By Philip Wen / Photos: Michael Clayton-Jones
Perched on the edge of his cream leather seat on board a Citation V private jet, Vas Nikolovski displays an infectious passion for aviation, one that he says developed from an early age.
"When I was in year eight, I wanted to be an air traffic controller," he says. "I did work experience at Essendon Airport and I knew I would spend all my life working there." Now 45, Nikolovski has fulfilled that ambition – not up in the control tower, but rather from the hangar at ground-level.
As the co-founder and chief executive of Business Jet Travel, Nikolovski directs traffic for his network of gleaming charter jets – including a flagship Gulfstream and an equally impressive Legacy 600 – from the company's headquarters at Melbourne's Essendon Airport to destinations across Australia's 450 regional airports.
Private jets naturally conjure up associations with glitz and glamour, and Nikolovski counts Beyonce, Jay-Z and rock band Pearl Jam among some of his company's recent clients.
"We've had a lot of rockstars here – some nice, some not so nice," he jokes.
Yet Nikolovski is keen to "dispel the myth" that charter jet travel is a luxury reserved just for the rich and famous.
He says companies who have management and staff who are frequently on the road can shave hours, if not days and weeks, off travel if their itineraries are tailored to eliminate long layovers and transfers from airports.
"Why do one meeting in three days when you can do three meetings in one day?" he says.
Above all, Nikolovski says he thrives on analysing customer needs and find a solution that increases productivity and saves time and money for his clients.
"It's having half a dozen specialised consultants leaving Auckland on their day off, fly into Melbourne connecting in Adelaide overnight and then connecting to Olympic Dam, taking them 28 hours," he says.
"Instead, we have them in Melbourne and two hours later have them at their workplace within eight hours [of leaving Auckland].
"That's a huge benefit to the end customer because they've given them 20 hours more productivity. You're talking about people who earn $500,000-plus." There are plenty of other charter jet companies in the market, but Nikolovski says his company differentiates itself by the knowledge of Australia's regional flight networks and its responsiveness - he claims to be able to have a plane on the tarmac ready for departure within hours of a client phoning in.
"That's pretty powerful, the [commercial] airlines can't match that," he says.
And while Qantas and Virgin are looking to increase their presence in the lucrative fly-in-fly-out market, Nikolovski says he prefers to concentrate on growing his business via small-cap miners who have yet to develop a travel policy.
Nikolovski's Business Jet Travel business model has evolved over his 20-year career in the aviation industry.
Nikolovski began studying for his pilot's licence in 1995, and soon found himself buying into a flight school business. After a freak accident in 1998 saw him lose hearing in his right ear, his flying took a backseat and he began to concentrate on the business, which evolved to incorporate jet charter, and two years ago, a holistic travel management offering.
'That's an area we see a lot of growth in," he says.
"They often have head offices based in major regional towns ... they've got travel [needs] on so many different levels." Nikolovski provides another example where he helped a big-four bank conduct its asbestos audit at dozens of regional branches in Victoria. The process which ordinarily takes four weeks and hundreds of kilometres on the road, he says, was completed in under nine days.
"They don't have the risk of 300 employees driving around the country," he says, adding that staff spend less time away from home.
With the books on the company's first full-year just closed off, Nikolovski declined to provide details of the company's profitability, only saying that the company was profitable and that he was aiming for up to 30 per cent earnings growth next year.