The Sunday Times, July 8, 2017
Bob James had just turned 30 and had a young family to care for when — calamity — the aircraft engineer was made redundant.
It was the spur he needed to strike out on his own. “It brought home the fact that you have to be forced by a situation to do something,” said James, now 53. “I had two young children and I wanted to work for myself.”
In 1995, he set up his first company, TES Aviation, with former colleague Ashley Cooper. In 2007, he sold his stake in the aircraft maintenance contractor and then quit two years later to launch AerFin with £2m of the proceeds.
He has since grown AerFin into a multimillion-pound company with 90 staff. Based in Caerphilly, south Wales, the company helps airlines such as Lufthansa and Thomson to fit recycled aero engines and takes used ones off their hands. Engines in aircraft made by Airbus and Boeing typically have a 20-year lifespan before parts have to be replaced.
The business made pre-tax profits of $4.3m (£3.3m) on sales of $82m last year.
In 2014, the founder sold an 80% stake to American fund manager CarVal to accelerate growth. The deal valued the company at £13.6m, according to accounts at Companies House. The cash helped AerFin to spend more than £65m on old planes, engines and parts worldwide, selling or leasing them to airlines after refurbishment. Last year international sales soared to £52.8m, placing it first in the Sunday Times International Track 200 list of companies with the fastest-growing international sales.
“The industry is renowned for consuming a lot of cash,” he said, and his venture needed a backer “with big pockets”. Even a small used engine can cost as much as $2m. In its largest deal, AerFin this year bought a fleet of 15 aircraft (Embraer E170-LR regional jets) from Saudi Arabian Airlines. More than half of them will be refurbished and find a new life in Asia or Africa, said James.
The oldest of three siblings, James was raised in South Derbyshire by his father, a bricklayer, and his mother, who ran a corner shop. After the family moved to Leicestershire, he attended Shepshed High School and fixed bicycles and motorbikes to earn pocket money.
He studied for a higher national diploma in mechanical engineering at Loughborough College and became an apprentice at Rolls-Royce, joining GE Aviation in 1991 as a senior development engineer. Four years later, he lost his job.
Setting up a business the second time around was easier: “You learn from your mistakes.” He no longer micromanages his staff.
James plans to grow AerFin’s leasing arm and expand in Asia. He opened a warehouse in Singapore last year. “CarVal will seek an exit at some point,” he said. He owns 12% of the business and has no urge to increase that.
James lives in Cardiff with his wife, Elizabeth, 53. They have two sons, Oliver, 27, and William, 23.
He advises entrepreneurs to recruit wisely: “Don’t be afraid to employ people who can do your job better than you.”