Business Essentials: Co-pilot required to take flights of fantasy to new highs

Virtual Aviation has put early turbulence behind it. Now its founder wants to hand over the controls
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After training as a pilot, but realising he wasn't suited to the lifestyle, James Stevenson worked out a way of turning his passion for aeroplanes into a business. His idea was to sell flight simulator experiences to aviation enthusiasts and corporate groups, giving them the opportunity to "fly" a Boeing 747.

Having successfully built up his company, Virtual Aviation, he is now ready to move on to a new challenge. But he doesn't know how to take a back seat while enabling the firm he founded to carry on growing.

"I don't want the business to depend on me," he says. "At the moment, I run it and manage it, even though there are three other full-time staff and 40 part-time instructors. But I want Virtual Aviation to exist as a business in its own right. In fact, I'd like it to more than exist - I'd like it to double its turnover."

He believes the time has come to leave the bulk of this job to someone else, as the business has exhausted much of his motivation. The history of Virtual Aviation helps explain why.

In the early days, everything looked promising. Mr Stevenson succeeded in persuading British Airways to hire out its £10m simulators at Heathrow when they weren't being used, and with just £3,000 capital he got Virtual Aviation off the ground in 1997.

"The business was profitable almost from day one, and sales grew steadily to £250,000 per annum, but then 9/11 happened," he says. "Understandably, BA decided to suspend public use of their simulators for an indefinite period."

The cost of refunding everyone with advance bookings put the company £80,000 in debt. Bankruptcy was an option, but Mr Stevenson didn't want to leave customers out of pocket, so he took on the debt himself in the belief that the business would soon resume trading and he would be able to pay it back.

Eventually this happened, but 2002 brought with it a further setback to the company, with BA putting the prices it charged Virtual Aviation up 90 per cent. "Now all we can afford to do is corporate events at Heathrow," Mr Stevenson says. "But in December 2003, we did manage to get a contract with two other flight simulator operators in Gatwick, Luton and Manchester."

Annoyingly, the timing of this deal meant he just missed the Christmas sales period, which accounts for half the company's turnover.

But today, the business is thriving again and Mr Stevenson expects next year's turnover to be in the region of £400,000 to £500,000. While he is obviously delighted with the success of Virtual Aviation, achieving this has been a hard slog, and he now wants to embark on a completely new challenge.

"I've decided against selling the business," he says. "It has no competitors and, also, I've been advised that a company with under a million pounds annual profit is difficult to sell for a decent multiple of the profit. Most importantly, while I'd like to take a back seat, I would still like to keep a hand in the business."

He prefers the idea of taking on someone in a purely managerial role, but wants to get the process right. "It's also important that their salary doesn't wind up eating up all the profit," he says.

The company has recently developed some exciting new products, including a highly acclaimed one-to-one course to overcome fear of flying.


Rebecca Clake, Organisation and Resourcing Adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

"It is important to set boundaries. Make sure you know what you want your role to be and what role you want your managers to take. Then make sure your new manager is aware of this.

"You should stay close enough to the business so that you can gain control again if need be, but give your manager sufficient autonomy. Do not interfere unless absolutely necessary.

"It may help to identify your priorities and develop a clear strategy in terms of how you want the business to be run and where you want it to go. This will help your new manager to understand what you require.

"The next challenge is making sure the right person is in the role. Once you have achieved this, give them work you think they can do. However, this must be done in an organised way - don't just dump all the work on your new manager. Discuss it with them, brief them, and then slowly let go."

Nick Isles, Director, The Work Foundation

"Anyone who comes in to run the business and does a good job will almost certainly want an equity stake in a few years' time. Get someone with experience of growing a small business successfully, with a track record of sound financial management, and with the ability to access cheap capital. The growth Mr Stevenson aspires to will not come from within.

"Another option would be for Mr Stevenson to find an equity partner, someone willing to put up their own money or finances. This person could either run the operation or they could hire a third-party finance and operations director, with Mr Stevenson taking the role of chairman and his partner as chief executive."

Penny Illston, Executive Consultant, Capgemini

"Think about the future of your business. What will it be like? Will you diversify any further? What business development work will the new person undertake? Be clear about how your role will interface with the manager's.

"Be clear, too, about the sort of person you can work with. Describe their personality and use it as a basis for the person specification during the recruitment process. You'll probably want applicants to have experience of running their own business and/or knowledge of the aviation industry.

"How will the successful candidate be rewarded? Remuneration could be by fixed or variable payments, or linked to results. Make sure you know how much the business can afford.

"Having done this initial work, you can start searching either through the press or a recruitment specialist. After the interview stage, arrange a trial day in the office to help you both to decide if you want to go ahead."