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Bob Berry celebrates 50 years in aviation industry

Posted 19 January 2012 · Add Comment

Bob Berry, the chairman and MD of the Pilatus Centre UK, the Bournemouth-based distributor of the Swiss manufactured $4.5 million Pilatus PC-12 luxury executive aircraft, has celebrated 50 years in the aviation industry.

At 76, Berry regards himself as a late comer.  A son of Northern Ireland farmer, he left the family arable and dairy farm to take a job testing milk as a Bacteriologist for Unigate dairies in the UK when he was 21.  After three years he learnt how to be a salesman with Schweppes Pepsi Cola in London.  Three years later he left to join a specialist mail order company. It was not long before he and his wife Judith decided that they could do it better, and started their own business working from their home’s garage in Acton.   With Berry’s natural sales ability it took four years for the business to grow into a printing and advertising company employing 17 people complete with their own lithoprint presses.  

By 1962 the business, which specialised within the pharmaceutical industry, required long motorway journeys.  One morning, Berry and his wife became stuck in traffic on the M1.  The delay meant that the appointment was not going to be kept.  As they sat in the stationary traffic, a light aircraft flew low over their car inbound to a local airfield.   

“I knew then that I had to get above it all,” recalled Berry.  “Once able to escape the motorway I asked for directions to the local airfield which turned out to be Elstree.  With Judith exclaiming that I was mad, I immediately took a trial lesson with the flying club and within just 10 minutes of flying realised a new ambition – to own and fly my own aircraft.”  

Within 2 weeks he had purchased his own four-seat Cessna C180 in which he learnt to fly, gaining his private pilot’s licence within the year.   

In 1980 he became managing director and major shareholder in Glosair Aviation at Bournemouth, which was sole distributor for the American-manufactured Commander Aircraft.  It did not take long for Berry’s enthusiasm and sales drive to bring the company into the black.  Within 12 months, he had sold the print company and moved to Dorset to concentrate on the aviation business.  

The good times were not to last.  The situation created by US liability lawsuits that affected aircraft manufacturers hit general aviation hard. Berry and fellow shareholders were left with aircraft on the ramp, suddenly worth rock-bottom prices due to the need for the factory to make quick sales to pay of debtors.  Berry learnt his first harsh lesson regarding the general aviation industry and was forced to wind up Glosair.  

 

By now he had become well known in the industry and had been closely watched by Rockwell’s competitors.   Acting as a broker, he was approached by British Aerospace to survey and recommend potential aircraft for a new flight training school based in Prestwick, to provide pilot training primarily for British Airways.   Within months, an inital 51 single and twin engined aircraft were on order from Piper Aircraft’s Vero Beach factory in Florida.  The timing could not have been worse as Piper Aircraft announced bankruptcy, forced in part by growing liability issues experienced by the aviation industry.  

Desperate to not let the client down, Berry started meetings with the Florida Judge presiding over the Chapter 11.  Faced with the promise of we will build if you buy, Berry within five years, brokered the deals by putting everything he owned on the line through the Bank of Ireland and eventually financed a total of 94 aircraft for flight training centres worldwide including the Middle East, Australia and China. The deals amounted to over $150 million.  

“I’m not sure what was more of a test of nerve,” said Berry.  “Handling the finance or flying the Atlantic on ferry flights over 40 times in a 4 seat single engine aircraft with extra long range fuel tanks fitted on the rear seats!”  

In 2005, Berry had a meeting with the Swiss aircraft manufacturer Pilatus.  He had spotted the potential demand for the PC-12, a luxury nine-seat executive aircraft that not only offered a large luxurious cabin, but had a longer range than most business jets and the ability to fly in and out of small airfields so that owners could have more choice of destination.  

“To become the first European distributor I felt that I had to show commitment so signed an order for four $3.5 million PC-12s that day with the intention of selling through the Piper Aircraft distributor based at Bournemouth.”  

The distributor failed to sell any and within a few months went into receivership.   Berry and a team of two sales executives and one engineering manager, went solo and launched the UK Pilatus Centre at Bournemouth, and managed to sell eight new PC-12s during the remainder of 2005.  By 2008 the company officially opened its own hangar with sales, flight training and engineering facilities.  

“We now provide engineering and service support to the majority of the 38 new PC-12s we have imported for owners.  It’s fantastic to sometimes walk past up to seven aircraft on the ramp and in the hangar. I still get a tremendous buzz when we hand over a new aircraft to a client knowing that they will enjoy the versatility and economical operating costs offered by the PC-12.”  

Looking to the future, Berry admits that due to a heart condition he must follow the request of his family and cardiac specialist’s advice and take things a little slower. “The state of the economy, or shall I be more specific, the reluctance of banks to lend, has certainly slowed sales down.  We sold six new and three pre-owned PC-12s in 2011, but could have doubled that number had potential customers had more support from the banks.  Whilst the interest in the PC-12 remains strong and with additional aircraft set to be introduced in a few years, I intend to continue to oversee the operation.”

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