Jetsgo's Michel Leblanc
Last Updated September 5, 2006
Michel Leblanc (CP Photo/Ryan Remiorz)
Michel Leblanc has flown through life, parachuting into the cockpit of a new aviation business every few years – sometimes just before his previous business was ready to fall from the sky in flames.
His latest unsuccessful venture, Jetsgo, which ceased operations on March 11, 2005, was his seventh airline in 20 years. All of them are counted among the almost 30 airlines that have disappeared in Canada in less than 30 years.
Leblanc, now 58, grew up around airplanes, pumping gas at his father's flight school in Trois Rivières, Que. He flew solo for the first time at 16, and earned his private pilot's licence at 17 and his commercial licence at 18.
Michel Leblanc was just 30 when he and his siblings inherited the family business after his father died prematurely. But he credits his father more for teaching him the skills of business than of aviation.
He learned how to deal
"He taught me when to take the hard line, when to walk away, when to sell and convince," Leblanc said in a newspaper interview in April 2004. "He was a deal-maker, and a good deal-maker knows how to refuse and how to make deals."
Leblanc studied business at university and graduated with an MBA degree. He learned the importance of pinching pennies ("Cash is king in startups," he said) and of protecting his own wealth, even as he invests it carefully.
"An entrepreneur never takes risks," he told that newspaper interviewer. "You only get involved when in your mind there is no risk left."
In the 1970s, he was an aircraft salesman. By 1978, he co-owned a forest-spraying business in the Gaspé, which he grew into a fleet of 11 planes in several provinces.
In 1985, he became a partner in a new regional commuter airline, Nordair, which merged in 1987 with the troubled provincial carrier, Quebecair, to form Inter-Canadian.
From profit to loss
By 1990, Leblanc announced the company, by then called Intair, was profitable. He got out shortly afterward (he said the partnership had strategic differences), and by the end of the year Intair was losing millions of dollars and seeking bankruptcy protection.
The next year, Leblanc and a new partner launched Royal Aviation Inc., which rapidly grew from a small charter operation into a significant scheduled competitor of Air Canada.
Royal merged with its charter rival Canada 3000 early in 2001, and Leblanc, who became vice-chairman, pocketed shares worth $84 million. He was fired a few months later, and Canada 3000 sued him, alleging he had provided his partners with inaccurate financial information. The allegations were never proved in court, and before the end of the year Canada 3000 was gone, killed in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Leblanc liquidated most of his Canada 3000 shares before they ceased trading, which left him still a multi-millionaire.
Ever the optimist, he came back on his own in June 2002, starting up Jetsgo as the sole proprietor.
As a private company, Jetsgo never had to issue financial reports. Leblanc kept costs down with a few simple rules:
In March 2004, he found a new financial partner, when the Fidelity funds invested $25 million in Jetsgo. Many remained skeptical, and Fidelity hedged by investing even more money in Jetsgo's competitors, Westjet and Air Canada.
Leblanc kept a brave face. "We're operating a proper airline on a good financial basis," he told one newspaper just a few weeks before Jetsgo collapsed. "We're paying all our bills. We're paying our payroll. I'm not saying the market isn't difficult. That would be a lie. But we're holding our own in the market, and advanced booking sales are extremely strong."
In the end, the negative forces around him won the upper hand. But history would suggest the phoenix will rise again.