Iris Riesen and Candy Chung fly high on private business jet success

Dynamic duo have excelled in male-dominated private-jet business as the industry has taken off in HK and the mainland over the past few years

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 4:58am

Iris Riesen and Candy Chung know what it's like to fly high above the glass ceiling.

Both women are executives of private-jet aviation companies, an industry typically dominated by men. Riesen is managing director at Jet Aviation Hong Kong and Chung heads Global Aviation Asia in Hong Kong. Both have made a name in the industry piloting their companies as the business aviation market has taken off in the city and the mainland over the past few years.

Riesen was fascinated by the aviation industry as a young girl in Payerne, Switzerland, which is home to a military airfield. She was so into aviation that she recalls feeling uneasy unless there was a scent of the kerosene that powers jet engines in the air.

She joined Jet Aviation, a Swiss-based unit of America's General Dynamics, in 1995 after working in the flight dispatch department of Swissair, where she oversaw everything it takes to get an aircraft off the ground.

The only thing that would set her back occasionally was a debrief with an old-fashioned pilot. Back then, she said, the pilots would "give me that look of 'who do you think you are'". Her response? She just kept smiling. But for most of her time with Swissair (renamed Swiss International Air Lines in 2002) and then at Jet Aviation, she has felt recognised for her ability rather than being judged according to her gender. Still, Riesen feels she has had to work harder to prove that she knew her job as well as, if not better than, her colleagues knew theirs.

Relocating to Hong Kong to set up the local office for Jet Aviation in 2001, she found the city an open and easy place for a female executive, in contrast to an encounter she had in the United States. "I was attending a business jet conference in the US where 70 men were standing in a room. The moment I walked through the door, all of them stared at me as if I was in the wrong room."

When she arrived in Hong Kong, the private-jet market was just taking off and there was a lone operator, Metrojet, the aviation arm of Kadoorie Group, which had only one private jet.

A decade later, the number of private jets based in the city exceeds 60, and is expected to total 80 by the end of the year. Jet Aviation manages more than 10 private jets in Hong Kong. From 2008, the company expanded its maintenance operation to include the repair of airframes and engines.

The use of business jets in Hong Kong had "grown extremely fast over the past 10 years but it won't grow at that speed again", Riesen said. Besides potentially slower economic growth on the mainland, infrastructure constraints at Hong Kong's airport would hinder development, she added.

"Buying a private jet is quick but getting a parking space and maintenance service here is not that quick," Riesen said. Until the planned third runway was finished and the Hong Kong airport expanded by 2023, it would remain a headache, "and there are 20 more planes coming by year-end".

Candy Chung said it was her own curiosity that propelled her into business aviation. "Why on earth is it that the super-rich on the mainland can afford to buy fancy sports cars or a 100,000-yuan-a-head dinner but not a private jet? It really puzzled me about three years ago," she said. "Private jets are quite common in Europe. Some of my classmates at the boarding school in Britain would invite me for a retreat to Spain or France and travel on their own jets."

Three years ago, the concept of owning a private jet was still nascent on the mainland, crimped by regulatory restrictions and a lack of information about the aircraft.

"When I came to the mainland and asked the super-rich about owning a private jet, to my surprise, they all thought I was talking about Mars. I sensed that there was a huge market opportunity, so I started looking up information about private-jet acquisitions on the internet. However, there was very little information available on the web," Chung said.

She spent the following year on the road visiting air shows for business aviation across the globe, hoping to meet industry insiders who would tell her more. It was a sometimes discouraging endeavour. "I was mingling and building connections by making my way through a VIP gathering at Britain's Farnborough International Air Show. A private-jet manufacturing executive came up to me and asked about my background," she said.

"When he knew I had no aviation background but planned to sell private jets to the mainland, he said: 'It's a very professional industry for people like us who have been around for 20 years but not for a young lady like you.'"

Five air shows in Europe and the United States later, Chung has contacts that can advise on buying aircraft and knows lenders that specialise in private-jet financing and can introduce her to potential clients. In the past 18 months, she has closed 10 deals in mainland China, Singapore and Africa.

But still, Chung is conscious that her gender and age could be disadvantageous, so her marketing tactic has been to offer extra attention. "For example, when my client requests three aircraft to choose from, I will present eight or 10."

Chung said the mainland market for private jets was huge, particularly for pre-owned aircraft as buyers wanted immediate delivery - and a discount. She plans to focus on "Hong Kong-listed mainland enterprises" because it's easier to run a credit check on those companies.