Jim Segrave Of flyExclusive: How to Take Your Company From Good to Great
An Interview With Jerome Knyszewski
As the leader of a company, you must support everyone you lead and give them the tools they need to do their job well. People are what make a company successful and what makes every great company special — not the owners.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Segrave .
Thomas J. “Jim” Segrave is a highly successful entrepreneur and an innovator in private aviation. As founder of Kinston, North Carolina-based LGM Enterprises, he operates flyExclusive, a company he created to provide world-class private jet experiences with a focus on convenience, quality and safety.
A proud son of one of North Carolina’s most prominent business families, Segrave has poured his own passion for flying into a proven record of business success. In 1994 he founded Segrave Aviation, flying charter jets, running airport-based filling stations for planes and offering maintenance services. In 2010, he sold the business to Delta AirElite, the charter arm of Delta Air Lines, and served as President of Delta Private Jets until 2012, when he decided it was time for a new adventure.
Now, with a growing fleet of more than 75 jets, expected revenue of $300 million by the end of 2022 and more than 500 employees, Segrave and his team have grown flyExclusive into the fifth largest Part 135 private jet charter company in the United States in just six years. Segrave has delivered on his vision for a private jet charter company that offers the highest levels of service and quality and where both clients and employees are treated like family.
Through his leadership, Segrave continues to chart flyExclusive’s course of growth and innovation with strategic investments, including a technology hub in Durham, North Carolina, where the company will develop innovative applications to enhance operations, and two state-of-the-art facilities providing premium maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) services. Ultimately, Segrave and his team are relentless in their desire to continuously improve its world-class private jet experiences. In this, he sees nothing but clear skies ahead.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I got my pilots license when I was 19 years old just for fun. I never intended for aviation to become my career, but my passion for it was nearly instant. I started my first business while in college at East Carolina University at the age of 22.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
In 1999, I was based at the airport in Greenville, North Carolina. After two back-to-back hurricanes and the flooding that came from them, my office took on six feet of water. We lost almost everything, but we were able to fly the planes out of harm’s way. I borrowed money from my parents and sold part of the company to family to survive.
I never considered quitting. I was doing what I loved and just kept working. Lots of people stepped up to help and we survived!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Some of my early customers were NASCAR race teams. On a trip coming back from California, we had to divert to an unplanned airport for fuel in Oklahoma due to heavy storms. Unfortunately, the airport was closed. So, there we were, stuck sitting on the ground in the middle of nowhere at a small, dark airport with no fuel. The NASCAR race team and pit crew on the plane decided they could hotwire the fuel truck in less than 60 seconds. It was a county owned FBO/airport, so I called 911 asking if they had a phone number of someone they could call. Of course, they didn’t! I asked if I could give them a credit card as I did not want anyone to think we were stealing the fuel. I would love to have that phone recording today, because the person on the line responded with, “Sir, we are 911, we do not take credit cards.” She eventually called the sheriff and, by the time he arrived, the pit crew had the fuel truck pulled up to the plane and were getting ready to pump. I tried to do some damage control by asking if the sheriff could take my credit card and give it to the airport to pay for the fuel. He had a confused look on his face, and then as he realized what was going on he said, “son, in Oklahoma we lock people up for this.” Luckily, he had called the manager who works at the airport and he pulled up just a few minutes behind the sheriff. That manager was a huge NASCAR fan and super excited to meet one of the drivers. He let me pay for the fuel and we all escaped getting thrown in jail.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We hire people with great attitudes and passion. Our team is a business family where everyone supports one another. It’s apparent in everything we do. We care deeply about delivering a world-class experience to our customers. We are 100% privately owned and committed to this business for the long-term. There is no private equity investor or hedge fund driving the company. We are customer focused and always strive to perform at the highest level.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I love what I do and have always been passionate about the private jet charter industry in general. A big part of avoiding burn out is choosing a job you love. But I maintain a fairly healthy balance by taking considerable time away with my family. Technology these days allows me to be away from the office for extended periods without fully disconnecting. I can pretty much work from anywhere.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My parents stood behind my dream and passion for this career at a high level early on. My Dad invested his own money and acted as my CFO for many of the early years (some with little to no salary) with Segrave Aviation before we sold the business to Delta Air Lines. He is still my most trusted advisor on so many business issues. I will always owe a debt of gratitude to him for the business guidance and advice he provided early on and even today. My Dad is the best businessman I know, and I have been fortunate to have him in my corner.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
A good company is profitable, growing and providing opportunity for career advancement. A great company has fully engaged team members who are passionate about what they do, always striving for excellence, constant improvement and delivering world-class products and services. Great companies are where you want your children to work one day and follow in your footsteps. They have a shared vision and culture of excellence.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- As the leader of a company, you must support everyone you lead and give them the tools they need to do their job well. People are what make a company successful and what makes every great company special — not the owners.
