Selling flight training manuals and brokering aircraft deals at just 16, Jamail Larkins found his niche in the aviation industry. After earning a bachelor’s degree in aviation business administration from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, Larkins used $5,000 in personal savings and bank financing to launch Ascension Aircraft (www.ascensionaircraft.com) in July 2006. The startup money went toward incorporation fees and Website build-out and design. Offering aircraft brokering services initially, Larkins was strategic in adding new lines of business to Ascension gradually. Today, Ascension Aircraft has evolved into a firm specializing in aircraft leasing, management, acquisitions, sales, and brokering. “It’s always difficult when you’re adding a new segment to a company. But because of relationships, the team, and the network I was able to build up from the time I got in the industry, we had access to all those different opportunities and resources,” says Larkins. “So, as we became more efficient, we wanted to do more for the client.”
Larkins admits getting the company off the ground was a challenge. From obtaining commercial liability insurance to getting the company properly registered and meeting with banks for funding, he says because of his age there were added delays. “I was a 20-year-old kid in a lot of their eyes, coming in and saying, ‘I need a loan for $1 million, to go buy this airplane that I’m going to make money on.’ They ask, ‘What do you know about airplanes?’” recalls Larkins. “And then I’d say, ‘I’ve been in the industry for the past eight years and here are my past financials and here’s some of the previous transactions that we’ve done and here are some of our clients and here’s what we do.’ Then they start to take you a little [more] seriously.” And for good reason.
Current clients include universities, flight schools, individuals, corporations, and small- to mid-sized companies across the country. Projected revenues for last year were $8.4 million, with 90% attributed to the company’s sales and leasing arm. The four-employee firm found 2009 interesting, to say the least. “Last year we secured investors at one of the worst times from an economic standpoint. At the same time, we had a major client go bankrupt and we had to repossess 10 airplanes, more than $2 million worth of assets,” says Larkins, who learned the hard way the importance of diversifying their client portfolio. “But, because of the way we structured the deal and the way that we’ve evolved, we were more than OK. So being able to show our investors that our worst-case scenario actually did happen and we still made money, it gave us even more credibility and comfort with them.” And the frequent flyer likens running a business to flight planning. “You’re going to get all the information before you even start any of the engines. That’s where expertise comes into play,” Larkins says. “To differentiate yourself from hundreds of different aircraft brokers and dealers out there, you have to do something that makes you stand out of the crowd. Because of the complexity of the work we do, the easiest thing we can do is provide a customer service, experience, and expertise level that they cannot find anywhere else.”