Time flies when you’re having fun—or so they say. At NICHOLAS AIR, business revolves around those very two things—time and flying. As the national private aviation company’s founder and CEO, NJ Correnti’s mission has always been to enable customers to gain back valuable hours in their days, be that to attend a child’s soccer game or to get into town for the next business deal. It is a complex and ever-changing environment, complete with regulatory changes and shifting market factors, but the constant that Correnti has never shied from is having quality people by his side.
The end result? A customer base that is undeniably passionate about the brand and the quality of the personal relationships they have with the team. Headquartered in Oxford, Mississippi, NICHOLAS AIR blends elements of Southern hospitality with pure business acumen to create a program designed for what Correnti calls “the most refined set of private flyers.” This was no accident. During 25 years as an investor and business owner across the aviation, industrial, logistics and media industries, Correnti meticulously applied experience and knowledge gleaned from his father, the late John Correnti, to lead his brands to success.
Without question, a fierce storm constantly churns in this man’s mind. Calm and composed and often unassuming, Correnti remains outwardly calculated and poised. Yet, he is constantly measuring how to make the most of today’s opportunities while simultaneously thinking about those that lie ahead.
Correnti can be labeled many things: a Mississippi man, a family man, a Christian, the founder and CEO of NICHOLAS AIR and a serial entrepreneur. While those labels are accomplishments on their own, they speak mostly to what he does, while “who he is” and “why he does it” are far more interesting.
Although born in Utah, Correnti presents as Southern: the drawl, the boots and the way his gaze lifts at the prospect of dogs on point in the South Georgia woods. It’s that last bit that brought that raging storm to a temporary halt when he and some great friends and clients gathered recently at an idyllic hunting camp along Georgia’s Flint River, known as Riverview Plantation. Even with his iPhone never far from reach, it was a welcome respite from the controlled winter holiday chaos that comes with involvement in several businesses (jets, steel, silicon, real estate and media), a heavy travel schedule, board meetings, family events and even the happy babble of a five-month-old back home.
Friends had traveled from all over to be a part of this experience, drawn to Riverview for a soul-lifting break from their busy lives—lives that were not easy to escape due to work, prior commitments or family responsibilities at home. During the break, more than a few quails were harvested, but the trip would be most remembered for the laughs, the stories told into the late hours of the night and the lasting friendships created.
For Correnti, the appeal of Riverview is partly nostalgic. Everyone has places in this world that strike a certain emotional chord. Without a doubt, Riverview does that for Correnti, as not only one of God’s brilliant works of art, but also a place where he shot many a bird with his father, who was a leader in the American steel industry.
A simple online search can reveal a day’s worth of reading on John Correnti, much of which boils down to a few simple truths: He was a visionary and a pioneer, who cared deeply about those under his direction, motivated everyone around him and refused to be outworked. Above all, this “man of steel” was passionate about relationships and treating his people well, whether they were the the janitor or the general manager of a Correnti-run steel mill.
That philosophy became a pillar of NJ Correnti’s life. With a front-row seat to how his father ran his life and business, Correnti soaked up that knowledge, massaged it into his own style and created a business that will not only provide for his family but also take care of many generations down the line. What’s more, Correnti’s children have a sterling role model in their father, a man bent on practicing the principles he learned from his own: Work hard, be firm but fair, be good to people, praise the Lord and when you shake a man’s hand and look him in the eye, live up to your word. All are concepts that Correnti seeks to foster in everyone around him, ensuring that the Correnti family legacy lives on.
With all the factors that go into running multimillion-dollar businesses in often-volatile industries, there are days where stress runs high, acknowledges Correnti, who shrugs off the challenging times as part of the journey. “Of course there are many nights of lost sleep, but my motivation comes from providing for my family, being known as the best at what we do and being a great example for my children,” he says, noting that his faith sees him through times of doubt. “God is number one, and carrying myself and our businesses in a godly manner means maintaining the faith that He will get you through it in the end. The way you greet someone, the way you look after your family and friends, they are all key components to a good Christian life. For my family, that’s very important.
