Sydney Seaplanes CEO: 'The sky’s the limit for my business’

Mountains of government regulation, high costs, a dependence on good weather, a limited pool of skilled employees... it sounds like the all the ingredients for a business disaster. Yet as Sydney Seaplanes CEO Aaron Shaw reveals, you can still build a successful business despite the odds.

As the adage goes, the sky is the limit for some when it comes to pursuing their business goals. In Aaron's case, the sky literally is the limit, as he has been flying planes for many years.

Taking his skill, knowledge and passion for planes, Aaron turned around numerous unsuccessful businesses and merged them into a single successful one. Since then, he has been using the lessons learnt from that merger to grow Sydney Seaplanes even further.

From shareholder to owner

Aaron did not start as the business owner, or even as an employee of Sydney Seaplanes; he started as a shareholder for a seaplane business in Rose Bay, which has a history closely tied to aviation.

“Seaplanes have operated in Rose Bay pretty consistently since 1938,” explains Aaron.

“Originally, the big flying boats stopped operating in the mid-1970s. Lord Howe Island was the last destination of the flying boats, and that stopped when they eventually built a runway there.

“Then it was sort of more of the tourism and leisure products that we offer now. It started around the early 1980s, and there were a number of operators that attempted to run those services.”

Aaron Shaw, Sydney SeaplanesUntil 2005, those operators were not doing particularly well. The tensions were high between the businesses, each favouring its own pride over good business decisions.

“Where there is conflict, there is opportunity.”

“You would have three six-seat airplanes, all with two people on them, going to the same destination, instead of one plane full going to that destination,” Aaron says.

Tensions were also high physically between the owners.

“I actually had to attend in court once because I witnessed an assault of one to the other, so the police asked me to come along and give my account,” Aaron says.

“I don't think anyone was enjoying it. The fighting was not something that was enjoyable to anyone. I think quite a few of the guys there were quite keen to get out of it.”

Aaron then got together with a shareholder of one of the other seaplane businesses. They knew there was potential there, and Aaron had numerous years of aviation experience as a pilot for small charters and commercial airlines.

“Where there is conflict, there is opportunity,” he says.

“We were there at the right time to make that happen and offer them a reasonable amount for the businesses as they were at the time, all pretty much money-losing businesses, and make it one solid, strong company with an obvious name like Sydney Seaplanes and a good brand from that point forward.”

Teaming up

Aaron’s plans for cooperation did not stop with his merger of the seaplane businesses, but continued in the form of business partnerships and integration with Sydney Seaplanes’ products.

Numerous restaurants are incorporated into Sydney Seaplanes’ offerings. They are in prime sightseeing locations, and were specifically picked for their past association with seaplanes.

“A lot of those destinations are very tied to the seaplane product, and Berowra Waters [Inn] is one of them … because that was one of the in products of the 1980s,” explains Aaron.

Sydney Seaplanes“I think in those days it was regarded as one of the best restaurants in Australia, and the only way to get there was by seaplane. It is not to say that that's the only way of getting there, but if you're going to one of those really special waterfront locations in the Hawkesbury, you might as well just push the ride out a bit further and take a seaplane up there and make it an amazing experience.”

Aaron says Sydney Seaplanes works closely with its associated restaurants, to the point of running joint promotions together, so the businesses have to accommodate each other.

“Jonah's, for instance, is not right down on the water in Pittwater, so they have a vehicle that meets the passengers off the plane takes them up to the restaurant. It drops them down afterwards, so there is a lot of coordinating that we do every day with those destinations.

“There is a product just to fly people there, but it can be lunch, it can be dinner, it’s champagne on arrival, it's antipasto plates on the balcony; it is honing those product offerings so that we give people as much choice in terms of the timing that they want to go, as well as what they do when they get there.”

Aaron says the relationship between Sydney Seaplanes and its partnered restaurants is symbiotic.

“They do need us to bring people … [but] we need a destination to take people to as well,” he says.

Dealing with the weather

As a business that involves flying through the air, Sydney Seaplanes has a lot riding on Mother Nature. Technology is Aaron's first port of call to try and get the upper hand, and see whether his customers will be flying or not.

“If weather wasn't a part of this business, we would be rolling around in money.”

“We use a lot of technology to anticipate [the weather]: weather radars and wind recording, data from a variety of places around Sydney which the Bureau of Meteorology provides,” explains Aaron.

“We try and anticipate those things, and when thunderstorms come through they generally move in quite quickly, so we can sit them out and wait for them to move offshore. That may mean delaying a flight by half an hour.”

It can also mean that flights have to be cancelled outright.

“[If] there is thunder, there is lightning … the last thing you want to be [doing] is taking off in a light aircraft,” Aaron says.

Before it gets to that point, Aaron has a policy of maintaining communication with customers to try and find an alternative time.

“What we do is we really focus on the weather and we look two or three days out all the time,” he explains.

Sydney Seaplanes“If you communicate well with people, well in advance of what may or may not occur, they are generally very good about it because they know that it's not something that is within our control.

“If weather wasn't a part of this business, we would be rolling around in money.”

Cutting through the red tape

No business owner likes to deal with the hassles of red tape, but it is something that must be done. For Aaron, this is increased exponentially. He has to deal with air travel, maritime and historical regulations due to his business being located on Sydney Harbour.

“Rose Bay is zoned aviation, and that is because of those historical usage rights dating back to the 1930s,” explains Aaron.

“Any development over the water in Sydney Harbour is a massive process to get approved. It is incredibly expensive in money as well as time.”

Without even considering Rose Bay, the barriers to entry for commercial flights are quite high, including “having a commercial aviation licence, getting the aircraft, getting the pilots, as well as commercial barriers to entry in terms of competing with long-term existing operators”.

“Our business is quite heavily [regulated]. No doubt a lot of [other] businesses are as well, in a variety of industries. I think it's a matter of keeping strong, regular relationships with those various governing agencies,” he says.

“[Make] sure that you are staying compliant and you've got good personal relationships with those that matter within those organisations.”

Aaron's tips for business success

1. Really understand your business, and how it operates at a grassroots level as well as the bigger picture.

2. Closely manage your cash flow.

3. Don't spend the tax man's money – keep it separate to avoid nasty surprises.

4. Maintain strong relationships with regulators.

Fast facts:

Name: Sydney Seaplanes

Industry: Transport/tourism

Established: 2005

Client base: Predominantly Sydney-based tourists

No. of employees: 14

promoted stories