Perseverance pays off in any business, but George Johnson may hold the record when it comes to aircraft sales.
Having outlived and outlasted many of his competitors, the 59-year-old owner of Carolina Aircraft in Greensboro, N.C., recently sold a Beechcraft Baron to a customer he’s been courting for 38 years.
That long-term sales prospect dated from when Johnson first started selling new Beechcraft airplanes in 1977 at age 21.
Back in the 1970s, the aircraft market was very different from today because U. S. manufacturers were cranking out 20,000 new general aviation planes a year. Currently, that number is less than 2,000.
“Today the challenge is to find good ‘pre-flown’ inventory,” says Johnson, who is known as “The Bonanza Man.”
Carolina Aircraft has earned a good reputation and many repeat customers over the years.
“We are the #1 seller of pre-owned Beechcraft Bonanzas and Barons,” he added. “We’ve sold and delivered more than 120 airplanes in the past two years and we could sell more if we could get the right inventory.”
Johnson’s father, an avid pilot and Beechcraft salesman for Piedmont Aviation in Winston-Salem, N.C., introduced him to aviation and helped him land his first aviation job in Piedmont’s engine rebuild department.
“Working in the engine teardown area was the dirtiest job in the shop,” remembers Johnson.
He needed the job to pay tuition after he forfeited a college football scholarship to focus on academics. After being a grease monkey, he learned about sales and perseverance through door-to-door marketing of Cutco Cutlery, where he ended up training and managing a group of sales people.
Selling for Cutco and running a dealer sales organization taught Johnson the fundamentals of sales and customer service. His first aircraft sale in 1977 was to Rick Steelman (later the founder of Atlanta Jet) who, at the time, was Johnson’s district manager at Cutco.
Johnson went into aircraft sales immediately after graduation, when he joined Air Service, the Beechcraft dealer in Greensboro, N.C. Piedmont, where Johnson first applied, would not hire him in the aircraft sales department because his father worked there.
Even though Johnson was assigned a very small sales territory — only the eastern third of North Carolina — his enthusiasm for aviation and Beechcraft products led him to soon become one of the company’s top salesmen. In fact, he sold three airplanes before he was officially employed and a total of 25 in his first year.
Selling the most new Beechcraft airplanes in 1984 earned him nationwide recognition as “Beechcraft Salesman of the Year” and in 1986 he was recognized by the factory for selling the most new Bonanzas.
In 1987, Johnson received the Olive Ann Beech Award for selling the most new Beechcraft King Airs. Other honors included the Professional Beechcraft Bonanza Salesman Award, the Beechcraft Legion of Honor Award, several Million Dollar Sales Awards, and the Beechcraft Executive Salesman Award. Johnson was also recognized as a Beechcraft “Blue Chip” Salesman for 10 consecutive years.
“In 1991, after over 14 years with Air Service, the market changed drastically in my small territory and it became very difficult to make a living selling new airplanes,” remembers Johnson. “The impact of Desert Storm and commission changes when the company was acquired by U.S. Airways, plus other factors, led me to start my own business specializing in used aircraft sales.”
Despite Johnson’s offer to pay his long-time employer a commission on all sales in his old territory for the first two years, plus bring them his maintenance business and rent office space, the response was not good.
“They showed me the door and said they were going to put me out of business,” recalls Johnson.
Needing cash to support his fledgling endeavor, he approached nine banks with a detailed business plan before finally getting one to say yes to a small credit line.
It looked like Johnson’s new business was off to a great start when he and an investor bought a used King Air 300 at a bargain price. The turbine twin represented a handsome profit potential until the investor decided to keep it for his personal use. So, instead of pocketing his share of a nice mark-up, Johnson was only paid a modest commission for buying the plane wholesale.
For the next two years, Johnson moonlighted to support his family by delivering Dominos pizzas, but today his pizza delivery days are firmly in the past and a drawing of that King Air 300 is part of his corporate logo.
In 2002, after selling both Beechcraft piston and turbine aircraft for many years, Johnson split his company so he could focus on his “special love” for Beechcraft Bonanzas and Barons.
Carolina Corporate Jets was established to specialize in all brands of pre-owned turbine and jet aircraft. Tony Ryan, who first joined Carolina Aircraft in the early 1990s, became its president and Johnson’s partner. Johnson remains involved as vice president and majority stockholder.
Johnson is president of a sister company, NexGA Aircraft, formerly known as Columbia Resale, which focuses on pre-owned Columbia, Corvallis, Cirrus, Piper, Mooney, Diamond, Liberty and late model Cessna aircraft.
In addition to advertising heavily in print and on the web, Carolina Aircraft pioneered the production of detailed YouTube videos, which are an important part of the marketing campaign for each aircraft.
“Through YouTube, we’re able to give a personal sales presentation on each airplane that can be accessed on the internet at any time,” says Johnson.
Johnson’s son, Adam, shoots and edits the videos, which have proven to cut the typical aircraft sales cycle in half.
As a way to encourage aircraft owners to consign their planes to his Greensboro headquarters, Johnson offers free hangar space and detailing services, plus the fuel and expert pilots necessary for demo flights. In addition, to save the owner even more while the plane is marketed, Carolina Aircraft adds customer-owned aircraft to its dealership insurance policy.
Another unique sales offering is free customer flight training with every sale, the cost of which comes out of Carolina Aircraft’s commission.
“Safety is our number one priority and we want our customers to know their airplanes well,” says Johnson.
“Although we own a flight school on the field that offers basic flight instruction, the Bonanza and Baron training offered with each sale is conducted by another select group of professional pilots who have thousands of hours of Beechcraft experience,” he adds.
Triad Aviation Academy (TAA), the flight school operated by Johnson’s partner, Bruce McCall, was recognized in 2014 as having the best aviation summer camp for aspiring pilots age 12 to 16.
Johnson credits a unique compensation plan for much of Carolina Aircraft’s long-term success.
“We are a team and our company’s longevity is due to our love for aviation and our customers,” he says. “To foster teamwork and motivate everyone to take care of every customer, no matter who actually books an aircraft sale, everyone in the organization gets some commission.”
“The Beechcraft Bonanza is the longest-running continuously-produced aircraft in aviation history and, in my opinion, the Bonanza and Baron are still the best airplanes in their class,” says Johnson, ever the consummate salesman.
“It has been a privilege to get to know, work with and serve all the wonderful people and customers involved in aviation and to still be in this game I love so long,” Johnson concludes. “I’m so lucky to be able to get up every morning excited about a new day and a new opportunity in aviation. How blessed we are to have the freedom to fly.”