You’d be forgiven for thinking the world of private jets is all cigar smoke, whiskey swirling, leathered upholstery and powerful men living the high life. Behind this Hollywood mystique is the woman who sells these vessels of luxury. Her name is Diana Chou.
“It took me two years to sell my first private jet,” says Diana Chou, Founder of Sino Private Aviation Limited. “That’s two long years where you question yourself and your ideas.”
You would hardly believe it now. A slight, elegant figure – her tailored suit jackets are a nod to a classic, more refined era of salespeople – this Hong Kong local has earned her place as a giant of the private aviation business.
Diana became the first woman to sell private jets in Asia – her first sale coming in 2001 – firmly cementing her place as a pioneer in the development of this business in Hong Kong and China over the past two decades.
“I think of myself as a ‘female entrepreneur,’ not simply an ‘entrepreneur’. Of course, in this industry it’s true that almost all of my customers are men. But actually I think that quite often they prefer to deal with a female salesperson. So it’s not always about disadvantages,” she says, pointing to the current Chief Executive as evidence that success for women in Hong Kong is not simply a pipedream.
Shaking up the expectations of a male-dominated industry is undoubtedly part of the legacy Diana has created. “I haven’t changed this industry singlehandedly. But I’m still proud of leading the way for other women who might never have thought it possible to do what I’ve done. If I can be a mentor or role model for others, then that’s a plus.”
From lipstick to Lear jets
When she started Sino Private Aviation Limited – her first endeavour – in 1999, the private aviation industry was almost non-existent. The renowned Dr Stanley Ho owned a private jet, while billionaire Michael Kadoorie’s aviation group Metrojet was in its infancy. That was it. She joined forces with her brother who needed someone on the ground to chase deals in this nascent but ripe market for the ultra-rich.
At the time, her status as the sole licenced representative to sell the Canadian aerospace giant Bombardier’s jets in China and Hong Kong belied her total lack of experience in the business.
In the years before entering the world of tycoons and their toys, Diana was setting up stores for cosmetics brand Estée Lauder. A curious kink in her career path, certainly, but not without its own logic. “Whether you’re selling lipstick or an aircraft, ultimately you have to be highly focused on the customer and what they need. In that sense, it’s quite similar,” she explains.
The price point between the two, she acknowledges with a laugh, is notably different.
A modest but rigorous saleswoman, Diana is at ease talking about selling aircraft that will set you back anywhere from HK$80 million to a cool HK$600 million. “What I realised is that selling a private jet is partly about making the client understand they’re buying something that is normally priceless. Time. That is such a valuable concept; people are prepared to pay if it means they can spend more time with their family, for example.”
And why stop at jets? Private helicopters have become another successful avenue of business for this serial entrepreneur through her second company, Aerochine Aviation Limited. At last count, she had sold over 100 private jets and 60 helicopters in Hong Kong and China. They’re remarkable numbers, which are made all the more remarkable when you consider that at the start of 2016 only 132 private jets were registered in Hong Kong and 764 helicopters in the Chinese mainland, according to China Daily.
The numbers are testament to Diana’s restless entrepreneurialism. In recent years she’s launched L’VOYAGE (a jet charter consultancy and lifestyle brand hybrid), an aviation service company in Ningbo, a world-class helicopter maintenance facility in the Jiangsu province and Aero Infinity (a Singapore-based helicopter leasing company).
She’s also a founding member of the Asian Business Aviation Association (AsBAA) and has twice been awarded ‘Women Entrepreneur of the Year’ by the All China Women’s Association. Her website lists an astounding 12 titles including director roles for the China Airport General Aviation Council and the Pacific Basin Economic Council.
“Business is all about peaks and troughs,” she says with reference to the Sigmoid Curve, a theory that pictures the life of a business as an S-shaped curve; an initial decline for a period of learning and experimentation, then a period of growth and prosperity, and finally an inevitable decline. “The key is to always jump to the next opportunity to ride that upward curve.”
She makes it sound easy. In reality, you sense that behind her breezy, effortless charm there is a fierce tenacity for making deals work.
Our conversation drifts back to the early days when she was making no deals at all. The intense loneliness of being an entrepreneur is still clear in her mind; the doubts, the worries, the constant search for answers.
“In those early years where it was exceptionally tough, I turned to meditation. Ultimately, as an entrepreneur you have to look inside yourself. That’s where the answers always lie.”