Brothers and SMU alumni Stuart Edenfield ’07 and Curtis Edenfield ’09 envisioned a life of entrepreneurship after the Hilltop. After a decade of working for others in the world of aviation, they founded private jet charter company Thrive Aviation in 2018. Stuart serves as senior vice president of flight operations and Curtis is chief executive officer of the growing company. Thrive Aviation boasts more than 130 employees and a 21,000-square-foot, custom-built hangar at Harry Reid (formerly known as McCarran) International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Here they share the story of getting Thrive Aviation off the ground, and why family matters.
Thinking big and doing good
Stuart and Curtis aim to expand their Las Vegas-based business with planes spread across the entire country by 2025. They’re also planning to extend their philanthropic footprint through partnerships with multiple charitable organizations.
“It’s that old adage, ‘If you’re blessed, be a blessing,’” Curtis says.
The sentiment supports the two tenets the brothers set at the company’s founding: maintain profitability and make a difference in people’s lives.
“One thing about starting a business that you don’t realize is that when a company gets traction, you are changing other people’s lives,” Curtis explains. “There are difficult choices and decisions you have to make, and you are responsible for the livelihoods of the people you employ.”
Decisions have to be made quickly, especially when running a 24/7 operations center. Putting a solid team in place was critical. They are grateful to have found people who are “smarter than we are” and who approach situations with different perspectives.
“When someone is pouring their life’s work into a company that just started, that’s something that’s not lost on us,” Stuart says.
How it thrived
“It was this perfect storm,” Curtis says. “Stuart had been flying since 2012. I had been in aviation since 2012. We had put in the 10,000 hours that Malcom Gladwell refers to as the tipping point. We had all this stuff going and it tipped. And boom. We were able to capture it.”
In the wake of COVID-19, the private jet industry took off. Over the past 18 months, market demand expanded by 5% seemingly overnight with industry experts forecasting an additional 5% to potentially follow in the coming months, according to Stuart. That sort of increase would normally take more than a decade, he says.
“More people are flying private for the first time than ever before in history,” Stuart says.
In addition to changes in flying preferences due to COVID-19, technology has evolved to make it much easier to find and get private flights, he explains. With commercial airlines cutting back on less profitable flights, the scheduling flexibility of flying private appeals to more people.
For Thrive Aviation, the boom coincided with their successful rebrand, the completion of a shiny new hangar and expansion of their fleet.
Laying the groundwork
Early in their careers, the brothers knew they wanted to go into business together. They explored different ideas, but the direction and timing were not clear. Although they both loved to travel, a future aviation business venture was not top of mind even though they both landed in the field of aviation.
Stuart went to flight school a few years after graduating from SMU, deciding to take a break from finance after working through the 2008 economic crash. Curtis’ second job out of SMU was with Southwest Airlines, where he rose through the ranks in a multitude of departments and positions, learning everything he could about the air travel business.
When everything changed
While working as a flight instructor in Las Vegas, Stuart connected with a successful e-commerce businessman, who had just purchased his first jet – and would soon purchase four more. That changed everything.
Stuart identified inefficiencies in the charter management companies hired to keep the planes running and profitable. He envisioned a better business model, and collaborated with Curtis to flesh out a business plan and pitch deck. Their plan won over Stuart’s employer as a silent investor/third partner. Thrive Aviation was born.
Being laughed at didn’t stop them
Curtis relocated to Las Vegas from Dallas to get the company up and running. All they had left to obtain was an FAA certificate allowing them to operate their six-plane fleet.
“So, we called the FAA and they basically laughed at us,” Curtis says. “They said, ‘Las Vegas is the entertainment capital of the world. The Raiders are on their way here, and the Golden Knights are in the Stanley Cup. Everyone in the world wants a charter certificate in Vegas. Good luck. Get in line.”
Instead, the brothers got creative. After a lot of research, they acquired a company that already had a certificate.
“The stars aligned perfectly,” Curtis says. They found a small charter company that had only one plane and was grateful to be acquired. Three months later, in May 2018, they had their charter certificate and began marketing to customers.
Reflecting on the journey since then, Curtis says, “It’s grueling. It’s a family affair. It’s all in. This has been the hardest thing, but I love it the most.”
Curtis: We just came back from our first family trip since we moved to Las Vegas. It was to Maui, it was a real pinch me moment to be able to take my family on a trip like that. We didn’t do trips like that when I was a kid. For an easy and quick trip, I’d say a long weekend in Napa is always good for the soul.
Stuart: I enjoy flying into Aspen. I love the challenge of flying into one of the trickiest airports in North America. Jackson Hole, Wyoming: The Tetons, is a close second. Really, anywhere I can escape with my fiancé.
Each month, Thrive Aviation’s leadership team reads a book and each team member shares how it affected them. Here are a few of their favorites:
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil knight
- Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell