The minister had provided a limousine service to drive Bergin to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The meeting quickly went south when it became clear the government official wasn’t equipped to care for the expensive jets he wanted to lease from GECAS, the owner of one of the largest commercial aircraft fleets in the world. “We told him, ‘These can’t be maintained the same [way] as a Russian aircraft,’ but he insisted he would manage,” Bergin recalls. When Bergin asked the minister to prove his team had the expertise to care for the planes, the minister abruptly ended the meeting.
Then he told Bergin and his interpreter to find their own way out of the city where the civilian airport was temporarily closed. “We didn’t know if he was serious at first,” Bergin says.
The minister finally relented — a little. He loaned them a Russian-style army jeep with a canvas top and a driver. Wrapped up in overcoats, they spent the next six hours riding back across the frozen Tien Shan mountains to Almaty. “We weren’t really prepared for that,” Bergin says.
Bergin, now 60 and working a more comfortable job as senior vice president of marketing at GECAS, started his career in the aviation industry in September 1972, when he won an apprenticeship in aircraft maintenance at the Irish national carrier Aer Lingus in Dublin at the age of 15. “I grew up on a small farm in Ireland, and my parents didn’t have the ability to send me to college,” Bergin says. “I wanted off the farm, so the apprenticeship sounded good to me.”
He spent much of his time in hangars overhauling aircraft and engines. But Bergin realized his childhood on the farm made him dislike being indoors all the time. He also had a bit of wanderlust. So, he jumped at the chance to move over to Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA), a leasing company that had recently been set up by Dr. Tony Ryan (also founder of Ryanair) with Aer Lingus, among others. “I joined as a program manager, and within a week, I was in Singapore buying an engine,” he says. “You had to learn everything by the seat your pants.”
Bergin spent two years in Singapore, overseeing leasing agreements there and throughout Asia, including in the Philippines, Cambodia and Thailand. On behalf of GPA, Bergin had to provide not only aircraft, but also the crew, maintenance personnel and insurance to cover the planes. “Asia was one of my favorite places,” he says, noting that his two sons were born in Singapore.
As his scope extended to Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Russia, he often found himself chasing history. “One of my first trips to Zimbabwe was just as Robert Mugabe had taken power, and you could see the country was slowly grinding to a halt,” Bergin says. The locals all complained about the lack of imported goods, and the buses, cars and bicycles all ran on bald tires. On a trip to Russia soon after the USSR collapsed, Bergin’s interpreter was thrilled to get out of Moscow and into a more rural area of the country. When they arrived, she stepped away from the job to fill her bags with meat and vegetables to bring home to her family. “It was total chaos back then, with severe food shortages in the cities,” Bergin says.
When GPA merged with GE in 1993, Bergin stayed on with the company, eventually running Shannon Engine, a joint venture between GE and French aircraft engine company Safran, running the JV’s engine leasing business (SES). After five years, Bergin moved back over to GECAS with responsibility for selling the company’s older aircraft. In most cases, smaller airlines or new leasing companies in emerging markets bought the planes.
These days, Bergin is responsible for sales and marketing of GECAS Cargo aircraft program, where GECAS stock aircraft like Boeing’s 737, 767 and 747 planes are converted to cargo freighters. This extends the life of the aircraft and extracts maximum value for GECAS assets.
In his spare time, Bergin supports the running of a school in Zambia with his family and a newly established charity called Propel Education. It’s his way of giving back to a country he grew to love over his career.
The opportunity to travel has been exhilarating for a kid from a small Irish farm, Bergin says. “The best thing has been learning about so many different cultures by getting to know the people I worked with in all those countries,” he says. “It’s been fantastic.”