Flying High

Montgomery Jet Center takes the hassle out of travel

Very few small business owners can boast client rosters that include former U.S. presidents. Ron Mays, president of Montgomery Jet Center in Montgomery, Alabama, is one of them.

In August, Mays flew former President Bill Clinton–who learned of the jet service through a mutual acquaintance–from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, to White Plains, New York.

A long-time pilot who formerly worked in the textile industry, Mays, 37, founded Montgomery Jet Center in early 2000 with his wife, Marion, who is senior vice president.

The 13-employee company, which posted sales of $3 million last year, operates from Montgomery’s regional airport, where its four planes are flown by four full-time and five contract pilots.

Specializing in aircraft sales, fractional ownership programs, consulting, pilot staffing, and aircraft management, Montgomery Jet Center serves clients throughout the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. It also has some international clients.

Fees for the company’s services vary, with fractional ownership options ranging from $1,500 to $1,900 an hour for use of the aircraft. And in the instance when a jet is purchased outright, with prices ranging from $1.5 million to $45 million, Mays’ commission is 1% to 3%.

Armed with a lifelong passion for flying, Mays became the first African American to own a full-service aviation firm after realizing that ministers with large congregations frequently traveled to speaking engagements and religious conferences. “My initial plan was to fly pastors and bishops,” says Mays, “and it just kind of took off from there.”

Like many start-ups, finding capital was an early issue for Mays, whose first customer was Bishop T.D. Jakes of Dallas. To get the bishop airborne for a demonstration of a jet, Mays convinced a local aviation firm to let him “borrow” one of its planes, then used his income tax refund to buy jet fuel and hire a pilot.

The effort paid off when Jakes became a client. Funneling the profits back into the company, Mays began brokering charter trips for other aviation firms.

Soon Mays was able to buy his own aircraft and began servicing other clients, among them Johnnie Cochran, Tavis Smiley, Tom Joyner, and the WNBA’s Cynthia Cooper.

Mays, who projects sales of $10 million by year-end 2001, wants to move into the Dallas, Chicago, and Baltimore markets. His plans include adding three more planes by the end of this year and another five by mid-2002. He’s also planning to form a commuter airline out of Montgomery, Alabama.