Sarasota's Jones Aviation Sold to Equity Group

A private equity-backed group from Connecticut plans to buy Jones Aviation, which has been in business at the local airport since 1971.

The sale could bring new investment to the north side of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. It would also intensify the competition for the airport's growing base of private planes.

Jones competes with another longtime aircraft service company, Dolphin Aviation. A third competitor, Rectrix, is building hangars and a service center on the east side.

Founder Clyde Jones declined to talk about the deal until airport officials approve a lease transfer on Monday.

General Manager Ed Lindsay said he and other personnel will stay with the new owner, which operates under the name Volo Aviation.

Volo, which appears focused on selling charter jets to the business crowd, could take Jones in a new direction.

Jones has been a full-service aviation center. It teaches flying, sells fuel and fixes planes. Jones also runs charters, but they are on piston-engine planes.

"They will be looking at all aspects of our business," Lindsay said. "If they see something that will be successful, they will grow it."

Two partners backing Volo told airport officials they plan to build at least one large hangar for an existing tenant.

The local holding company, Volo Holdings Sarasota, may borrow up to $5.3 million from Merrill Lynch Mortgage Capital Inc., a proposed lease amendment says.

As a business and a family, Jones has had a rough six years.

Two of the 9/11 hijackers spent about a month taking lessons at Jones.

On top of the notoriety, Jones suffered with the rest of the industry in the wake of the attacks.

In December 2003, vice president and general manager Gary Jones died of lymphoma at age 51.

Family-owned aviation support centers around the country have been selling out to deep-pocketed chains.

Selling fuel is the mainstay of fixed-base operators, or FBOs as they are known.

Sharp growth in small plane and business jet flying has made that a lucrative business.

Jones sold 1.2 million gallons of fuel through September 2005.

Jones also has a lease for 18.6 acres, which is good through October 2039.

Tampa aviation consultant Michael Hodges was surprised to hear that Jones had struck a deal.

"I had some clients that were pursuing Jones for the last few years also," he said.

The Jones-Volo deal is expected to close in a month. Neither company is revealing the price.

Other fixed-based operators have sold for four to 15 times their cash flow, Hodges said.

"It's an attractive industry to a lot of equity funds right now," he said, adding that some of those deals were overpriced. "There's a lot of glamour in aviation, so that attracts some people.

"It's an industry that is driven by business and ego."

Volo is backed by a deep-pocketed private equity fund manager, Eugene Gorab.

Gorab founded the real estate-focused Greenfield Partners and also is getting into the FBO business.

He is a partner in FBO Company LLC, which has either bought or is pursuing FBOs in Morristown, N.J., Manassas, Va., and Fort Pierce, said John Schussler, properties director at Sarasota-Bradenton International.

FBO Company also is developing the Sikorsky Memorial Airport under a long-term lease with the city of Bridgeport, Conn.

Sikorsky Memorial is where Gorab's charter company, Volo Aviation, is based. Volo provides staff to manage and develop charter operations for each of Gorab's acquisitions.

Thom Harrow, who manages operations for Gorab's FBO Company, could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

A DEAL FOR JONES AVIATION

WHO IS BUYING JONES? Volo Aviation, which is backed by a private equity fund manager, Eugene Gorab, who founded the real-estate focused Greenfield Partners.

WHO OWNS JONES? Founder Clyde Jones.

HOW LONG HAS JONES BEEN

AT SARASOTA-BRADENTON INTERNATIONAL? Since 1971.

WHAT WILL BE THE IMPACT OF THE SALE? The deal could bring new investment to the north side of the airport and intensify competition for private planes. Volo also could take Jones in new directions, such as selling charter jets to businesspeople.



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