From lipstick to helicopters and private jets

By LOW SHI PING for China Daily | | Updated: 2017-02-25 00:38

From lipstick to helicopters and private jets

Planes and helicopters are typically regarded as big boys' toys. So it might come as a surprise that, in Hong Kong, one woman is at the helm of several companies operating in this field.

Diana Chou has been active in the industry since around 1999. That was when she started Sino Private Aviation (HK) Limited to sell personal jets to the Asian market, as the official representative in China for Canadian aerospace giant Bombardier.

To date, she has sold more than 60 private jets and more than 110 helicopters to tycoons, government bodies and corporations in the region.

To put these numbers in perspective: At the start of 2016, only 132 private jets were registered in Hong Kong and 764 helicopters in the Chinese mainland.

What makes Chou's journey particularly remarkable is that prior to entering the industry, she was involved in completely unrelated fields, including cosmetics, lingerie, hospitality and banking.

Of course, some will speculate that being the daughter of Chao Kuangpiu, founder of Cathay Dragon, the airline previously known as Dragonair, might have influenced her career change.

The 59-year-old said she has never actually been involved in her father's business, but she does not deny that being connected to that network has helped her target ultra-high-networth individuals.

"I'm a born salesperson," she said, when asked how the change in her career came about.

"The technique of selling — whether it is a lipstick or a private jet — is exactly the same. It is about the emotion attached to the product. The need is what is different.

"My job is to awaken that desire to purchase the item. It is about catching the impulse of the customer to buy, and getting them to swipe their credit card."

However, there is a glaring difference in price points, and Chou has to work a lot harder when it comes to closing a deal on a jet or helicopter.

"I help them reach the affirmation that they need to buy the aircraft," she said. "It helps if they have the desire and experience beforehand. We also have to match a lot of elements such as the brand, interiors and cost to operate. Once these are satisfied, and the customer has the means to purchase it, then the deal can pretty much be closed."

From selling private jets, Chou decided to branch out into helicopters. She pioneered such sales in China through her company Aerochine Aviation, representing the United States-based Bell Helicopter.

Since then, the entrepreneur has moved up the value chain, spotting opportunities along the way.

In 2013, Chou launched the private jet charter consultancy L'Voyage.

"The response has been very good," Chou said. "We are positioning it both as a business tool and a lifestyle experience. We hope to create new demand, in that after trying the jets our customers will end up buying one later."

Chou is also steering L'Voyage to "target new markets", such as wellness and medical tourism. Working with travel agents, the intention is to package these experiences with the convenience that private jets have to offer.

On the helicopter front, Chou has not been dormant either. Since clinching the deal to represent Bell, she has, through Aerochine Aviation, established an aviation service center in Ningbo, in East China's Zhejiang province. She also has a rotary wing maintenance, repair and operations facility in the eastern Jiangsu province.

This has allowed the company's scope to expand from sales to maintenance.

Last year she partnered with two Singaporeans to launch Aero Infinity, a leasing company. It intends to purchase a fleet of single-engine helicopters and lease them to operators in industries including power grid, transport and emergency services.

Chou spotted the niche by noticing the interest and investment support that US leasing companies were receiving from fund managers.

"The advantage is having a steady income flow. We are fund-raising at the moment," she revealed.

It is clear she is an individual who "cannot keep still" — something she readily admits. And this perhaps is what drives her to keep her eyes peeled for the next opportunity.

"You need to be ahead of the change in your industry or business or it will be taken over by new entrants. So how do you create new novelty? You innovate.

"Be alert and ready," she said. "Drive and passion is important. If you look hard enough, the opportunity will appear."

Chou is a big advocate of the Sigmoid Curve, a mathematical function using an S-shaped curve. This is something she learned about while doing her MBA and she readily applies it to her career.

"It basically says that everything goes through peaks and troughs. You need to be innovative to remain at the peak. At the same time, it is important to start the second curve before the first one declines."

Outside of her businesses, Chou has also been active in the regulation side of the industry.

As a founding member of the Asian Business Aviation Association, she has campaigned for governments to open the skies to private jets. For instance, she pushed for a special channel for customs and immigration clearance in airports for private jet owners.

She is also constantly advocating better aviation standards and the development of talent in both the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.

To this end, Aerochine Aviation has created a scholarship program for pilots and an internship program with the Vocational Training Council in Hong Kong for mechanics.

"We have a tremendous shortage of talent in the industry. Aviation takes a lot of effort, so education is very important," she said.

In fact, Chou acknowledged that she has played a big role in piloting the private jet industry to where it is today. "If I had not persevered, we would have taken longer to arrive at where we are now."

And rather than perceiving her gender as a handicap in the industry, she has played it to her advantage.

"It's been easier to open doors and people are more forgiving when I make a mistake. The downside is, in a male-dominated environment, they don't pay attention to you and it can be frustrating," she said with a laugh.

"Also, it can be intimidating when you are the only woman in a meeting room full of men. Then they start their male jokes. Fortunately, I'm old enough to be bold, so I will make a funny remark too so they will not ignore me."

Looking ahead, and in light of the uncertain economic climate, Chou advises clients to be cautious about purchasing jets at this point in time.

"Buy only if you have the need for it. I sell to customers who think they will need the jet for at least 300 hours a year. Otherwise, the charter service is a good alternative."

She believes change is on the horizon for the aviation industry. This will mean more efficient engines, supersonic jets and the increased use of composite materials to construct planes to reduce the carbon footprint.

Chou also has a hunch that the sharing economy will make its presence felt. Already in North America, jet pooling, similar to car pooling, has become common. However, she is unsure if it will take off in China.

"The people in North America are more pragmatic and don't mind sharing the space. But in China, the mindset tends toward traveling with people they know. Only time will tell if this will work here."

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