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Illustration of Thomas Flohr, founder, chairman and 100-per-cent owner of VistaJet. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Thomas Flohr, founder, chairman and 100-per-cent owner of VistaJet. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

VistaJet’s Thomas Flohr: A collector with a view from the clouds Add to ...

When Thomas Flohr became a Bombardier business jet customer, he wasn’t taken seriously by the Montreal aerospace giant. Blame his appearance: Long, straggly hair, blue jeans and T-shirt, as if he were a Silicon Valley smartass pitching a startup. On the first few planes he bought from Bombardier, the company balked at designing the cabin the way he wanted it.

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Today, almost a decade later, Bombardier Inc. worships Mr. Flohr and will do anything to keep their man happy. If he wants his sleek planes lined with the finest Italian wood trim and leather stitching, he gets it. That’s because he is now Bombardier’s biggest customer for business jets, an aviation mogul who keeps the production line buzzing even as the new C-Series passenger plane struggles to find buyers.

“In the early days, I wanted a consistent design. Bombardier didn’t listen much to me,” he says. “They said: ‘This guy’s got only three airplanes. He’s got this [design] obsession.’ Obviously today, as their largest client, they understand what I want.”

Mr. Flohr, 50ish (he declines to give his age), is the founder, chairman and 100 per cent owner of VistaJet, the operator of a global fleet of private jets that is emerging as a rival to Warren Buffett’s NetJets, although one with an entirely different business model.

By the end of 2013, VistaJet had 41 of Bombardier’s biggest and most expensive business jets – Globals and Challengers – in operation and the fleet is expanding by about 25 per cent a year. Its push into the United States, which was the big hole in its global market, should keep the growth momentum intact, at the risk of putting VistaJet in direct competition with NetJets.

Mr. Flohr collects modern art and his two passions are merging. A partnership with the graffiti artist Retna (real name Marquis Lewis), whose art is inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets, was dreamed up by Mr. Flohr’s daughter, Nina, who was once in charge of VistaJet’s marketing and branding. The result was a jet whose tailfin was splashed with a bold Retna design. Two other VistaJets feature works by British abstract painter Ian Davenport and American “Shadowman” artist Richard Hambleton, who is known as the “godfather of street art.”

Clever stunt: The decorated planes become minor runway celebrities wherever they land.

Mr. Flohr has expensive taste in food, too, and describes Italian cooking as his preferred relaxation therapy. But he is not taking me to an Italian restaurant in ultra-posh Mayfair, the London ’hood where VistaJet has an office that doubles as his private art gallery. We’re off to Nobu, the fantastically expensive Japanese restaurant that was co-founded by Robert De Niro and whose celebrity chef, Nobusan Matsuhisa, is a friend of Mr. Flohr. A bottle of water alone costs £6, or more than $10. It turns out that Nobu is one of VistaJet’s caterers.

Nobu is just off Berkeley Square and is packed with wealthy patrons, although the place has a casual, buzzy feel about it. Mr. Flohr doesn’t like small restaurant tables, so he had booked a table for four even though we were only three.

His marketing and publicity vice-president, Danielle Boudreau, who was snatched from Bombardier, joins us and she and I agree that Mr. Flohr, as a regular, should do the ordering. Barely consulting the menu, he calls for yellow tail tuna, Nova Scotia salmon, spicy seafood soup, black cod, toban yaki beef and sea bass shiso, all delicate and delicious.

He asks for a small bowl of deadly hot jalapeno green peppers and soaks them in soy sauce. I try one and my tongue nearly melts.

Mr. Flohr made headlines around the world when, on Nov. 26, 2012, he signed a hangar-busting, firm order for 56 Bombardier jets with a list price of $3-billion (U.S.). (As a big customer, VistaJet would have received a substantial discount). The order included 86 options valued at $5-billion, taking the total potential order to $8-billion.

“Pierre was over the moon,” he says, referring to Bombardier CEO Pierre Beaudoin, who feared that VistaJet would go with rival Gulfstream, which almost happened.

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