- Put your customers first, but don’t be afraid to make money. You can’t survive if you don’t value your product and sell at a profit. Confidently approach your customers.
- Always do what you say you are going to do and try your best to do what is right.
- Stay humble regardless of how successful you become and always appreciate the journey — it is more important than the destination.
- Listen more than you talk, especially when trying to sell something. People will tell you what is important to them if you listen to them first. Once you know what is important to a customer it is infinitely easier to sell to them!
- Always be authentic. People appreciate authenticity a lot more than a fancy sales pitch.
- Follow your dreams. Do what you love and are passionate about. Forget about the money. If you do what you love and are passionate about, you will be successful.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
It really depends on the individual circumstances. Growth capital, drive, goals, etc. Some people are simply content on staying the same. Hard to give advice on this without knowing more.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Failure in my mind is simply not an option. I believe we are going to succeed and do whatever it takes to survive. This tenacity has carried me through some very tough times. My businesses have lived through floods, worldwide financial crises, national shutdowns due to 911 terrorist attacks and the global pandemic over the last year. All have presented incredibly challenging circumstances. I have never worked harder than I did last March and April figuring out how to survive. Along the lines of enjoying the journey (not that I want to ever go through that again) it was some of the best times in my career, because our entire team pulled together to make sure we came out the other side of COVID successfully. In fact, our business has been going strong and growing over the last two quarters as we saw more people choosing private jet travel as a safe way to take to the skies once again.
Leaders of companies often do the best jobs managing in the difficult times.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
Listen more than you talk. Be authentic and honest. People see through anything else instantly.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
In our world, it’s all about time. “Minutes Matter” is our motto and everyone is challenged on how to reduce the time it takes to accomplish everything. Our customers are paying us to save them time. The planes are the transportation we provide and we have invested heavily in our refurbishment programs to provide the perfect aircraft. A “wow” experience is efficient, safe, on time, with perfect planes and terrific pilots. We do our best to provide all of this on every single flight.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Social media is necessary in many ways these days. It is beneficial in that it provides a critical opportunity to engage many more customers and prospective customers instantly, as well as cultivate loyal brand advocates. However, it can be challenging, because people who are not happy with your product or service can potentially hurt your reputation with an outsized voice on social media. Reputational risk is definitely a concern. We use social media to better engage with our customers and have so far been fortunate to avoid any significant reputational issues. Our customer base is an extremely affluent group of people who rarely voice their complaints through social media.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Overestimating sales and underestimating cost! It is a lot easier to run a business on a spreadsheet than it is to execute one in real life. Plan conservatively and challenge every assumption. Make sure you can survive the worst-case scenario. Lastly, think through your exit strategy.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My charitable efforts are typically around helping children in some way. Giving kids the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I was blessed to have two loving parents who supported my wild ideas as a child. I would like to see all children have more opportunities.
How can our readers further follow you online?
To keep up with flyExclusive’s continued growth and progress you can visit www.flyexclusive.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!