Born on the 4th of July: Q&A with Brad Stewart, XOJET’s New CEO
Aviation was a theme in Brad Stewart’s life even before he was born: His parents met on a charter jet flight—he was a professional hockey player, she was a flight attendant. When Stewart’s father retired from hockey, the family settled first in Cleveland—where Stewart was born on the U.S. bicentennial, July 4, 1976—and then in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, where Stewart grew up. He took his first flying lessons at the age of 19 and has been an aviation enthusiast ever since.
Stewart pursued a successful career in management consulting and private equity, but eventually, his path brought him back to aviation. In 2010, Stewart joined XOJET. He became president a year later, and this February, he took over the controls as CEO. We sat down with him recently and asked him to talk about his life and career, and his vision for the future of XOJET.
XOJET CEO Brad Stewart
XOJET: How did you get involved in aviation?
BJS: It started back when I was a finance major at the University of Minnesota. I was a line captain on the weekends at Executive Aviation, one of the Midwest’s largest fixed base operators. I became friends with one of the customers who had a plane there. I took care of his plane, he’d fly me around because I was into aviation, and then he recruited me into his boutique investment firm.
XOJET: So you didn’t pursue an aviation career.
BJS: No, I didn’t. After graduating, I went to Deloitte Consulting, where I worked for about three years. I was in New York City on a banking holiday when I went to visit Columbia University and fell in love with it. I figured what better place than to get an MBA and experience New York!
After getting my MBA I went to McKinsey & Company. I loved it there. I was very active in the firm: I was on the women’s initiative; I was head of our office recruiting; I tried to mentor people. I was 100% invested. But after three years, I had been basically doing consulting for—depending on how you wanted to count it—eight years. I basically hadn’t done anything else. I said to myself, “Hey, I’m either going to stay here and become a partner, and if I am, I’ve got to double down for another three to five years, or this is my time to get out.”
I liked the work a lot, but the travel is intense. When you’re in your 20s, I think that works, but even now, I walk into an airport, and I can remember the feeling of not having slept the night before. Your mind is swirling with all the work you’ve got to do.
XOJET: You met your wife at McKinsey & Company, correct?
BJS: I did. Right after I started full time. She and I had the same name—her name is Brady Stewart—and we were getting each other’s emails. One of my friends worked in the L.A. office with her, and he texted me the day he met her saying “There’s this girl who’s got the same name as you. You have to meet her.” We did meet three months later, and we’ve been together ever since. She’s the love of my life, my best friend, and the person I respect most in life. She’s smarter and more talented in every way than I am. I feel lucky that she hangs out with me!
XOJET: Like your parents, you had a long-distance relationship at the beginning.
BJS: Yes. For the first year and a half, we only saw each other on the weekends. Eventually, we decided to live in the same city and ended up in San Francisco, where she is vice president for Levi’s brand development and on their global brand leadership team.
XOJET: How did you end up in private equity?
BJS: While I was at McKinsey & Company, I had a couple of private equity firms recruit me—this was during the hot job market—and I ended up accepting a position with Parthenon Capital Partners. Moving to the private equity world was really the transformative experience. I discovered that I loved the idea of fixing companies—redesigning their future and their strategy, transforming the front line.
XOJET: What was your role when you joined XOJET as senior advisor?
BJS: I was tasked with helping the company create a more professional sales force and a more professional distribution model, and to help establish a clear sense of who XOJET is.
XOJET: How did you go about this?
BJS: The first step was information gathering and analysis. I asked a lot of questions and listened while conducting an intense analysis of the company’s financials, marketing materials, pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I wrote pages of notes—to myself mostly, but I also kept an ongoing email dialogue going with other people on the project. Eventually, three themes emerged: scale, utilization and pricing.
Based on these themes, we developed a set of key metrics that we tied to our success. Within six months, we were starting to make real changes, gaining traction and propelling the company towards a charter model. A lot of things started falling into place.
XOJET: Turning to the future, how would you characterize XOJET’s opportunity?
BJS: XOJET’s opportunity hinges on the idea that the world of private aviation has fundamentally changed. What customers need and demand from a service provider is new and different: They want options. You have to provide an integrated offering with a range of services and fleet types. That’s the direction in which this industry is headed.
Part of what’s made our growth possible is that we try to listen to the marketplace and respond quickly and decisively. The XOJET Preferred Access program is a great example. You can use that program however you like, and whether you want to book in advance or last-minute, you still get savings. Again, it’s about creating options for our clients.
Of course, it’s all in the execution. Our goal now is to serve our customers to the best of our abilities, in the way they really need a provider to serve them. At every step, we ask ourselves, “Who is the customer? What is the customer asking for?”
Photo credit: Scott R. Kline
XOJET: Talk about the recent extension of XOJET’s fleet.
BJS: Approximately 70% of private aviation in North America originates or ends in the tri-state area of the Northeast, and more than 70% of all private flying in North America is on light or mid-size jets. Through our alliance with Travel Management Company, we have access to the nation’s largest fleet of light and mid-size jets that are available with no owner approval, on demand, with trip-by-trip pricing. It’s a perfect complement to what we are. The customer who wants consistency and value knows that by coming to us, they don’t have to ask any questions. They know who’s operating the plane, they know what the pricing is going to be, they know they can get availability. It’s simple, straightforward, and transparent.
XOJET: What kind of challenges do you face?
BJS: The first is value integrity. For a long time, I think the industry has been opaque in terms of letting customers know what they’re paying for and what the lifetime value of their product might really be. That’s created a certain level of distrust in customers. So we have to infuse confidence in our customers that they’re getting a fair deal.
The second challenge we face is service integrity. We’re in a customer service business—we exist to make our clients happy. And that’s about the little things. It’s about consistency, and ultimately, it’s about human kindness.
XOJET: Speaking of, what role do our pilots play in that equation?
BJS: There are three things to consider when it comes to service: consistency, seamlessness and human touch. Our pilots play a critical role in this area. I get customer feedback daily that our pilots come across as highly professional and highly trained, and more than any other group, they go out of their way to create a connection with our customers. Our pilots genuinely want all our customers to feel welcome.
XOJET: What would you most like to articulate about your position—and XOJET—now?
BJS: I’m incredibly excited about my new role. I feel fortunate to be here because I believe completely in XOJET’s future. Our foundation is strong, our transformation is ongoing, and our best days are ahead.