“For my business, it is as well,” he adds. “We employ people who work hard, carry a great moral compass and share the same value set for the way we do business in the South.” Correnti oversees a team dedicated to ensuring that every detail is taken care of for their clients, no matter how big or small. While NICHOLAS AIR’s customer base stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the team members extend Southern hospitality in every interaction. Treating each exchange as if they were talking to a member of their own family creates a sense of home for them.
Correnti also surrounds himself with people who share his passion and vision, and who challenge each other for the betterment of the customer. “I spend a great deal of time on the road, and what I am most proud of is how well random acquaintances who don’t know me at all speak about our people,” he says. “My father taught me long ago that if you surround yourself with great people, you get great results, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen at NICHOLAS AIR. I go to the office each day thankful for the employees we have, the reputation that they built for our brand, and I’m incredibly proud of what they have done to make our business shine. Our members take the time to tell others about their service and refer them. As a business owner, I can’t think of a better compliment than to hear customers share their stories of what great people we have and tell their friends to follow suit.”
Dedication to service excellence, both inside and outside of the organization, is at the root of that success. On a daily basis, Correnti reinforces to his team the value that the customer brings to his companies outside of just the transactional nature of purchases and revenue. At a personal level, he encourages his team to ask customers what they want and then guides the business toward incorporating those desires. It’s an approach that stands out in a world that views supply chain and staffing challenges as scapegoats that justify delivering a lesser product. Correnti sees it differently: “The quality of the product can never erode, no matter the obstacles in front of you,” he says. “You make a commitment to your customer and to your people that you will deliver the best product you can to the market, and you simply cannot waver from it.”
Decades of hard work forged by family traditions and teachings have rewarded Correnti with not only material success but also the ability to make a positive impact on the lives of those around him, be it family or the hundreds of employees under his wing. It’s a greater responsibility that he bears to ensure that the family name his father built across the South stays synonymous with strong ethics, Christian values and a pride for the relationships you build. Complacency is not an option at NICHOLAS AIR—and never will be. There is an evolution that comes with each day, each new opportunity and each ring of the phone. It’s that evolution that creates the storm, and in the mind of NJ Correnti, that storm will always rage on.
A Q&A with NJ Correnti
NJ Correnti shares insights on his business philosophy, his influences and his approach to getting the most from his team, as well as his perspective on ensuring that NICHOLAS AIR’s sterling reputation continues on for years to come.
You’ve built businesses with a track record for both sustainable growth and successful exits—two goals that often elude CEOs. What is the secret to that track record?
It’s the old saying “no risk, no reward,” but when taking on new risk, you want to ensure you surround yourself with a good team to navigate those uncertain times. Anyone can create a vision. The key is having the proper team to execute it. Surrounding yourself with people smarter than you is what makes your vision a reality and not an illusion. There is a distinct difference between companies who succeed and those who don’t. In my experience, you must balance the need to be responsible with the need to be opportunistic. This is precisely the place where a great team at your side proves instrumental. The exchange of ideas and the varied skill sets allow for each person to help shape the way a vision becomes reality.
NICHOLAS AIR has grown to arguably be one of the most respected private aviation companies in the world. What do you feel has been the biggest catalyst to the sustained growth of that brand?
Customer service. Customer service. Customer service. Take care of your customers, and they will take care of you. Your service culture is an extension of the promises you make to your customers when they come into your program or your company. Being able to back up those commitments each day, while simultaneously letting your customers know that their feedback is welcome, received and instrumental in the service culture of your brand. The reputation that our team at NICHOLAS AIR has earned over the course of our history is a direct result of the amount of work we put into creating personalized relationships, backed by a quality level that I believe is unmatched in the space. It means that with every experience, our customers can actually touch and feel our commitment to excellence.
Your father, a luminary in the American industrial landscape, was known for his ability to blend the needs of the people with the needs of the business. What did you learn from John Correnti that you draw on as a business leader?
Those lessons influence me every day. My entire organization is unique compared to other companies in the aviation sector. From our compensation packages to our lean workforce, I adopted many of the philosophies that my father used in manufacturing. Hire one worker to do the job of two and incentivize them very well, while providing them with the best tools to do the job. This philosophy becomes more challenging every day with the millennial generation. However, it still yields hard-working men and women who take ownership and pride in their work.
