A Cambodian of Chinese (Teochew) descent who grew up in France sold an Airbus helicopter as a trainee in the Philippines in March 2005 when he was just 23.
Thierry Tea went on to sell 16 more aircraft, became the president and chief executive of Airbus Helicopters Philippines (formerly Eurocopter) in 2007, rose to become the group head of Airbus Philippines in 2009 and oversaw the sale of 80 commercial planes worth over $8 billion and 50 helicopters worth over $300 million to Asian buyers. These aircraft included several A320s sold to Philippine Airlines.
At the peak of his career, Tea quit to pursue his passion of being an entrepreneur, having come from a business-oriented family in Cambodia. He formed a holding company in Singapore and one of its units flew high in the Philippines—PhilJets Aero Services Inc. which began operations in 2013 as a business aviation company.
“Basically when I was young, I wanted to become an entrepreneur, because my grandparents were entrepreneurs in Cambodia,” Tea, now a 36-year-old father of two, says in an interview in Makati City.
His grandparents, who were involved in flour processing and bicycle manufacturing, lost everything including their lives during the civil war. “They sent my parents to France to study, but because of the civil war in Cambodia, my parents were not able to study and had to work. My father worked as a taxi driver while my mother had to clean apartments and worked as a nanny before they became employees of an insurance company [Mutuelle Generale].”
“When I was young, I really wanted to do business, to get back the pride of the family,” says Tea.
Tea borrowed money to study at Negocia business school where he joined the exchange programs in Philadelphia and Singapore. He also completed a Master’s degree at Inseec Paris. He took several jobs to save money for his internships in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
He ended up working for Airbus, first as a trainee in the Philippines. “When I got my chance at Airbus, I wanted to rise through the ranks, and be a head of subsidiary or division,” he says.
“I have been in the Philippines for 14 years this year. I arrived in 2004, initially for one year under traineeship for Airbus Helicopters. I stayed longer obviously,” says Tea, who also serves as a foreign trade advisor for France. He speaks French, English, Chinese, Spanish and Cambodian.
After working for the Airbus Group for eight years, Tea established Starline Global Industries Pte Ltd. in Singapore in 2012. Among its units are PhilJets which celebrated its fifth anniversary in January, Agama Investments and Negocia Ventures in Cambodia, which produces vanilla and exports cashew nuts from Cambodia. Starline is also into tech startups, digital media and property management in Southeast Asia.
“Basically, I decided to leave the group [Airbus] and launch my own activity. I was about to join an investment fund for Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, but eventually my clients told me to try my own. So that’s how I established Starline Global Industries in October 2012. And then I decided to put up PhilJets in January 2013. So that is the reason we are celebrating our fifth anniversary now this year,” he says.
Tea established PhilJets as a boutique business aviation company with the aim to uplift the image of aviation and tourism in the Philippines. PhilJets operates and manages a fleet of helicopters and business jets for owners.
Tea, the co-founder and managing director of PhilJets, placed an order for a brand new H130 helicopter during the 2018 Singapore Airshow in February, after taking delivery in January of its first H145 and its seventh H130.
With these additions, PhilJets marked its entry into the twin-engine helicopter market. PhilJets will then increase its fleet to 11 helicopters and three business jets with total value of over $90 million and plans to acquire two or three more aircraft within the year.
PhilJets flies its passengers—mostly businessmen, investors, foreign tourists and even celebrities—to popular destinations such as Tagaytay, Mount Pinatubo, Corregidor, Punta Fuego, Isabela, Balesin, Palawan and Boracay. Its business jet can fly passengers to as far as Davao City. Tea says the company also provides urban transfer from one commercial business district such as Bonifacio Global City to another part of Metro Manila to avoid road congestion.
“We wanted to establish PhilJets like NetJets in the US which has timesharing or part ownership. Then we realized that it was very difficult for people to buy shares into the company to acquire aircraft because all the big businessmen in the Philippines have different personalities,” he says.
Tea says PhilJets is both air asset manager and operator. “We started from scratch actually. Eventually, we managed to get our first aircraft in 2014. Then we got our second aircraft, then our license, then we got another license. We got a license to operate, then we got a license for maintenance. We are like two different companies,” he says.
“Eventually, we decided to go to aircraft management segment as primary core business. Because we manage for owners, we help them acquire the assets at a good rate. Because we have a strong network for aircraft manufacturers, we are able to get them very good deals. After that, we manage for them everything—from pilots, technicians, hangar maintenance, documentation, and so on,” he says.
