Mark Booth, Chief Executive Of Netjets Europe: The Anglophile air boss who keeps the super-rich flying

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The Independent Online

"We make Gucci look like a mass consumer good," says Mark Booth, the chief executive of NetJets Europe, the executive aeroplane business which last week splashed out $160m (£84.4m) on 25 new jets to further bolster its fleet of planes for the super-busy and super-rich.

"We make Gucci look like a mass consumer good," says Mark Booth, the chief executive of NetJets Europe, the executive aeroplane business which last week splashed out $160m (£84.4m) on 25 new jets to further bolster its fleet of planes for the super-busy and super-rich.

Having been squirted out of Rupert Murdoch's inner circle after spells running BSkyB and the ill-fated e-Partners internet fund, Mr Booth is now working for another icon of global business, Warren Buffett.

Mr Buffett, the "Sage of Omaha" investment guru, bought the American NetJets business in 1998 for $750m. Mr Booth was hired in 2001 to launch a European operation copying the original model that sells customers a share of a corporate jet for a number of hours each year - fractional ownership in the jargon.

It's a time-share business that allows you to hail a jet any time, albeit with a few hours' notice.

"People said to me that people in Europe were not going to travel privately, the way Americans do," Mr Booth says. "Our contention was that that implies European businessmen are less important than American businessmen, that people's time in Europe is less important than to an American, that there isn't the equivalent kind of shareholder value opportunity or high net worth individuals. That's clearly been crushed."

His offices in Sloane Avenue in London are laden with the coolest modern art, all with an aviation theme. One of the most impressive pieces is a circular installation made up of the shorthand codes for the world's leading airports, created by Langlands and Bell, the Turner Prize entrants.

Another favourite is a Darren Almond, a large blue light box affair containing the words "New York". Every three and a half hours it changes to "London",reminding the jet-lagged viewer how long it used to take to fly transatlantic by the much-missed Concorde.

Anyway, after a relatively brief spell running BSkyB in 1997-1999 he was replaced by Tony Ball. However he had already put in place the strategy of converting Sky's customer base to digital satellite television and giving away the set-top boxes.

A £30m offer came from Microsoft to run internet investments for the software giant but Mr Murdoch instead gave him his own £30m dot.com plaything called e-Partners, an internet investment fund that went the same way as the rest of the technology bubble.

Presumably such a spectacular implosion could not have endeared him to the News Corporation mogul?

"E-Partners was too sexy not to try," Mr Booth says, although he's candid about the fact that it probably wasn't the most sensible career move he ever made.

He's now running part of Mr Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway investment empire and is acutely aware that NetJets Europe is the one line of red ink that spoils the Hathaway black.

"I'm looking forward to the day when we are no longer the odd ones out," Mr Booth says.

So having done jobs for Murdoch and Buffett, how have they compared? "They're tough jobs," he says somewhat Delphically. "They have all required changes of perception in the market place. You have to believe something different is possible."

His point about Gucci is that NetJets offers a service that to most people sounds so luxurious it boggles the mind.

"The operating challenge for us is to deliver an incredible product in terms of service to people who are used to having absolute control over everything they do. We are not talking about people who are not used to doing anything they don't want to do. It's definitely the most sophisticated client base in the world. It is a service business with a guarantee. If you call me today and say you want to leave at 6pm to fly to Moscow from Northolt we have to do that. That's my commitment; you're going to have your plane. What's the value of that?"

On Tuesday Mr Booth announced that the company was paying $160m for 25 Hawker 400XP business jets from Raytheon Aircraft. It brings the company's fleet of jets up to 60, ranging from converted Boeing 737s to Gulfstream Vs to the smaller Citation Bravos, with the Hawker jets in-between.

"On a personal basis it's satisfying because there are a lot of people who said the business model in Europe wasn't going to work and we've kind of crushed the notion," he says.

The company's latest accounts show a £13.4m loss but that is for 2002. Mr Booth reckons NetJets Europe will make an operating profit in the final quarter of next year and be fully profitable the year after. From 600 customers at the end of this year he is confident the company will have 1,000 on its books in 12 months.

To help grow the business NetJets has been spending heavily on sponsoring the sort of events you would expect the jet set to attend - Royal Ascot, the Arc meeting at Longchamps and the Irish Derby at the Curragh. Mr Booth has also launched a new way of paying for your share of a corporate jet.

The NetJets Corporate Card gets you 25 hours flying time for £79,000 a year, equivalent to £3,160 an hour, which some in the private jet business reckon is steep to say the least.

But according to Mr Booth the secret of the NetJets business model is that it's all about convenience. Executives work while in the air and don't have to hang around airports for hours. Shareholders get more out of their management and the whole thing is far more economic than owning your own corporate jet while avoiding all those annoying "fat cat" jibes.

"If you went to run a FTSE 50 company and the first thing you did was buy a large Gulfstream aircraft that would be symbolic of wanting to have people at your beck and call, essentially. There is no way you could make that jet work as efficiently as it should. With NetJets, what you are saying is, 'I'm paying for what I use'. It's good judgement.

"Do they [shareholders] want you sitting around, trying to make flights, trying to change planes in France to get to Prague and get your connecting flight? I don't think that's what they want you to do.

"So, for instance, if you're working in Canary Wharf, it's a 12-minute ride to City airport and you can take off literally within five minutes when you get there. If you are a big shot doing a deal, you can't afford to have the person next to you looking at your information or listening to your conversation."

An American who is now both Anglophile and Europhile, Mr Booth reckons the doubters will be proved wrong about NetJets in Europe, which will come to overtake its bigger sister company in the US.

"The short answer is this is going to be a big company. My view is we will catch the US in five years and be bigger in Europe than it is in America ultimately.

"There are very few businesses, to be candid, that can't afford £79,000 and who shouldn't have access to private aviation and this is the smart way of doing it. This can be an incredibly large business."

Having witnessed the revolution that the likes of easyJet and Ryanair have wrought in low-cost flying, Mr Booth is now trying the same thing at the opposite end of the market.

High-Flier

Age: 48.

Pay: £361,000 in 2002. Probably £400,000 now.

Education: BA University of Kansas

Career: First big job was working for Viacom, Sumner Redstone's media group. Came to Europe in 1986 to become founding chief executive of MTV Europe. First jobs for the Murdoch empire were as chief executive of Foxtel in Australia and then chief operating officer of JSkyB in Japan. Became managing director in 1997 and latterly chief executive of BSkyB in the UK. Left BSkyB in 1999 when he went to run e-Partners, a subsidiary of News Corporation, until August 2001. Appointed chief executive of NetJets in September 2001.

Family: Married with three children.

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