People around the world are putting their trust in Empire Aviation’s affable chief
By Lee Shappell
Gary Wright doesn’t come across as a slave to corporate America.
From his open-collar shirt to his breezy, down-home way, Wright, director of Empire Aviation USA’s used-jet sales operations, seems an unlikely broker of multi-million-dollar, worldwide deals. That’s just what he does for the Dubai-based company, from his modest quarters on the edge of Scottsdale Municipal Airport.
We recently caught up with Wright, an Iowa native, to discuss Empire, which came to the Airpark 2 ½ years ago, and his role in giving the Middle East’s largest managed fleet of business jets access to the world’s largest market for private aviation. We got a treat.
Question: What’s special about Empire Aviation?
Answer: We’re owned by a company in Dubai, Empire Aviation. It’s a management company, a charter and air ambulance company, world wide. We have airplanes in Hong Kong, Nigeria, India, but none here. The majority are in Dubai. This is our only U.S. operation, and we’re basically here to broker, buy and sell airplanes. Our management customers might want to move up, or move down, or buy airplanes. We’re here to facilitate those transactions.
Q: What captured your interest about the business?
A: I’ve been buying and selling airplanes since 1977. I got in the airplane business in 1969. I joined the Army to fly helicopters. When I got out of Vietnam, I went to college and then ended up managing a little airport. I was chief flight instructor, the only mechanic on the field. I gave 1,000 hours of flight instruction one year, and decided that was way too much work for no more than it paid. We had a guy’s airplane break down so I gave him a ride back to Alton, Illinois, where he was based. He had a big diamond ring, he was dressed well, he bought lunch, and I was like, hey, what do you do? “I sell airplanes.” I said, well, hell, I’m going to do that, too.
Q: And now, 40 years later, you’re doing it worldwide?
A: I just got back from England. We’re trying to do a deal with a (Hawker Beechcraft) 800XP. The airplane owner is in India. The airplane was operated in Dubai, and now it’s in Marshall, England, for maintenance. The business keeps growing out, worldwide. And of course you throw in different customs and different languages. And everybody’s got a lawyer. It just seems to take longer and longer to do transactions. At least they happen, so that’s good.
Q: What was it like flying helicopters in Vietnam?
A: I’ve got more stories. We could talk for days. It would be like fairy tales, except fairy tales all start, “Once upon a time,” and war stories all start, “This is no BS.” I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. I’m glad that I lived through it. You get really, really good at flying helicopters, or whatever you happen to be flying, because it’s an incredibly hostile environment, just operating a helicopter from the coast of Vietnam up into the mountains, with the humidity, with the temperatures, and with the weights. We were always operating on the end of the envelope, and then to have somebody shooting at you while you’re doing that, you get real good.”
Q: Empire could have set up U.S. operations anywhere. Why Scottsdale?
A: Literally, in this day and age, you could work out of a refrigerator box. You’ve got computers, the phones. It’s real easy to contact people worldwide. Normally I’ve got blue jeans on, or a pair of shorts in the summertime, but nobody knows. I can do what I do on the telephone, basically. Most of the used-airplane business is on the phone.
I’m from the Midwest. Ever since I got out of Vietnam I have despised cold weather. In that Wichita, Kansas-Lincoln, Nebraska corridor, you can read the Oklahoma paper one morning, and the next day the wind’s blowing out of the north and you can read the Lincoln paper. And it’s cold and it’s miserable, and it gets cloudy. It’s depressing. So I remember my very first trip to Phoenix, Arizona, which would have been shortly after I went to work for Duncan Aviation. We flew a Lear jet into Sky Harbor from Lincoln, where there was snow on the ground, and ice, and it hurts to stand outside. We got off the plane in Phoenix and there was a patch of green grass outside and you don’t have 40 pounds of clothes on. It was nice.
One nice thing about Scottsdale, there are more corporate airplanes that come through here in the winter time until the end of May, a lot of aviation here.
It’s all connections. There are people who’ve known me for a long, long time, but other people need to know more about us. There’s more opportunity to talk to people when they come through here for “The Season.” All of my competitors come to town. The used-airplane business is movers and shakers. It’s guys with lots of money. They tend to buy at the end of quarters, and they tend not to buy during the summer when they’re on vacation. So it’s good to be here, especially this time of year.
People will call me and say, “I need a (Gulfstream) G 5. Who’s got one?” Or, “Where can I find one of those?” Or, “I’ve got one, what can I do with it?” So if you’re an airplane buyer, you need to know somebody like us. We can help you out, save you some money.
Q: What types of aircraft are you looking for?
A: Just about anything. Whatever our management customers want, we will find them that airplane. We probably know the Gulfstream models, the Falcon models, the Hawker models best, but I bought three Citation Xs a couple of years ago for a company. The good news is we know just about everybody in the business, and we’ve done business with them, so they know us. In any kind of transaction, it’s good to know the players up front so you’ve already got a little bit of trust.
I’ll ask a customer what it’s going to be used for. If it’s mom and pop and the grandkids, you might need a bunch of seats. But if you’re only going to do it once a year, do you really need a 13-passenger airplane when another airplane would do it really well, and not paying twice as much for that.
You can get jet fever. You want to go fast. If you just want to go fast, that’s easy enough to take care of. If you want to go fast and take 20 of your best friends, that’s one thing. Or, you might want an excuse to not take all these people. Then you’ve got an excuse if you’ve only got eight seats. That comes up.
For the longest part of my career, even in the worst recession, airplanes always were worth at least half of their original list price. You could hang your hat on it. And there were a couple of years you could buy an airplane and the next year it was worth more money. When Russia, Brazil, China started buying airplanes, it was great. You couldn’t get enough airplanes. But now, since 2008, the market is just horrendous. The real depreciation is at least 10 percent per year.
Q: You said earlier you wanted to be that airplane-sales guy with the big ring and nice clothes, who bought you lunch all those years ago. Are you there?
A: I’ve been there several times, in all cycles. I’ve been on top of the world and I’ve been on the bottom of the world in the airplane business. When it’s all going good, it’s the best thing ever. But when you’re trying to get an airplane off the ground and the weather doesn’t cooperate, or the engine won’t start, it’s a whole other challenge. But we’re here to make all that happen.
I’ve got a house over the hill on Dynamite, in the desert. It’s me, the dogs and the coyotes. That’s fantastic. I can smoke my cigars outside and read a book.