Focus on quality pays dividends
Published: 16 Nov 2015
Gabriella Somerville cut her teeth in aviation with Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Skyjet, before establishing charter-broking business ConnectJets, an award-winning start-up with which she has had success from the off.
Tell us about your career so far
My career to date has primarily been within the aviation sector, covering a short spell as a croupier for a London casino. I began my career in aviation with Virgin Atlantic, working as an air stewardess, and spent seven glorious years under the umbrella of Richard Branson and his team. Working at Virgin gave me an appetite for setting up on my own – to see first-hand the workings of an aviation start-up was just the apprenticeship that I needed. After that, I went on to British Airways, starting out as cabin crew and moving on to work in special services, then a fleet manager and finally customer-service manager for the crew at London Gatwick.
It was at BA that I had my first taste of leadership, managing more than 200 cabin crew and the unions! Having spent 14 years in commercial aviation, I took a short sabbatical, started a small events company and lived in Chamonix for a short period. However, it was not long before I was parading the corridors of the European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition and was duly introduced to Judith Moreton, who was managing director of Bombardier’s European charter operation, Skyjet. Judith then took me on to set up a client-relationship department at Skyjet based out of Farnborough. Some two years later, Skyjet was taken over by Vistajet and I was given the role of VP of sales for their card programme. It was then, in 2009, that I went solo.
The commercial and businessaviation worlds are very different. Was the transition easy for you?
Indeed, they are poles apart. However, I found the transition easy under the leadership of Judith Moreton. Setting up a new department gave me a huge appetite to learn, and within a few months I felt at ease with both the operation and the industry.
Why did you decide to set up your own business?
Since the Virgin days I had always dreamed about setting up my own aviation company and in 2009 the timing was perfect. I had sold a property in the Alps, which had subsequently given me the seed capital to invest in the business.
Tell us about ConnectJets
It was launched in June 2009. The initial business model was to service a charter-broking business. One year later, we had a turnover of £4 million ($6.15 million) with zero debt and were duly involved in selling aircraft and leasing at this time. In 2013, we were awarded the Piaggio Avanti agency agreement for the UK and Territories. In 2014, we moved our office from Fairoaks Airport to Mayfair to further service our clientele and continue to expand our business.
It’s an extremely competitive market. How do you stay on top of your game?
Business aviation is probably one of the most competitive markets in the world. I have always worked on the principle that if you deliver excellent customer service then you will stay on top. Most of our business is referralled and our retention rate is very strong. Where most people today are speaking of being the new Uber platform for business aviation, we see ourselves as more the Savile Row – keeping our eye on the detail and making sure we give above and beyond in terms of service. In 2012 we received a commendation for our services.
What does your typical day involve?
Too much! I am a workaholic. Predominantly my day consists of managing an operational business, serving our client base, managing a small team, business development and facing the everyday challenges of working in the world of aviation.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I recently became a mentor for the Virgin Unite programme and occasionally speak at various events on aviation and motivation. I would love to give more time to mentoring and encouraging more women to take up senior aviation roles. I am currently writing a book on business aviation, to be released next April, and surviving these last few tough economic years. Having just won the Honorary Global Exemplary Award for Entrepreneurship 2015 by the EU Women Inventors and Innovators Network, I am sure I will spend more time with start-ups in aviation and outside the industry.