VC Sky King to the Planeless: Eat My Contrails

12/5/07

Marc Dulude loves it when, after showing up at the far-flung offices of a company he’s thinking of buying, his eager-to-please hosts ask him how much time they’ve got to make their case before they have to get him back to the airport. “Don’t worry about that,” he replies. “We’ll take as much time as this needs.”

There aren’t many business travelers who get to say that every time they fly in for a meeting. Certainly not airline passengers. Chartering a plane or even owning a share of one won’t always do the trick, either—a fellow charterer or share-owner probably has the aircraft spoken for after your scheduled return. And even if the aircraft is available for an extra while, the flight crew may not be.

No, if you want complete freedom from aircraft schedules, you’ve pretty much got to own that sucker, and fly it yourself. That’s what Dulude does. A former CEO of Framingham, MA, plastics manufacturing design firm Moldflow who has also run software companies, Dulude is now a partner at Wellesley-based Ampersand Ventures. He specializes in buy-outs for the high-tech VC firm, where his portfolio companies have included information retrieval firm Endeca Software in Cambridge, biotech imaging specialist RadPharm in Princeton, and medical packaging system manufacturer Kortec in Ipswich. The need to check out existing and prospective investments has him constantly visiting companies all over the U.S. and Canada. To get the most out of his travel time, Dulude tools around in a Piper Mirage, a small propeller plane.

What, no jet? Don’t feel sorry for Dulude. It’s true, most privately piloted propeller planes are cramped four-seaters that top out around 140 mph or so, and tend to be either grounded or tossed around by any bad weather along the flight path. Dulude started off with one of those—a Cessna Skylane—when he got his license in 2001, thinking his flying would be strictly personal. But then he upgraded to the roomy six-seat Mirage, and had its piston engine replaced with a 560-horsepower turbine engine, essentially a jet engine that turns a propeller. Because the Mirage is pressurized, and because, unlike piston engines, turbine engines don’t lose power in the thinner air at altitude, it comfortably flies in the same 20,000-feet and up, above-the-bad-weather flight levels as jets. At 300 mph, the Mirage isn’t much slower than a business jet, either. That sort of aircraft can set you back 1.5 million bucks or more, but that’s still half the cost of a typical light business jet. Dulude’s operating costs are far lower than those of jets, too, and he can fly in to tiny airports close to his destination that couldn’t handle most jets.

The Mirage has won Dulude the sort of travel flexibility and efficiency that most of us can only daydream about. “When I want to visit some of the companies I own, or that I’m thinking about buying, I’ll just string a bunch of meetings together that run from one end of the country to the other, and do them all in one trip,” he says. “I’ve visited three companies in three different cities and ended up back home, all on the same day. And I know that however long a meeting runs, that plane isn’t leaving without me. The benefits of that sort of convenience can’t be exaggerated.” He doesn’t get much argument at Ampersand, where four of the five partners fly their own planes.

Even so, Dulude doesn’t try to argue that he’s saving money by owning a plane. No matter what the convenience, the damn things just cost so much more than commercial flying—total per-mile costs for an aircraft like Dulude’s run from two to seven times those of a business-class seat, not including the tens of thousands of dollars you’ll eventually spend in pilot training–that you’ll always end up in the red in any sort of reasonable accounting. “You can try to rationalize it by assigning a ridiculously high value to your time,” he says. “But I see it as a quality-of-life question rather than a cost-justification question. You can’t put a value on gaining this sort of flexibility, and of not having to deal with the frustration and loss of control that you put up with in commercial flying.”

Just one more little piece of information for those of you reading this in an airport, as you listen for an announcement about your delayed flight while trying to dodge the ejecta from the guy sneezing next to you: www.trade-a-plane.com.

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