Rick Nini is the owner and president of Corporate Eagle, based at the Oakland County International Airport in Waterford.
As a boy, Rick Nini was fascinated with flying.
He was inspired, he said, by the NASA space program, and at 12 or 13, his parents put him on a new, commercial jet to fly by himself from Michigan to California to see his aunt, uncle and cousins.
“I think it was a 747, a brand-new plane,” Nini, 60, recalled. “After that, I knew I wanted to do this, to fly.”
In high school, he found a way to get flying lessons — even though his family couldn’t afford it — and before long he had a pilot’s license and was crisscrossing Michigan. First, flying canceled checks, then, passengers.
From there, he took over a failing flight school, Tradewinds Aviation — and then started his own company, Corporate Eagle.
The 54-employee company, which was started in 2008, is based at the Oakland County International Airport in Waterford. It has has 12 planes, 9 of them are jets, and 29 pilots. It was on track to have revenues of $22.8 million.
And while he doesn’t have a college degree, he said he requires all his executives have one.
Falcon 2000, one of the planes in Corporate Eagle's fleet at Oakland County International Airport in Waterford.
Here, in this edited conversation, he talks about what it takes to succeed:
Question: So in your senior year, junior year of high school, you got a job at an airport in exchange for flight lessons?
Answer: I started in June or so, coming out of my junior year before my senior years. That summer, I got the job. I was really into becoming a pilot. I loved aviation and read about it all the time. My dad took me out to Detroit City Airport. I met a pilot out there, and I told him I wanted to be a pilot and he sent me out to this Commander Flight Academy. He said go see this guy, the owner of it. And I drove out there on a Saturday, and he happened to be there, the owner. I told him, “I want to be a pilot, I want to sign up.” He proceeded to tell me how much it cost to become a pilot and enroll in the academy and do everything. He might as well have told me $10 million. I turned around, walking away, and he said: “How would you like a job here?” He was getting involved in buying and selling small planes. He hired me. I started Monday. It was an opportunity. A door opened. I walked through it. I went there every opportunity I could.
Q: After you became a pilot, you flew canceled checks?
A: That was a big deal. Back then, when these banks closed they had to get the paper check to the Federal Reserve to get credit. So I would literally leave 5 o’clock out of Gaylord, go to Alpena, pick up bags of check from different banks. They were in big, clear plastic bags, bundles of checks. Come back to Gaylord, pick some up, Traverse City, Saginaw, and then go to Detroit and dump them all. We had a driver that met us. Then, I’d take off again, and got to Lansing, Grand Rapids, South Bend, and then Detroit.
Q: What did you do after that, your next job?
A: I was really young, and they put me on this canceled check deal. But, they also flew passenger charter and they had a guy call in for a trip. It happened on a day off and I was the only person who could fly it. They were nervous putting me with him. I was 20 years old, but I looked younger than that. They told me how to do it. How to act. I got a plane flew this guy. He needed to go to Gary, Ind., and they put me on it. I flew him. He liked it, and called for another trip. They gave him another pilot, and he didn’t like him as well. He called again and he asked for me. I started flying him on a weekly basis, and he said, I’m going to buy a plane and I’m going to hire you. That’s how I got my first corporate flying job.
Q: How does Corporate Eagle work?
A: We fly for 39 members today. All southeast Michigan members, successful business people and businesses. And we do a managed program in which we have four wholly-owned managed airplanes. And then we have eight airplanes in our fractional program. That’s where a company can buy or lease a quarter share and that allows them so much access to the plane.
Q: So it’s like a time-share for flying? How much does it cost, roughly?
A: We have the King Air, our turboprop airplane. We have a Hawker 800XP, our midsize business jet, and we have a Falcon 2000 program. Right in the middle, the Hawker program, the smallest share we do is an eighth. It’s $485,000 to buy an eighth of that airplane. You go on the title and you own it — or you can lease it. An eighth share, 50-hour user, will probably spend another $240,000 a year between management and user fees. They are guaranteed 46 days a year, and they can have any days they want — no blackout days.
Q: What advice do you have to give to other executives?
A: The success of my company has been the stubbornness to stay the course — staying with my business model has been important. Another thing, is you have to surround yourself with really, really good people. I have a great team, and — it’s funny — everybody on my team I require a college education.
Title: Owner, president, CEO
Family: Wife, Megan; children Chad, 32, Marla, 30, Adelena, 17
Education: Flight Training Academy, attended North Central University
Car: Cadillac XTS