Sunday, September 21, 2014

Business Interview: Craig McLeod founder and director of Annitsford-based Naljets

Swapping comfortably between the quiet confines of the boardroom and being struck by lightning at 40,000 ft is all in a day's work for Craig McLeod, as Tom Keighley discovers

Craig McLeod 

43 year-old Craig McLeod is the founder and director of Annitsford-based Naljets - one of the North East business community’s best kept secrets.

His private jet travel and aircraft management company has ferried some of the world’s most high profile people to all corners of the globe.

A passion for flying, which initially started as a hobby for Craig, has since blossomed into a 24/7 worldwide service which provides the link for top-level international businesspeople to broker deals of worldwide importance.

Byker-born Craig, the son of a salesman and record shop owner, is brimming with a quality essential to all go-getting entrepreneurs - self assurance. And it has been with him since childhood.

Speaking with his soft Geordie accent, Craig explained: “I left school thinking I could do absolutely anything. Everything was a dream. I struggled with some aspects of school, but there wasn’t anything I couldn’t overcome.

“Looking back you always wish you’d worked a lot harder at school. I always enjoyed school but in reality I was having far too much fun with my friends. I didn’t really understand how important it is to educate yourself until I hit my early twenties.”

Fresh out of school, and by this time used to hard work helping his father restore the family home he “couldn’t really afford”, Craig found himself an apprenticeship with a firm of Newcastle jewelers, which he completed in 1989.

Craig took his skills and launched his own design and manufacturing business which included a shops in Thirsk, Whitley Bay and Newcastle - a business he successfully grew for nearly 15 years.

Meanwhile, an 18th birthday present from his mother had set Craig on what is now his current trajectory. A flying lesson would spark a life-long passion for aviation.

Craig explained: “I didn’t know a thing about flying - didn’t even know it was an option. It wasn’t until a friend of mine at school went into the RAF and eventually became a Red Arrow. That was really exciting. My mother bought me a lesson at Newcastle Aeroclub.”

Now smitten with the idea of flying aircraft, and not one to do things by halves - Craig would later become a director at the Aeroclub - he built his flying hours throughout the early 1990s and achieved his Private Pilot’s License.

“I was reasonably good at it. I quickly realized that hiring planes for fun was far too expensive, so I convinced myself I need one for business. My plan was to fly to Glasgow and Birmingham - to jewellery fairs I was still attending at the time,” he added.

He bought £40,000 aircraft with the help of an angel investor who he would fly around the country as he struck deals with various businesses.

Gradually the jewellery business was beginning to take a backseat and Craig was beginning to buy more aircraft with his business partner. The arrival of a £235,000 Golden Eagle Cessna heralded the formation of a new company - Northern Aviation Ltd.

Craig explained: “We set up Northern Aviation at Teesside Airport, and pretty quickly we got approached by all the flying schools down there who asked us to buy their businesses. We bought Cleveland Flying School, and another called Teesside Aeroclub - and it took off from there.”

It took two years for Craig to write an Air Operator Certificate - a mammoth work required by the Civil Aviation Authority which lays out every detail of a commercial aircraft operators procedures - from the refueling procedure right down to when the pilots will sleep.

“It’s like climbing your underpants in Everest three times,” quipped Craig.

By now Craig was flying customers like Ian Botham and Kieron Dyer. In addition he would fly car parts to manufacturers when there were production line crises, and overnight work would see him delivering blood and organs to hospitals overnight.

When the recession hit in 2008 Craig quickly adapted the company - remodelling it to provide discreet acquisition and aircraft management services for business jet owners and companies, including management and consulting on all aspects from purchase to parking, flight operations, journey management, flight and ground crew training and provision.

Now rebranded as Naljets, Craig has moved on to the bigger and better jets he now flies all over the world.

“We’ve got six, worldwide capable, jets all over the world,” he explained. “They can be anything in the order of $20m to $60m to buy. We’ve now proven ourselves after all these years as a safe and reliable operator - one that multinational companies can trust to fly their top executives around.”

These days Craig and his team, including pilots, cabin crew and ground staff, are working for major energy trading firms, subsea construction businesses and banks.

The job sees Craig leave home at the drop of a hat, often flying into remote locations, and unstable, politically volatile countries. A 24/7 operation could take its toll on any family situation, but luckily Craig’s wife, 16 year-old daughter and 14 year-old twins are all accustomed to the situation.

Craig explained: “I’m very lucky because my wife has supported the business totally. She’s used to the lifestyle now. My daughter’s even flying now - and she’ll do her test when she’s 17.

“My wife is very important, and without her understanding I couldn’t do it. I can be in any part of the world with less than 24 hours notice. We tend to live our lives in the gaps - it has to be that way and we’ve just accepted it. This is a lifestyle business, without a doubt.”

The recent Malaysian Airlines tragedies only serve to compound any worries at home, but, ever the can-do man, Craig has the utmost confidence in his own abilities and those of his pilots.

Asked if he’s ever encountered a hairy moment in the cockpit, Craig shakes his head.

He said: “We’ve been stuck by lightning before, which was an odd experience. It was pitch black outside the windscreen and all of a sudden there was a flash, just like someone had taken a picture.

“It blew out two radios, but there’s a third for situations like that. When we landed and I inspected the plane you could see the radio antenna was all twisted and charred.”

He also recalls a time when he took off from Islamabad in front of a Boeing 737 which crashed in bad weather, killing all on board.

Everyday Craig and his team face the multitude of challenges that flying presents, from jostling for position in the crowded airspace above New York to negotiating enormous weather systems in Africa.

“I’m still learning to fly - 15 years on from when I first started. The journey of learning is from your first lesson until you retire. There is no end to the process,” Craig explained.

It’s a labor of love for Craig, who exudes enthusiasm in the role his business plays in the global aviation industry.

He added: “It’s a fantastic time in aviation right now, but there are still many challenges to overcome. For instance, one of my pet hates is the way the aviation industry has failed to invest in youth.

“Older pilots and industry people have so much passion and experience - that needs to be passed on in the next five years or so, otherwise it will be lost altogether. In the next five years United Airlines are expected to lose 60% to 70% of their captains, and there is nobody coming through to replace them. We can change that - and that’s what I’d like to concentrate on next.”

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