With over 15 years’ in the commercial and business aviation trade, Gabriella Somerville has come a long way from her days as a red-suited air crew for Virgin Atlantic.
Lysanne Currie travelled to to Biggin Hill to discover how she started her private jet charter company and the tips she would impart to fellow high-fliers . . .
Flying is in Gabriella Somerville’s blood – and her earliest memories: her uncle was a squadron leader in the Red Arrows and her dad, who thought he was going to have a ‘Gabriel’, made her a little wooden aircraft in preparation. “From the age of two I was playing with planes and going to air shows,” says Somerville. So it’s no surprise her first job in aviation, as cabin crew with British Island Airways, felt like home.
Six months into the job she switched flightpaths for Virgin Atlantic. “The gentleman at the interview said to me, ‘You’re not the lady who lives with the other stewardesses who had that wild party a few weeks ago?’ I came out and called the other girls to tell them I hadn’t got the job. Then he called me back in and said ‘Next time you have a party, don’t forget to invite us!’”
She looks back on those years with huge fondness: “It was all so new and exciting. We had these dashing red uniforms and when we went through the terminals everyone stared. In those seven years I don’t ever remember having a bad trip.”
Following a stint as fleet manager and customer services manager for British Airways, in 2005 she launched Cool Eventz, creating luxury boutique events for jet agencies throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East. A job at Bombardier Skyjet International followed. Yet there was turbulence in the air, in the shape of the incoming recession. So her decision to found private aviation firm ConnectJets in 2009, with her own capital, during “one of the worst times in aviation history” was rather heroic. “People thought I was quite mad,” she admits. Yet there were many opportunities, fixing problems that had come about because of the downturn. And it paid off: last year, ConnectJets turned over £2m.
The business model has developed over the years with a shift into aircraft sales: clients range from corporations to celebrities – some ask for their jets painted to be gold or demand specific inflight cappuccino machines costing thousands of pounds. In 2014 she signed a contract with Italian manufacturer Piaggio Aerospace as UK and Ireland sales agent for Avanti and Avanti Evo business turboprop planes – the first woman to hold the post of sales agent for the company. The upside? “When you go into that meeting room with 100 salespeople and you’re the one female, the good thing is the toilets are always empty!” Her aim, of course, is “to see more women take those key roles. It’s still a tiny percentage in what’s becoming a big market.” In 2015 she won an honorary global exemplary award for entrepreneurship by the EU Women Inventors & Innovators Network, and these days also helps raise money for children’s charities, such as UK aviation charity the fly2help Foundation.
For entrepreneurs wishing to follow in her footsteps (or air miles) Somerville stresses, “A great idea is not enough. You have to commercialise it. Always ask what the customer wants and whether you have the ultimate solution for them.” For Somerville, true leadership means “you listen, empower and encourage.” Also: “Be wary of distraction. I ask my mentees to write a roadmap every year because otherwise it’s so easy to be taken off-course. Picture it as something like an aircraft – thankfully it’s got autopilot and brings you back on track – but you can get distracted by lots of fluffy things and people with empty promises.” Ultimately, running a business teaches you to be “calm in a crisis. Draw yourself back, look at it collectively and take a couple of deep breaths.”