"Selling a plane is like winning races."
Driving Formula One cars and selling aircraft may seem like two very different careers. But Thierry Boutsen believes there is a lot of overlap between the two.
THE MONACO OFFICES of Boutsen Aviation are very white, very clean and purposeful. But one thing immediately stands out. On the right-hand wall there is a genuine Formula One racing car. The Cannon Williams F1 car that Boutsen was driving when he won the Canadian Grand Prix in 1989.
Boutsen was born in Brussels in 1957, but Monaco has been his home since 1984. He is married to Daniela Boutsen with whom he co-founded the company in 1997. His children all went to school in Monaco or are currently studying there.
“As my parents always said, I started my professional life when I was three years-old.” says Boutsen. “Because I decided to become a Formula One driver and I told them that. And they believed it.”
At the age of 12 a determined Boutsen tried to get into a racing-driver school but was turned down because he didn’t have a driving licence. He had to wait until he was 18 to finally enter the school, which by modern-day standards in racing would be seen as incredibly late.
It is clear that Boutsen’s parents had a strong influence on him and it was his father who insisted that before he became a racing car driver, he would need to get an education and a degree behind him. So he decided to study mechanical engineering at university.
It was not until Boutsen was 21 that he turned professional, when he entered the Benelux Formula Ford Championship and won his first title in 1978 winning 15 of the 18 races. From there he progressed through Formula Three and Formula Two until, eventually, he made his debut with racing team Arrows in 1983 at the Belgian Grand Prix.
In total Boutsen won three Grands Prix; Canadian, Australian and Hungarian. In 1988 he finished fourth in the world championship driving for Benetton. He also drove for Williams, Ligier and Jordan.
“My whole life has been based on doing things that I have passion for”
“My whole life has been based on doing things that I have passion for,” says Boutsen. “That is when you are most successful. I cannot do anything that does not have a sign of passion. It does not fit me.”
It is clear Boutsen considers himself extremely fortunate to have been a Formula One driver. In his demeanour there are glimpses into the deep pride and satisfaction he feels at competing in one of the world’s most-difficult sports.
“I enjoyed every moment of being in Formula One. Just being there is not something everyone can do. Only 20 drivers are lucky enough to do that, and I was good enough to do that for 10 consecutive years.”
Boutsen in the Benetton B187
Boutsen raced in a glorious era of Formula One -- rivals included Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and (as he admits himself) the greatest there ever was, Ayrton Senna.
“Senna was number one for sure. I beat him a couple of times. When I won in Hungary, he was right behind me. It was a big success for me. A big, big achievement.”
In 1981 disaster struck Boutsen when he was racing in the 24-hour of Le Mans. Competing in his WM P81-Peugeot he hit the guard rail due to a suspension part failing. The debris from the collision travelled over 800 metres and struck three marshals. The first marshal Thierry Mabilat was killed and the other two, Claude Hertault and Serge David were seriously injured.
“I haven’t recovered from that yet. It’s something I will never recover from. Something broke on the car and threw me onto the wall. The risk quantity is there in racing. I lost many, many friends.”
The last team Boutsen drove for in Formula One was Jordan. Unfortunately due to being tall handling this particular car was extremely difficult and dangerous. Ultimately, he was only able to compete in ten races for Jordan before retiring in 1993.
For many people this might have been the end of their story and they could go off into the sunset happy with their remarkable sporting achievements. But for Boutsen motor racing represented merely a few chapters of his life.
What is fascinating with Boutsen is how he has been able to draw on the mentality to be a world-beating Formula One driver and apply that into an extremely successful private aviation business.
“I have this competitive spirit in myself. I want to win everything I do, so what worked in competition, works in aviation now. I have learned that racing is the school of life so what you learn there you can’t learn anywhere else. I now try to run my team the way a race team is run with everybody working in one direction, everybody is helping each other. Selling a plane today is like winning races.”
Boutsen singles out the principle of being well-prepared as the key to success in both industries. Precision, attention to detail and making sure you do not make any mistakes in transactions are all crucial factors.
Boutsen discovered his passion for planes when he was 18 and had a spare couple of months between his baccalaureate and going to university. One of his friends owned an aviation business and asked him to work as a mechanic in his hangar. Despite having no knowledge about planes or helicopters Boutsen decided to go along and there he discovered the world of business aviation.
Working on LearJets and other small planes Boutsen realised it was not just racing cars that ignited his passion. “I had a chance to do a couple of test flights. They were planes that came out of maintenance. It was like a knock on the door and I realised this is something I want to do someday.”
It was while driving for Benetton that Boutsen had his first opportunity to buy a small plane, a Piper Cheyenne. Two years later he sold the turboprop and bought a LearJet, then sold that and bought a Citation. “I started to do some transactions for myself, all while I was driving. It was about convenience going to and from races.”
Boutsen even started flying some of his racing colleagues to races including Ayrton Senna.
“We did it quite a few times. In my planes I went to Mexico and South Africa. Flying was a great passion and it was very convenient. A half day saved when racing could mean extra time with the family.”
In 1997 it was by pure coincidence when a colleague came to Boutsen saying he would like to buy a plane similar to his Citation. His friend had no idea where to find one or organise it or what certification was needed. So Boutsen offered to do it for him and he became his first customer.
Williams FW12B at the French GP
Senna’s helmet next to Boutsen
Before long, associates from the motoring world were queuing up for Boutsen’s help including Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen. “I did about ten transactions in the racing world and thought ‘Wow!’ I have something here. Before that point I’d been thinking about retiring, but then suddenly the opportunity was there and I took it.”
It was then Boutsen and his wife Daniela formed the company Boutsen Aviation. They began researching and promoting the business. In 1999 they employed their first member of staff and in 2000 their first sales person.
The Monaco office has nine members of staff and Boutsen Aviation is represented in Moscow, Dubai and New Delhi. To date, the business has sold 370 planes across 71 countries. “Our clients are heads of state, international companies, aircraft operators and management companies. We have a great network.”
Since 2014 Boutsen Aviation had some challenging years due to the economic crisis in the business jet industry, but since mid-2017 the landscape has looked much better. Boutsen is remarkably candid about the challenges that face the business.
“Activity is good and people want to buy planes, so we are in a positive trend. How long it will last? I do not know. The crisis started in 2009 and the price of planes dropped. Pre-owned jets began to depreciate when they had never done so before and this went on until mid-2017,” he says.
“What I have noticed over the years is that, when I started we had cycles that were lasting three or four years – positive and negative, but slow cycles. It was not until the crisis came that we had a sustained period going down. Now the speed of cycles has reduced from three years to three months. We can have a few months of really strong activity and then after that the market can go quiet and then pick up again. We did not see this before the crisis for sure.”
Undoubtably Boutsen has had an incredible career that many would envy. From winning Grands Prix to building a successful, world-renowned private aviation brokerage what is most striking is how he has used the same natural ability and fortitude within both.
Alongside his aviation business Boutsen’s passion for cars lives on through his Belgian racing team ‘Boutsen Ginion Racing’ which competes in the World Touring Car Cup and TCR Benelux Touring.
Perhaps it is also not such a coincidence that he lives and works on the doorstep of the Monaco Grand Prix where once a year he can relive his passion for Formula One. His parting advice for anyone contemplating entering the private jet acquisition industry: “Depending on how good they are I’d tell them to come and work for us! Build up experience and don’t think you know everything right away, because it takes at least 20 years to learn you don’t know anything.”