How much do you pull from your industrial learnings and apply to the ultra-luxury world of private jets?
Aviation is very different from the industrial sector. It is arguably the most complex and regulated industry there is. I ask myself all the time, “Why be in such a challenging industry full of red tape?” I guess it’s because I like a challenge. It’s always gratifying when you can bring the missing piece to solve the puzzle. Regardless of what line of business you’re in, your customers demand quality, they demand integrity, and they demand results. While aviation and industrial sectors are wildly different in many respects, they are also both process-oriented and require the utmost attention to detail in the name of safety and in the name of preserving the quality of the product.
How actively engaged are you in the day-to-day operations of NICHOLAS AIR?
It’s important for any CEO to be involved at all levels. It doesn’t matter how big or small the company. You need to know what your people are doing and how the processes work, and let them know you’re holding them accountable. I am very old school. My senior-level team and I wear coats and ties to work, and we expect everyone to show up on time and be ready to combat the challenges the day holds. Perhaps more important than that, our team walks in the door each day knowing that senior leadership will be right there by their side, battling the challenges with them. Many senior executives draw a hard line between “working on the business” and “working in the business,” but our leadership team does both. Throughout each day, I see our top executives working with their teams to mentor, inspire and be a supporting wing for whatever topic is at hand.
The dominant theme in business right now that everyone seems to be struggling with is talent. How have you dealt with that in your businesses?
Today, your typical employee wants “quality of life” over pay and opportunity. However, they don’t know what that means. Having a great-paying job that challenges you daily equates to quality of life. I mean, how can you have quality of life without a paycheck? How can you support your family? Work provides you with a means to quality of life, and challenges provide you with growth opportunities.
Your companies have been predominantly based in the South. Is there a natural draw to this region for you?
Why would I want to be in a New York skyscraper paying 10 times the amount for office space when I can do all of the same in the South at a fraction of the cost? Together with a great pool of hard-working men and women to pull from, it has proven to not only be a recipe for success but also a recipe for corporate responsibility. The South is one of the best, if not the best, places to do business, and over the next several decades I believe you will see more and more business making that transition. Actually, when I look around at our company, the majority of our workforce has moved here from the larger cities, the Northeast, the Midwest and other major metro areas.
You created your own VC firm, Corr Ventures, and dipped into the world of big media and marketing through Piper Ranch Media. What was the catalyst for seeking those opportunitiess?
Investing, starting and operating businesses is fun. It’s a challenge, and if I am not challenged, I am not growing, and if I am not growing, I don’t have a purpose. Through Corr Ventures, we remain on the cutting edge and retain the ability to get involved in businesses that are both tangential to our companies and show great opportunity. Through our media brand, we work with many brands who look to our templates for corporate strategy and branding and look to replicate the type of success they’ve seen from our companies. Strategically partnering with entrepreneurs and other brands reinforces our commitment to growing business here in the South for all while giving our partner companies the platform they need to achieve the hypergrowth they seek.
Your primary focus is clearly on the private aviation world though—have you felt a major shift in that business over the past 36 months?
We’re seeing unprecedented demand. Unfortunately, the supply chain issues our government has fabricated makes managing that growth difficult. In my opinion, the decisions made around Covid created more damage than the virus itself to American business, and I truly believe that in any such scenario, the solution should never be worse than the problem. Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, we never pivoted or changed course. One benefit of our team at NICHOLAS AIR is the amount of experience we have in the room. With over 125 years of aviation experience, we gathered early on and kept our conviction to stay the course during a time when our major competitors hit the pause button and retreated. We kept forging ahead, we kept with our planning, we kept with our analysis of the industry intact, and we saw great stability and growth as a result.
Your company has gone through, and come out of, some significantly low periods in global economics. How did you navigate those crises?
Adapt and overcome. I have always refused to let what is happening around me define me. The same goes for my business. Growing with responsibility means that we never overreached prior to those key events, which meant that during those challenging times, we never felt over-leveraged. The economics have to work before, during and after in order to avoid the impacts of world events, but it takes a great deal of analysis to ensure you remain insulated. I believe that the way we’ve grown our companies has allowed us to never live beyond our means and ride out some of those troughs in global economics.