Jamail Larkins was just your average Taekwondo-practicing, track-running, 15-year-old student at Evans High School when he decided to start a company to finance his other hobby: flying airplanes. Larkins, who took his first flying lesson when he was 12, was immediately hooked. At 14, he petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to get an exemption to fly solo before his 16th birthday. When the agency wouldn't budge, he wrote to more than 100 companies asking them to sponsor his trip to Canada, where the age limit was a few years younger.
Once Larkins got back from Canada—courtesy of Shell Oil and Cirrus Designs—his reputation as a wunderkind, in an industry that's not exactly fertile ground for child prodigies, preceded him. Larkins met John and Martha King, owners of the King School, a company that sells flight training products. He told them he was looking for a way to help pay for the cost of getting his pilot's license. They suggested that he become one of their distributors.
Larkins started by selling King School books and videos in-person at his local airport in Augusta, Georgia, and then online. To diversify his offerings, Larkins picked up a distributorship with Gulf Coast Avionics, which sold electronic equipment used for in-flight navigation and communication. Sales took off from there.
On occasion, his business life butted up against his other responsibilities. One of Larkins' customers also worked as a substitute teacher at his high school. "She literally pulled me out of social studies class my junior year just to finish completing an order form," says Larkins. "In
stead of selling cookies for a school fundraiser, I was signing papers for a $3,000 GPS system."
Larkins claims all that overachieving didn't hamper his social life—or his ability to be a normal kid. "There were Saturday afternoons where you'd see me sitting on the couch watching TV," he says. "I just may have my laptop out while I'm doing it."
Like serial entrepreneurs of all ages, however, one business had a way of leading to another. In 2000, the FAA named Larkins the national spokesman for its Young Eagles program. People approached him for advice on aviation marketing and working with agencies like the FAA. So he set up a consulting company called Larkins Enterprises, working on projects at night and on weekends.
In college, Larkins took an even bigger leap. A friend of a friend asked for tips about buying his first jet. Larkins called up Arnold Leonora, a commercial aviation broker for help. Leonora told Larkins, "There's a couple ways we could do this. I could get one of my guys to do this or I could show you what it's like and see if you have any interest in it." Naturally, Larkins chose the latter.
In 2006, Leonora and Larkins formed a 50-50 partnership called Ascension Aircraft, as a subsidiary of Larkins Enterprises. Where most brokers dealt with higher-margin commercial aircraft, Ascension specialized in general aviation—everything from four-seat piston-powered airplanes to medium-sized corporate jets.
Climbing the corporate ladder when your first gray hair is still a couple decades away had its perils. "When you show up at a conference room table to try to close a $4.1 million aircraft transaction, sometimes people look over your shoulder to see if anybody else is walking into the room," Larkins says. But he took their reaction in stride, confident in his own abilities. "In those situations it's kind of fun to sit back and enjoy the looks on people's faces."
Ascension expanded from buying and selling into leasing, and within a year became the main revenue-generating arm of Larkins Enterprises. In 2007, the company had record earnings of $7.6 million. Then, in 2008, as the capital markets constricted, revenue suddenly dropped 20 percent. "It wasn't that we didn't have interest from people wanting to buy stuff, " Larkin says. "It was getting our clients financed. That was the most difficult thing I've ever faced." Larkins started wondering whether he needed to look at a different aircraft category or sell overseas to maintain growth.
In February, as he contemplated his next step, one of Larkins' clients was forced to declare bankruptcy. The client's bank asked Larkins for help in reselling the now-distressed assets. After that transaction went smoothly, Ascension started taking on more work from banks in the same position, in some cases purchasing the aircraft and refurbishing it for Ascension's own leasing portfolio.
"One of the great things about it is that even in hard economic times like today, investment in an aircraft is backed-up by hard-asset collateral that's marketable on a relatively quick basis," Larkins says. "It's been keeping me busy. But at the same time, we've been able to get contracts on getting those assets re-leased or sold and still making money off of it."
Watch Larkins Enterprises and Ascension Aircraft's video clip