- As the daughter of the Hong Kong tycoon who founded Dragonair, Chou had a strong industry connection when she started selling aircraft
- Two decades on, she’s looking to invest in ‘disruptive’ businesses amid growing demand for shared air transport in China
Selling private jets for a living is just like selling anything else " even lipstick or lingerie.
That's according to Diana Chou, a Hong Kong entrepreneur and the first woman in the business in Asia.
"I know I can sell anything. I mean, I sold lipsticks, I sold lingerie, hotel rooms, and credit cards " why can't I sell a plane?" Chou said of her decision to start a company selling aircraft 20 years ago.
That business, under the Dragon General Aviation Group which she founded, has since expanded to cover helicopter sales and maintenance, private jet charters, and an aircraft finance consultancy.
When she started out in the late 1990s, the market was ready to take off.
"There was nothing in Asia," she said, adding that between Hong Kong and Macau there were just two private aircraft.
"I was looking at the landscape and I said, well, you know, that's a lot of opportunity there," she said. "Of course it's going to be hard to convince someone to buy a business jet when you know … the ticket price was like HK$30 million."
That meant taking a longer view. The art of selling played on emotions and needs, Chou said, but persuading someone to buy a big-ticket item was a lengthy process " and a test of patience.
It took her two years to seal the first deal.
A Hong Kong businessman paid some US$3 million for a jet " a tidy sum 20 years ago, when Asian firms were just beginning to see big returns as growth in the region and China took off.
The Hong Kong economy had surged 245 per cent to HK$599 billion in the 10 years to 1990, and another 123 per cent to HK$1.3 trillion by 2000, according to government data.
"A couple of times we were very close to signing a contract, but because the buyer didn't want to be the first person (to buy a plane) " or they were from the second generation (of a family business) and their parents were very frugal (and didn't see the need for one)" it fell through, she said.
But Chou was convinced that some of her potential buyers did need their own jets " for example the executives of a family business who frequently travelled to Africa, a journey that took two days because there were not many connecting flights at the time.
It was a "very daunting" couple of years, as the survival of her business hung in the balance. But since that first deal, she has sold more than 100 private jets and 70 helicopters in the region.
While Chou had run other businesses, including a lingerie firm, before she made the jump to aviation, she had a strong connection to the industry.
Her father Chao Kuang-piu founded regional airline Dragonair in the mid-1980s, challenging the dominance of Hong Kong's flagship carrier Cathay Pacific. The airline opened up a lucrative mainland China market before it became a subsidiary of Cathay Pacific and was later renamed Cathay Dragon.
Earlier this month, Chou was one of 22 women in the Asia-Pacific region recognised in the 2020 EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women programme, which provides advice, resources and networks.
Making their mark: younger generation of women from Hong Kong business families forge their own paths
She is now betting on a boom in general aviation " private transport and aircraft manufacturing " in China over the next few years, fuelled by a "major explosion" in demand for shared transport in vertical take-off and landing aircraft, including helicopters.
Companies like Geely, one of China's largest car manufacturers, are among those investing in the industry " it controls "flying car" start-up Terrafugia. Ehang, meanwhile, is testing a pilotless aircraft that can carry two passengers and working with the Guangzhou government on its plan to get a network of air taxis up and running.
"This (boom) will happen in the next two years. General aviation will be very big because then you'd need people to service it and you need people to maintain it," Chou said.
She said the Chinese government recognised the general aviation market's potential to bolster overall economic growth and had invested resources like infrastructure to help the industry expand.
Across mainland China, the number of general aviation airports " used by private and charter aircraft " is expected to increase to 1,100 by the end of this year, official news agency Xinhua reported, citing the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).
There are 239 such airports currently in operation.
They are used by more than 470 general aviation firms operating over 2,600 aircraft in China, the report said. There are also more than 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, in operation.
Revenue from general aviation reached about US$147 billion in 2018, according to the most recent CAAC data. That would have accounted for just over 1 per cent of China's GDP that year.
It's an industry that will boom. Like the (commercial) aviation industry 20 years agoDiana Chou, Dragon General Aviation
Chinese policymakers see the general aviation industry as another way to drive growth, to buffer the biggest economic slowdown the country has seen in three decades. Communist Party mouthpieces have highlighted its importance in areas like emergency medical services, fighting forest fires, patrolling power lines in remote areas, and delivering emergency supplies.
But Chinese producers of unmanned aircraft say their biggest challenge is not the technology, but getting regulatory approval, according to state media reports. For example, certification is required for every component of the aircraft. In addition, Chinese airspace is controlled by the military and low-altitude airspace is not yet completely open for general aviation use.
Chou said she was looking to invest in "disruptive" businesses such as aerial ride-sharing services, and to help small companies to grow or innovate.
"It's an industry that will boom," she said. "Like the (commercial) aviation industry 20 years ago."
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