“We lease some aircraft, we manage some aircraft. We reached basically 13 aircraft. We have 10 helicopters and three business jets. We are adding three to five more aircraft this year, depending on how fast we will get the deliveries,” he says.
“We have some Bell helicopters from the US. We have some Airbus helicopters and we have also Bombardier business jets from Canada. We have two Cessna jets from the US. And we are now in discussions with the Italians as well,” he says.
“We see our business growing. Five years ago, there was no PhilJets basically. So we were able to grow our portfolio of assets under our operations to close to $90 million of asset value. We don’t own, but manage the assets. This year, we will reach $100 million with the additional aircraft,” he says.
He says there are about 12 operators in the Philippine business aviation sector, and PhilJets is among the top three. “We are basically in the segment of business aviation. This is a segment that is quite growing popular in countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and the US. In the US, there are 10,000 helicopters and 10,000 jets,” he says. “The Philippines has only about 180 helicopters. So there is a big gap actually. The Philippines has around 50 private jets. That’s why there is a lot of potential to grow.”
He says PhilJets helps improve the perception of investors and foreign tourists about the Philippines. “So when investors come to the Philippines, if they have good operators, then they can move around. Because it is easy to move, they take the jet, they take the helicopter to do business for one day or two days maximum, then they go back,” he says.
“We are both air asset manager and also enabler. We enable some executives to do their business which is to make deals. We are the connectivity aspect of their business. The executives, particularly in the property development, need to go around, look at the site and need to have a view and feel of the site. Helicopter is a very good platform for that. That basically is our mission. We enable them to attend meetings, seal deals or decide more investments in some provinces,” he says.
“We were able to achieve 100 percent growth between 2015 and 2016 and another 100 percent between 2016 and 2017. For this year, we are a bit more conservative. We would try to continue to grow at least 30 percent,” he says.
“We fly a lot of high-end tourists. This is important because it creates a lot of jobs as well in the hospitality sector. We believe that when you bring 10 high net-worth foreign people, they will invest in the Philippines, like they do in Cambodia. They also help the population as they donate to Gawad Kalinga,” he says.
Aside from flying investors and tourists, PhilJets also undertook rescue and relief missions during times of calamities, according to Tea. “During Yolanda, we did a few rescue operations and we carried relief, bringing the medical goods from mainly foreign humanitarian organizations, like Doctors without Borders and German associations. We basically helped dispatch the goods to provinces,” he says.
“We are now in discussion with the government for disaster relief department,” says Tea.
“In our first two years, 80 percent of our clients were foreigners because when we started a lot of Filipinos did not trust us because we were too new or too small. Now it is the opposite, 80 percent are Filipinos and 20 percent foreigners,” he says.
PhilJets now has 60 employees, excluding a batch of apprentice for maintenance training program. “When we get more aircraft, we will add employees. We want to open bases in Cebu and Davao, so we will add some people,” he says. “ Since we started, we had more than 200 people who have been working with us. A lot of them are working overseas now, or they found jobs in other companies in the Philippines as well. They became engineers, head mechanics or pilots. They earn much more than just being cleaners of aircraft.”
“Our main pillar of contribution is to create high-skilled jobs like engineers, technicians and pilots who come with us for training. We spend a lot in trainings. We send our key personnel to be trained in the US, Singapore, Europe, France. They get certificates and exposure. And then some of them stay with us. We have some people who have been with us for three, four or five years. Some of them get their license, they go to the Middle East like Dubai, Abu Dhabi. We now have some Filipino engineers who are expats in Cambodia or Myanmar. This is life changing, basically a career path for them. We want to do more in that aspect,” he says.
Tea says PhilJets’ advocacy is to improve the image of the Philippine aviation regionally and internationally. “That is one of our missions. We believe that in the last five years, we managed to put the Philippines on the map of business aviation. More people in the US and Asia know about PhilJets, so they know about the Philippines,” he says.
“The other direction is we want is to expose Philippine destinations such as Boracay and Palawan as well as other places to high-spending tourists worldwide. Before they were kind of scared to fly to the Philippines. We believe we managed to also contribute in that area. We have some people who have bought islands in the Philippines and developed the islands and they are bringing their friends to the Philippines. And this is very encouraging,” he says.
“We are happy of our achievement in the last five years. For the next five years, we want to be stronger nationwide. We want to grow bases in Davao and Cebu. We want to develop ourselves in education. We want to strengthen and grow more into air logistics as well. Basically, we want to reach 30 aircraft, including 20 helicopters and 10 business jets. That is our objective. We believe we will be able to achieve that within the next five years. If we achieve that, we will be the largest business aviation operator in the Philippines. This is our aim,” he says.
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