There’s something unsettling about sitting in a $9 million private business jet in the People’s Republic of China, taking in the soft scent of leather and enjoying the plush carpeting and burled wood, while outside on the ramp a young officer of the People’s Liberation Army is staring at the aircraft with a look on his face that seems to alternate between awe and disdain. The jet, a newly minted Cessna Citation Excel, is Chinese owned and registered, one of only two private bizjets in a country where per capita income is $780 a year and general aviation, as we in the West know it, does not exist.
Chinese television reporters are lining up this November afternoon to get a peek inside while the Excel is on display at China Airshow 2000, taking place at the Zhu Hai city airport, on China’s southern coast. (Sukhoi fighters are flying aerobatics over the runway. The reporters will queue up later for them; the private jet is the real news.) A crowd has gathered just outside the cordon surrounding the jet, an all-white beauty painted along the fuselage with festive ribbons of red, blue, and green, above which is written, in both Mandarin and English, “Broad Air Conditioning,” the name of the Chinese company that owns the jet. But Broad Air Conditioning’s jet isn’t on view for long. Less than 24 hours after arriving at the airshow, which will continue for three days, the crew is preparing to leave. The reporters get out as the PLA officer disperses the crowd and the cordon is removed.
That’s Rod Davis, the burly American pilot who ferried the Excel from the Cessna factory in Wichita, Kansas, and who’s back in the cockpit, ready to go. He’s president of Pilot International, Inc., an aircraft delivery service, and he’s got a job to finish—flying the Excel to Changsha, its new home, some 550 miles southwest of Shanghai. Zhang Yue and his brother Jian, CEO and president, respectively, of Broad Air Conditioning, were happy to let their new acquisition make an appearance at the airshow before coming to company headquarters in Changsha, where a young Mao Zedong once worked as a headmaster. Now they’d like to take possession.
A little commotion ensues among the four Broad employees who are on board. Their English isn’t very good, their knowledge of aviation jargon worse. (They’re part of Broad’s marketing division, and the company’s clients are almost exclusively Chinese businessmen.) But they’re extremely attentive and helpful, not to mention dressed in smart blue suits, and one of them not only deduces what chocks are but also finds them, already pulled and stowed in the back of the aircraft.
“That’s all I wanted to know,” Davis says. The door closes; everyone straps into the cabin seats (six seats total, plus a spiffy bench for two behind the forward bulkhead). In moments the Excel is taxiing past big Ilyushin transports, a whale of an Antonov cargo aircraft, various pieces of military hardware, and throngs of people. Takeoff is a smooth affair, Davis switching his focus back and forth from the controls to the Chinese copilot, who’s perusing Cessna manuals. Davis levels off at 20,000 feet—not his desired altitude. “We burn a lot more fuel down here,” he says, “but air traffic control…” He shakes his head. In the cabin, one of the company employees, a woman maybe in her 20s, passes out bags of Rold Gold pretzels and bottles of Evian water.
Broad Air Conditioning opened for business in 1988, when younger brother Jian, an engineer, developed (and later patented) an industrial-use air conditioning system. His timing couldn’t have been much better. It had been 10 years since Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, recognizing that China’s socialist economy had stagnated, had begun steering the country toward a market economy. Deng relaxed laws against accumulating personal wealth, billboards sprang up proclaiming “It is glorious to be rich,” and slowly the communist government adopted new regulations, establishing property rights and corporate codes.
The cultural and economic changes begun 25 years ago accelerated in the last decade, and a new class of entrepreneurs began acquiring and renovating facilities previously owned by the state. In fact, Chinese government figures show that over the last five years the state has trimmed employment rolls by almost 25 percent—typically by selling a state-owned facility to the worker who had been managing it. Most of the buildings needed modernizing; few were air-conditioned. The Zhang brothers were ready to air-condition them.
Broad quickly established itself as the country’s leading supplier of industrial AC. (The company now claims 3,000 clients, or roughly 80 percent of the Chinese market.) But China’s sheer size—at 3.7 million square miles, about the same size as the United States—and the fact that many more potential clients were located in remote locations posed a challenge to the Zhangs’ expansion. Since the bosses themselves—the people who could say yes to buying an air conditioning unit—were too busy running their own businesses, they often sent assistants on the laborious journey to Changsha to scout out the product and report back. Working against the Zhangs were time, distance, and a certain lack of purchasing authority.