Businessman, aircraft owner, and legendary basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson kickstarted NBAA-BACE 2019 in celebratory, championship-style at Tuesday morning’s keynote presentation, which also featured pioneering internet entrepreneur Sky Dayton and aircraft developer Gamebird Composites founder Steuart Walton. The gala opening ceremony set the tone of what promises to be “the most exciting convention the NBAA has ever hosted,” as NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen proclaimed in his welcoming remarks.
“Good things are happening, and you’re a part of it,” Bolen told attendees, pointing to urban air mobility vehicles, sustainable fuel initiatives, and the new aircraft coming to market—all on display at the Las Vegas gathering.
Bolen then invited technology entrepreneur, pilot, and Phenom 300 owner Sky Dayton, founder of pioneering internet access providers Earthlink and Boingo, to join him for a discussion about the integration of aircraft and technology.
“I apologize for making the internet so ubiquitous,” Dayton half-joked in his opening remarks. But noting he has three daughters, he said, “Every time we’ve made it easier to communicate, civilization moves forward, making it possible for more people to have a voice.”
An investor in eVTOL pioneer Joby Aviation, Dayton believes such vehicles are close to commercial application. “About four years ago, I thought we were 10 to 15 years away,” he said. “I think it’s three to four years now.”
A new Gamebird aerobatic aircraft flanked one side of the stage, and Steuart Walton, founder and chairman of its developer, Gamebird Composites, recalled in his presentation how his grandfather used private aviation to build the Walmart empire, scouting locations and dropping in on stores. He also recounted recent efforts to increase community interest in private aviation at Arkansas’ Bentonville Airport, where his company aims to develop “a world-class aviation company fueled by passion.”
When Bolen brought Johnson to the podium, he quickly dismounted the stage to roam the floor and interact with the front-row audience as he talked about his career and the key role business aviation has played in his post-basketball life. “When I first got started playing basketball, we had to fly commercial,” he said, recounting the wear and stress that put on a team trying to compete. “I’m still surprised we won over 65 games a year.”
After basketball, “I reinvented myself,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be a businessman. My partners had these incredible airplanes,” and he wanted one of his own. His first venture was opening Starbucks franchises in minority communities.
“The headlines were, ‘No way minorities are paying three dollars for a cup of coffee,” Johnson said, but he felt otherwise. “African Americans have $1.5 trillion spending power, and Latinos have another $1.5 trillion in disposable income, so that’s $3 trillion no one was going after. We had no competition.”
While his customers liked the coffee, scones were foreign to the community, so he offered sweet potato pie and other ethnic favorites instead. He also changed the in-store music mix. “I had to take out Aerosmith and put in Earth, Wind and Fire. I know my customer,” he said.
Johnson and his partners eventually opened 125 Starbucks franchises in 40 cities, and when the group sold them, “I had the money to buy my aircraft.”
“Clay,” he said, seeing Clay Lacy in the audience, whose company has managed his aircraft since, “Remember when I bought my GIII, I asked if you had a spot for me?” Lacy happily acknowledged.
“It’s put years on my life,” he said. “I’m on the road 200 days a year. I accomplish things I could never accomplish.”
Turning to domestic issues, he talked of his wife asking him to play basketball with his daughter and his inability to squelch the competitive spirit that served him so well on the court and in business. He called a diminutive woman from her seat to commiserate. “I let her get nine points, and then I crushed her,” he said to the woman, adding, “I’d let you get to 9½.” When Bolen informed Johnson the woman was herself a hall of famer —aviation training video pioneer Martha King, recently inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame with husband John—Johnson had them both join him for a group photo.
Johnson is now in “the infrastructure business,” having won contracts to help refurbish Denver International, LaGuardia, and John F. Kennedy International airports. “I want to continue to own my aircraft,” he said. “I might get a bigger aircraft—I look at my wife [and she says], ‘Yeah, you should.’ I’m just happy to be part of this industry, and thank you for taking care of people like myself.”
With that, Bolen declared, “NBAA 2019 is officially open,” and attendees streamed out to become part of business aviation’s greatest annual gathering.