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On Call After A Nosedive

09 December, 2011

Mr Dhillon, who has a refined British accent, a smooth-shaven head and a silver-grey sharp suit, is an aircraft repo man – dealing with everything from Lear Jets decked out with bars and beds to stripped-back two-seaters, although he prefers to call his services “recovery”, which is far gentler than repossession.

His clients are banks and leasing companies, and very occasionally wealthy individuals. If an aircraft’s owner defaults on their loan, the bank will contact Mr Dhillon asking him to take possession of it and sell it, hoping to recoup the outstanding debt. Just this week he took instructions on a Bombardier Challenger 300 worth $20m and a Eurocopter AS350 valued at $2m.

The owners are either individuals who have hit financial straits, very often through divorce, or companies going into administration.

Relief is the overwhelming emotion people feel, Mr Dhillon says, when he arrives to take their aircraft. “The situation has become overwhelming and they’re wondering when am I going to turn up.”

The situation is not always so harmonious. Recently Mr Dhillon encountered one distressed and enraged owner, facing financial difficulties as a result of his divorce, which was causing him a great deal of personal anguish. Mr Dhillon says he felt like the “uninvited guest”. “I had to say: ‘Sorry that it’s happening to you and I’m sorry for the situation you are in’.”

The result? The anger was defused and the man unloaded his life story.

“Sometimes [people] just want to vent their anger and you’re there to listen to them,” he explains. “Once you start doing that and are approachable, people are a lot more understanding. They’re aware of how much money they owe . . . they just want to be treated well.”

Generally, he finds that men are calmer than women when confronted by a repossession. “The women tend not to be the owners, [their attachment to the aircraft] is as a status symbol,” he says. “You have to tread carefully. The kind of people who own a plane have a business mind so they understand why it has come to this. They haven’t paid their bill, they need to give their aircraft back.”

While he does not lose sleep over the ethics of his work, he does empathise with their situation, he says.

Today he is in a small hangar at a cold airfield in Cranfield, north of London. Mr Dhillon is trying to finalise possession on a Diamond DA42 Twin Star four-seater that is worth £500,000 new and was owned by a company that has recently gone into administration. In this case, his biggest problem has not been “tears on the tarmac” but rather trying to track the location of the aircraft. The bank assumed it was in Elstree, closer to London, but Mr Dhillon traced it to Cranfield, tucked behind a larger aircraft, in a maintenance hangar.

“There was no subterfuge,” he says. “The technicians doing routine maintenance downed tools when the company went into administration and no one had recorded it.”

Often his detective skills involve tracking or finding a scout; in this case, it came down to shoe leather. “I came up and had a look,” he says matter-of-factly.

Aircraft are like people, he reflects, “they are creatures of habit. If the plane is based in London it generally comes back”.

Airline repossessions rose after the Lehman Brothers collapse. “People got into difficulty, banks panicked,” he says. Then they steadied and he currently deals with 60 to 70 a year.

Repossession is, after all, a costly business and banks became increasingly reluctant to take on the running costs of a parked aircraft – storage fees, maintenance and insurance. “It is only in desperate situations that the banks want to recover the asset. What they really want is to extend the grace period and restructure the loan.”

While the profession is well-developed in the US, Mr Dhillon is one of very few operators in Europe. “There is no competition in the region,” he says, triumphantly. That is something he puts down to ignorance about the field.

The management graduate’s previous job was as a logistics expert for a fleet management company, but it was a passion for aviation that led him into this field: “I didn’t have £5m, my name wasn’t Stelios – I couldn’t set up an airline, and there’s too much competition for pilots.”

After researching the aviation industry he spotted a gap in the repossession market for a European base and entered talks with Ken Hill, who is based in the US and has repossessed hundreds of aircraft since his first in 1969 through his own business.

Two years ago the two went into partnership and Mr Dhillon is now charged with the day-to-day running of Aircraft Recovery International, the London-based operation, which employs two other people.

Mr Dhillon places a premium on being businesslike, always wearing a suit though not necessarily a tie. This is in contrast to some aircraft repo men in the US, whose reputations are more akin to bounty-hunters: “I don’t arrive with two heavies and fly off with the plane.”

Normally he turns up on his own to deal with the vast amount of paperwork and administration necessary before he can move an aircraft. There can be a lot of hanging around,” he shrugs.

The aircraft must meet certain criteria, such as having logbooks documenting that it has received required annual inspections and maintenance checks before it can be flown.

The professionalism is important, he insists, because he needs to keep a vast array of people on his side – from mechanics at aircraft hangars to bankers.

Is it a lucrative living recovering aircraft? He refuses to say. “I don’t think I’ll ever own one of these,” he says, waving an arm in the direction of the Cessnas and Beechcraft King Airs in the hangar. That is not a source of unhappiness, however. “Everyone I’ve ever met has screwed it up”.

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On Call After A Nosedive

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