Group to buy aircraft maker
Local entrepreneur Mason Holland Jr. is looking to turn a stinging loss on an aircraft deal into a high-flying gain.
Holland, chairman and co-founder of Daniel Island-based software firm Benefitfocus, is leading a group that is bidding $40 million to buy a bankrupt company that made a lightweight jet called the Eclipse 500.
Eclipse Aerospace Inc. hopes to finalize its acquisition of failed Eclipse Aviation Corp. of Albuquerque, N.M., by Aug. 31, he said Monday. The offer includes $20 million in cash. A hearing on the sale is set for Thursday in Wilmington, Del.
Holland said his group's bid faces some objections, but none is expected to derail the deal.
"We're going to stand the company back up and continue to service the existing fleet and reintroduce the production of the aircraft ... as the market allows," he said.
Holland, who has been flying planes for about 10 years, said his involvement in Eclipse goes back to a soured business transaction: He lost his deposit on an Eclipse 500 after the maker of so-called very light jets sought bankruptcy protection in late 2008. The company decided earlier this year to liquidate its assets.
While contemplating a lawsuit against Eclipse to recover his money, Holland said he became enamored with the business. He then assembled an investment group with friend and St. Louis aviation executive Mike Press, who owns an Eclipse 500.
Holland said one of the key attractions of the tiny twin-engine jet is its relatively low price of about $2 million.
Also, he said, the six-seat planes are quiet, fuel efficient and fairly easy on the environment. Emissions are low enough that the Eclipse 500 isn't taxed in Europe for carbon dioxide pollution.
"It's really a green jet, if there is such a thing," Holland said.
The company's manufacturing plant will remain in Albuquerque, but the assembly line won't be restarted immediately, given the slow market for private jets.
"It'll be a year before we produce a plane," Holland said.
When demand does turn up again, he expects Eclipse to be among the first companies to benefit.
"There's no price point lower than this jet," he said.
Eclipse Aviation ran into financial headwinds because its previous management paid too much attention to "grandiose" growth plans and not enough on making money, Holland said.
"We're going to turn that equation around," he said. "We're going to be focused on profitability first and growth second. You don't go broke when you're focused on that."
Eclipse Aerospace's plans include the purchase of an aircraft business in Chicago that will handle parts and servicing for the estimated 260 Eclipse 500 jets that already are certified to fly. It also will offer training to pilots and mechanics.
Holland will be chairman of Eclipse Aerospace and remain in that role at Benefitfocus.
"We'll run a little bit of the corporate operations out of Charleston because I'm here," he said.