“What year did we snatch the president of the Congo’s airplane?” Nick Popovich asks. Outside, chilly rain soaks the pastures of his rolling Indiana country estate. From a pond with a gushing fountain, waterfowl honk faintly.
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An assistant rifles through records as Popovich assures me cheerfully, “We're not going back to central Africa soon. There’s still a death warrant out for me.”
Driving to Valparaiso on a two-lane blacktop, I saw only a sign with the name of Popovich’s horse farm. But once I turned off the road, drove up the driveway, and entered this opulent ranch-style residence, I found a global operation ticking with the stealthy clockwork of a CIA front. From these headquarters, Popovich plots to repossess some of the world’s largest aircraft. If you’ve been leasing a $150 million jumbo jet and missed a few payments recently, you might want to glance outside and make sure it’s still there.
Popovich once flew everything from DC-8s to a Braniff Airways 747. Looking at this intense, bearded man, who favors loose-fitting flowered shirts, I had a hard time picturing him in a blue suit with braid on the sleeves, filing flight plans at a corporate hub. “I felt like a bus driver,” he says. Offered a share in a Caribbean startup, he bailed on the big airlines and plunged into the shark tank of small charter ops. Some requisite financial wrangling left him owing a favor to a U.S. bank. One day in 1979, the bankers called to collect: A Sri Lankan airline was in default on two 747s, and the banker asked Popovich to bring them home.
He recruited some pilot friends and ad-libbed a grab of the colossal aircraft. Afterward, the banker advised him that for his next repo, he should charge three times as much. Popovich never looked back. He formed Sage-Popovich, Inc. (Sage is the surname of his now-ex wife), and the company has gone on to seize more than 1,200 airliners. “When times are bad,” Popovich says, “it’s good for us.”
The company is brought in when the dunning has run its course—the bank has sent all the official warnings, and the airline has been through the default process. It’s surprising how commonly airliners get behind the eight ball, says Al Nigro. For 25 years Nigro managed leasing and financing of commercial aircraft at institutions like Bank of America and Deutsche Bank; he used to hire Popovich, and now he works for him as his vice president. “If an airline has a weak summer travel season,” says Nigro, “you can pretty well predict they’re going to struggle through the winter and may fall behind on their payments.” Maybe a new competitor is sapping market share, or a plane-buying binge has left a carrier with a fiscal morning-after. On the other hand, he adds, “Some of them are just downright crooks. Just because the airplane is physically big, that doesn’t mean the company that’s leasing it is big—or particularly honest.”
Sage-Popovich carries out about 50 recoveries a year, some of multiple aircraft. The most common target are Boeing 737s, but Popovich and his team retrieve everything from 747s to luxury executive jets. Chasing smaller stuff—the “tinker toys”—isn’t cost-efficient for an operation that keeps as many as 60 people in the field at a time.
An airline’s financial failure is messy, dragging down livelihoods and futures. Individual pilots and mechanics idled by a repo do get Popovich’s sympathy (and sometimes offers of temporary employment). But he also says: “It’s just business. It’s just a financial situation.” He and his team scheme airliner repossessions with cool calculation around a glossy mahogany conference table.
When banks hire the company, they don’t delve too deeply into how the job will be executed. “Not that we would ever do anything illegal,” Popovich says, “but they’d just rather not know how we did it. The rule is ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell—just get our airplane back.’ ”
Jennifer Barlow, the company’s project planner, masterminds a repossession’s complex logistics. There are conference calls with banks and insurers and opinions from lawyers. Then, Barlow says firmly, “We decide what needs to be done.” She does not mean putting a strongly worded reminder in the mail.