Private Aviation Can Take You Anywhere: Brad Stewart’s Journey to XOJET
Five years ago, on a visit to his hometown of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Brad Stewart drove with his wife Brady out to Flying Cloud Airport so she could glimpse an important chapter from her husband’s past.
Stewart was employed during his college years by the Executive Aviation FBO at Flying Cloud, fueling planes and assisting customers, meanwhile taking flying lessons and working toward the pilot’s license he’d eventually earn. The Citation, King Air, and other aircraft he saw fly in and out were inspiring machines serving diverse needs, including air ambulance runs.
“I got the chance to fly on some of those missions,” recalls Stewart, whose career path would take him into business consulting and private-equity positions, experience that helped prep him for his current role as Chairman & CEO of XOJET. “The fleets were impressive to me, and the work they did felt important.”
Stewart’s first job out of college was a three-year stint in Minneapolis with Deloitte Consulting. Away on a project in New York, one day he walked through the Columbia University campus and decided to apply to its MBA program—and was accepted. To Brad the return to a university setting after being out in the world wasn’t like hitting a pause button on discovery and adventure. “I immersed myself in the Columbia environment,” he says. “I had a sense even then that this amazing diversity of people and ideas I was getting to interact with wouldn’t be easy to find again—I took it as a unique privilege.”
Degree in hand, he signed on with McKinsey & Company and received another type of education, serving the firm’s broad array of global clients in an environment both data-intensive and dedicated to innovative management strategies. Through happenstance he met the L.A.-based McKinsey employee who would become his wife—long-distance relationship and all. When the two were finally settled together in San Francisco, Brad and Brady made their first joint purchase: a one-foot tall plastic orange tree, price $4, to decorate the apartment.
“A while ago that tree lost one of its fake oranges, so now there are only four left,” Stewart says. “I’m real careful with it, because to me it’s such a symbol of who we were when we first met, before kids and all the wonderful changes that came along with that.”
It was in San Francisco that he was asked to join a private-equity firm, Parthenon Capital Partners. Even more so than the high-level consulting he had done, this job required a change-agent mentality—you execute a turnaround or the business you’re working could bite the dust.
Fix-or-fail was indeed the scenario facing XOJET when Stewart arrived in 2010 as a Senior Advisor, at the behest of controlling shareholder TPG Capital. By 2011 he was elevated to President of XOJET. When he talks now about his role as CEO there are obvious echoes of what was required of him as a McKinsey consultant and as a private-equity turnaround specialist. For all that, the grad-school years at Columbia often strike him as equally vital to his preparation, given his need as XOJET chief to interact in constantly differing contexts with stakeholders, partners, and contacts of all kinds.
“In this job,” Stewart says, “the stimulation comes from the variety of interactions I have with customers and in having to attune myself to the variations in culture of XOJET departments,” Stewart explains. “Those range from intense and competitive sales groups, to flight operations with its devotion to executing the plan, to a cerebral and strategic environment back at headquarters, to a hardcore mechanical and practical mindset in the maintenance group—and that doesn’t count the world of our customers and prospects.”
Interfacing with one after another of these groups and individuals requires ultimate listening skills, plus the capacity to constantly synthesize information or cues. “I’ve also found the challenge of motivating people to be complex,” he says, “because what makes stakeholders tick is so varied.”
These day-to-day challenges couldn’t be met, in Stewart’s opinion, without unifying beliefs and understandings, along with a sense of commitment to the XOJET ‘Take Command’ mission and common goals for success. Asked to identify the personal traits that serve him best, Stewart is likely to cite his natural accessibility along with a preference for non-hierarchical structure. “In my position there is a lot of mentoring to do,” he says, “but it’s a two-way process between me and the staff—I receive plenty of mentoring, myself.”
It’s been said that a CEO is the servant of the organization, which rings true for Stewart. “The sheer number of inputs I get, along with my need to switch over from current needs to study the strategic or longer view, makes it critical for me that I clear my head, recharge, and be with family,” he says. A lot of that happens at the family getaway outside Park City, Utah. With its 50-mile mountain views, endless hiking trails, and peaceful open spaces, it not only resonates with his small-town roots but provides a much-needed escape from the stresses of daily life and bustling San Francisco.
Stewart’s early sense of the importance of private aviation has only deepened during these XOJET years. Anyone who’s under the misconception that private-jet transportation is about champagne and caviar—or that its customers are the idle rich—might have difficulty understanding that, according to Stewart. XOJET clients impress and at times astound him.
“On a daily basis I see the most motivated decision-makers and business-builders in our entire economy,” Brad asserts. “Our service makes it possible for someone to have a morning meeting on the east coast and an afternoon meeting on the west coast, which is the pace our customers go at,” says Stewart. “I promise you, these are the least idle people you will ever meet.”
That ride out to Flying Cloud with his wife was distinctly characteristic of Stewart, whose life’s work has left him with a deep affinity for small, out-of-the-way airfields. Among his favorites are Eagle County Airport, west of Vail, Angwin Airport in Napa Valley, and Russ McDonald Field in Heber City, Utah. “There’s a real lost-in-time feel to these small airports,” Stewart muses. “In Napa Valley you look down at a narrow runway cut into a hilltop—so simple, and to me truly beautiful. These remote places are part of what makes private aviation special.”
As he and Brady stepped from their rental car the day they visited Flying Cloud, Brad caught a welcome sight—one that made his journey in the aviation field suddenly feel full-circle. “There was an XOJET plane right there on the ramp in front of us,” he remembers. “We got a chance to shake hands with the crew, talk about their itinerary, learn about their flying party, and hear how everything was going.”
In one sense it was a special, unique moment. In another, it was simply what Brad Stewart does every day.
By David Gould
David Gould is a writer, editor and consultant with expertise in travel and the transportation industry. He is the former executive editor of Travel + Leisure Golf and the author of several books on golf history and course architecture. He is a Boston native and lives in Massachusetts.