“Arkansas is where I developed my love for flying,” NJ says. “After my first lesson, I knew aviation was my calling.” He was dedicated to the craft, and he accumulated more than one thousand hours of flying time by the age of sixteen.
People would always ask NJ if he wanted to be a pilot, but he set his goals higher. He founded his own private aviation company, Nicholas Air, in 1997. “The idea was that I always wanted to own my own business, and I could see so many ways to make private air travel better,” he says.
His father lived The American Dream, and NJ learned a lot from watching his dad’s hard work turn into success. “He used to read parking meters and bus tables to pay his way through school,” says NJ. “After graduating college, he started as a construction manager for U.S. Steel, and over the next two decades he worked his way to the top and became the Chief Executive Officer of Nucor Steel.”
NJ's first customers were executives from SeverCorr, a company jointly founded by his late father, but that that didn't make starting his business any easier. “Getting started was hard. Lots of uncertainty and lots of lessons learned the hard way,” he says.
His lucky break came at an odd time—the Great Recession of 2008. Companies couldn’t afford to operate their jets anymore, and Nicholas Air became the affordable solution. “By 2009,” he says, “I felt like I really made it.”
Today, Nicholas Air serves more than 9,000 airports across the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean. He’s transformed the industry from a service into an experience. The safety and comfort of his clients is a priority, proven by the company’s accident-free record.
Though Nicholas Air’s clients include CEOs and celebrities, NJ’s debt of gratitude goes to the folks who help him keep things running. “Your employees are like an extension of your family,” he says, “so you are constantly looking out for them.”
These days, he’s looking out for people far beyond Nicholas Air. He’s invested in hotels, sporting goods, and golf courses. He owns part of the Mississippi custom denim company Blue Delta Jeans (to read Blue Delta's story, visit goodgritmag.com), as well as having ownership stakes in Big River Steel and Mississippi Silicon, both of which he assumed in 2015 when his father passed away. He works hard to give others the opportunity to work hard. “Job creation is very important. This is America, land of the free and great. The more jobs I create and the better my business is, the better the future I make for my children.”
His investments have made a big difference to small economies, like helping to create up to 1,200 indirect jobs. Many of these jobs are in Southern states, where technology has replaced factory workers year after year. “Job creation is important everywhere, but more so in rural areas. Some of the hardest working men and women come from rural areas,” NJ says. “Give them an opportunity and the tools needed, they will outwork and yield more results than any city boy or girl.”
NJ has spent his career giving people tools and opportunity. It’s what he feels like an entrepreneur should do. “When you own your own company, you don’t get to choose when you work. You can’t be selfish. All your time goes to your business and family.”
That is especially true for NJ, who arrives at the office no later than 6:00 each morning and is often the last to leave, when he is in town. He also spends more than half the year traveling. “I’m always going to different places meeting different people, whether it’s for aviation, steel, or blue jeans. Heck, I don’t even have time to work out!” he says.
When he does have a break, he likes to spend time at the lake with his mother, his wife, and his three children. “I sacrifice a lot of time away from my family,” he says. “Everything my parents did was for me, and everything I do is for my kids. Success isn’t just handed to you; it is something earned. Finding the right balance may be hard; I hope that one day my kids realize all that time away was ultimately to make a better future from them.”
Day to day, the lessons from his father stay in the back of his mind. “I’m always trying to do what my father would want me to do. I can’t just make that phone call for advice anymore.” The sacrificial love his father passed on has touched not only NJ’s family, but the communities in which he lives and works. It’s a gift that never stops giving back.