the large fleet operators. “In some circumstances, we can’t compete,” he admitted, “but we can compete in the lifestyle and benefits we bring to employees. We’re competitive from a pay standpoint, but we also provide an extraordinarily high quality of life.”
Maintenance is available at the three bases occupied by the new company, with major inspections and some heavy maintenance done by other providers. “That will continue,” Cox said, “with the goal to have the ability at all three bases to take care of all the aircraft types with spares and technicians.”
Since it announced the merger, he continued, “We’ve had a lot of interest from our aircraft owners. Our current program is very robust and we pretty much can provide as much use from the revenue side as they need while they can still use their airplane.” The fleet has enough overlap of types so that if a charter customer wants a particular airplane, the company can easily accommodate that customer while leaving the owner’s airplane free for their travel needs, Cox explained. “We’ve got terrific relationships with our owners. We just give them a lot of attention.”