Get Your Career off the Ground in Ireland’s Growing Aviation Finance Industry

Fiona Stinson interviews David Swan, COO of SMBC Aviation Capital, one of the largest aircraft leasing companies in the world. He is also Chair of Aircraft Leasing Ireland, a new body established to deliver a coordinated voice for the industry.

While aircraft leasing is an extremely successful industry in Ireland, it’s perhaps less well known among students than the traditional financial services sectors. Can you provide a bit of background on the industry and how Ireland came to be the global hub for aircraft leasing?
Global air travel is steadily increasing at about 5% annually and there are two options for airlines looking to expand their fleet of aircraft: either they can borrow money to buy aircraft directly from Boeing or Airbus or they can lease from a company like ours. Aircraft leasing has been growing since the 1980s and now almost half of all commercial aircraft are leased rather than owned. Of those, the majority are managed from Ireland. To give you a sense of the scale, 130 billion dollars’ worth of aircraft are produced every year, so it’s a huge global financial business and Ireland is the world leader. The reason for Ireland’s success dates back to the 1970s when GPA, the first aircraft leasing company, was set up in Shannon by Tony Ryan (who went on to establish Ryanair). Many of the people behind today’s highly successful Irish-based leasing companies learned their trade with GPA and Ireland now has an exceptional depth of knowledge, experience and professional skill base in the sector. A hugely successful ecosystem has built up to support the industry in law firms like McCann FitzGerald and A&L Goodbody, accountancy firms like KPMG and PwC and aircraft maintenance firms that you see around Dublin Airport. The industry now supports thousands of jobs, directly and indirectly, many of which are high value jobs.
What attracted you to aircraft leasing in the first place?
I hadn’t really heard of aircraft leasing when I was in college and fell into it by accident. I went to Trinity – “BESS” was then called “ESS” so you can imagine that was a long time ago. When I graduated, I started off working in what is now KBC Bank and I was assigned to the aerospace finance department. We were primarily dealing with lending to airlines to buy aircraft and I loved the challenge from the get-go. It seemed a lot more exciting than my friends who were working in regular banks or in accountancy. I was keen to work overseas and moving to work in Hong Kong aged 26 was one of the best things I ever did. We really encourage our graduates to work abroad for a while in one of our other offices; it’s a great career move because it really broadens your perspective. I moved home for a promotion five years later, but in 2002 I was asked to move to a new aircraft leasing company, SMBC Aviation Capital and I have been here ever since. The business has been growing steadily since then, so it has been a very exciting and interesting journey.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Initially I loved doing deals, winning deals all over the world gives you an adrenaline rush. Now, as COO, a lot of my job revolves around working with people, both internally and externally. My job involves finding the right team, developing them and making sure that the company is heading in the right direction. Because this is a high growth sector and we have been making good profits, the industry is getting increasingly competitive so having a good track record, good relationships and the best people from diverse backgrounds is very important. In this industry, you aren’t pigeon-holed into one specific area. We have lots of teams, so you can be involved in different areas like financial analysis, strategy, negotiating leases and aircraft sales or raising money in the bond markets. Most importantly you can be the deal-doer and the decision maker.
You touched on the importance of diversity among your employees, what do you look for in candidates when recruiting?
We try not to have a pre-defined, ideal candidate, because we want a diverse team across the board whether that is in gender, nationality or attitude; so we don’t require applicants to have studied a particular course in college. We are looking for smart people with a good personality, a can-do attitude and an open mind. We like to see applicants showing a hunger for the job and a drive to succeed. Energy, enthusiasm and ambition – you don’t necessarily learn those things in college. In an interview, make sure you can tell stories about yourself that display how you show these characteristics. We want breadth of ability, individuals who have a spark, bring new ideas to the table and use their initiative. We’re a growing company in a dynamic sector, so it is a great environment for graduates in which to develop and succeed.
You recently helped to establish Aircraft Leasing Ireland (ALI), a representative body to help Ireland retain its number one position in the aircraft leasing industry. What do you think Ireland needs to do to maintain its leadership status?
It’s great that Ireland is the global leader in this sector, but we can’t be complacent. There are a couple of reasons why Ireland is number one; we have the best treaty network around the world, we have a great support infrastructure of well-educated people and we have a great partnership with Government. These things need to be maximised because of competition from other hubs in Asia, like Singapore and Hong Kong. We are working with Government to keep expanding treaties to maintain our competitive dynamics. We are also working to expand the number of specific aircraft leasing education programmes to keep Ireland the best place in the world to base yourself if you are a global leasing company. Very few global businesses have their HQ in Ireland; the big decisions are often made in London, New York or Palo Alto. In this business, however, the big decisions are made in Ireland because the senior management are based here. You don’t have to go to London or New York to advance your career. You can have a highly sought after job, making multi-billion dollar decisions on your doorstep.

Applications for SMBC Aviation Capital’s graduate programme are open from October 1st to November 4th. To apply, please visit