The second business in our round up of passionate SMEs and the people behind them is Nottingham helicopter company Arcus. This passionate, fast-moving bunch got their dream off the ground in just three and a half weeks. By focusing their passion for flying on each and every customer – and staying grounded with daily team lunches – they’ve grown from a small flying school to a one-stop hub for all things heli in just two years.
We talk to flyboy founders Jamie Ferrand and David Marsland about people, passion and the double-edged rotor blade of business.
Meeting the Arcus team in Nottingham
Our chat is scheduled to begin in one of the hangars. It’s surprisingly quiet for a business that includes several hundred tonnes of flying machinery. That is about to change. The distant beat of rotors announces an imminent arrival – the boss is dropping in.
As the R44 Raven II helicopter lands, a beaming woman hops out with a smile that betrays the first bite of the flying bug. Following just behind with a similar grin is founder Jamie Ferrand. That’s more than a love of flying on his face – it’s all the passion and enthusiasm of the born entrepreneur. Jamie’s love for the business is obvious as he and business partner David Marsland, give us the tour and talk us through the history of Arcus.
How did you come to set up Arcus?
“It started with nothing more than a love of flying and a half-formed hope to spread the love by teaching. A friend and fellow pilot had offered to put up the funding we needed and when the perfect premises became available, we knew we had to act.” As Jamie describes the mad rush to get off the ground, it’s impossible not to be impressed. “We were set up on a wing, a prayer and next door’s Wi-Fi.” In July 2017 Arcus was an exciting but daring dream; by August they were taking bookings, albeit with a semi-derelict hangar as base and office.
What’s the passion behind the project?
“We’re all pilots so I’d have to say foremost, a love of being up there. But also the pleasure of teaching the art and science of flying to new people, seeing them experience that awakening and then hopefully being able to guide them on the journey to qualification and beyond.”
What advice would you give yourself if you could start up all over again?
“Easy: every customer is your best customer. I learned that early on. A chap came in for a birthday lesson and I decided he wasn’t a serious prospect so let him go on his way. Huge mistake: he’d caught the bug big time and went over to a competitor for a full course of lessons. I now make a point of personally spending as much time as I can with everyone who sets foot in this hangar.”
Is it a lonely job? When you’re all out flying half the day, it must be hard to create a company culture.
“Not at all” David answers “it’s hugely sociable because it absolutely has to be. We need to stay on good terms with everyone, so there’s lots of networking. And we’re basically a big family here.” David points to a large table in the foyer that leads off to each of the briefing rooms. “If we’re all on the ground come lunchtime, which we are most days, we all gather round for lunch. The whole team squeezes in to have a moment of pause and a bit of a gossip.”
Best and worst thing about owning a business?
“Well, the flexibility is pretty hard to beat. We set our own schedule, and that means you’re free to take time out when you need to. The fact that there are two of us means we can support each other when it comes to taking holidays. There’s a very clear peak season for flying, so it’s easy to take a holiday without losing out. The downside is that I’m always working, always on. It’s a highly reactive game and I’ve found myself responding to pricing requests at all kinds of odd hours. And 14 hour days are not unheard of…”
How about spreading the word: how do you market Arcus?
“To be honest, we barely have to. We put our all into doing what we do and the bookings seem to look after themselves – it’s mainly word of mouth. We do share flight pics and snaps of new kit on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and have a growing list of followers: the benefit of being in a glamorous business, I guess.
How about payments? Have Paymentsense delivered?
Paymentsense made the effort to understand what we do and as a result, we signed up with them for both card and online payments. Funnily enough, WorldPay who were recommended by our bank, decided not to take our business because they felt there wasn’t enough turnover and we were too high a risk. Pity they didn’t ask about the charter and sales side which is much more lucrative! It comes back to the point I made earlier: never underestimate a customer.
What would you do for your business if there were a few extra hours in the day?
“Well I’d probably go flying, so nothing more than I’d do anyway. That’s the double edged sword of doing what you love. You never work a day in your life, but you also never really get to turn it off.”
What’s the idea behind the signed blades?
On the wall behind us are a series of helicopter blades, each dotted with red, blue and white signatures. David points to them and responds: “One of our ideas when we were dreaming up ways to celebrate our customers.” He shows us a framed gallery of smiling men and women next to the blades, Each one is holding a bottle of bubbly and beaming with pride. “If you pass any course with us, you get to sign here: it’s our own little hall of flying aces.”
Is the life of the skies as glamorous as we think it is? Have you flown anyone that would impress us?
Jamie smiles and responds. “Much as I would love to, I couldn’t possibly name any names as it would be quite unprofessional. But oh yes: very much so…”
Captains Ferrand and Marsland take off, leaving us to wonder.