Ex-NetJets CEO leads startup

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Aug. 05--One year to the day after he abruptly resigned as CEO of NetJets, Richard Santulli announced a new venture that will finance and lease helicopters and other private aircraft.

Milestone Aviation Group, based in Dublin, Ireland, initially has 10 employees in Columbus, New Jersey and Ireland, most of them former NetJets executives.

Milestone bills itself as the first global leasing company focused on private jets and helicopters. It is backed by $500million in equity capital, led by the New York-based Jordan Company. The venture does not compete with NetJets, which offers fractional ownership in aircraft it operates.

Demand for helicopters has boomed in recent years, said Milestone spokesman Eric Berman, but financing has been in short supply. Law enforcement, air ambulance services and companies involved in offshore drilling are among key customers.

Milestone is aimed at an "important and underserved market niche. Today, many good helicopter operators worldwide cannot get access to capital despite a demand for their services," said Santulli, who is based in New Jersey, in a statement.

There is opportunity in aircraft finance today, but there is also risk, said Charlie Sauter, vice president of Park National Bank's Scope Aircraft Finance unit in Columbus.

"The financing available at competitive rates kind of dried up ... (and) the leasing end of the business is probably a little underserved right now," Sauter said. "It can be difficult to finance in developing areas, so there is demand there. But you have to be careful, and you have to be able to monitor a plane and ensure that it's being maintained properly."

Dan Rosenthal, who was the top-ranking Columbus executive for NetJets under Santulli, is president of Milestone. He'll work from a three-person Arena District office, joined by former NetJets customer-service chief Matthew Harris and a business-development manager.

"We view Columbus and central Ohio as a great place for an aviation business," Rosenthal said. "It has a strong business environment and a very special business community."

Rosenthal said Ireland was chosen for its favorable tax climate and skilled work force.

Former NetJets Europe executives William Kelly and Robert Dranitzke are leading Milestone's Dublin office; Santulli is also joined by his former financial adviser Michael Wargotz and former NetJets general counsel Robert Burns, who will spend time in both the New Jersey and Columbus offices.

Rosenthal said an announcement of clients should be made in the coming weeks. Milestone said yesterday that it will be purchasing aircraft from manufacturers including Cessna, Bell, Gulfstream and Hawker Beechcraft. He said the company already has clients in countries including Brazil, Canada and Nigeria.

Santulli acquired Columbus-based NetJets, then called Executive Jet, in 1984. He sold the company to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway in 1998 after pioneering the "fractional" concept of selling shares in private aircraft. His departure from NetJets was followed by a management shakeup at the company, which is now led by David Sokol.

mrose@dispatch.com

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