Sunday, November 22, 2020

In the early days of Groupon, Brad Downes (BBA04/MAc05) remembers the company as a “rocket ship.” It is no wonder he ended up at Boom Supersonic, a company who plans to send their bespoke aircraft around the globe at speeds twice as fast as today’s airlines.

Downes is vice president of finance at the Denver-based company that is reinventing the Concorde using modern technology. In just a few years, you will be able to fly from New York to London in just three and a half hours without any loud, gas guzzling afterburners.

Brad Downes in the Boom Supersonic hangar

“If you think about it, aerospace really hasn’t shifted dramatically since the advent of jet engines in the fifties,” Downes said. “Before that everybody was flying on propellers—a very slow way to travel.”

He is betting the shift to sustainable supersonic flight will be as big of a sea change. Especially since, unlike the Concorde that flew limited routes, Boom’s aircraft will fly more than 500 routes and be as affordable as business class.

Downes got to the top quickly in his career, but not before a false start in the health sciences in college. After he felt the pain of organic chemistry as a freshman, Downes became a student at Tippie and was tasked with choosing a major.

“Through discussions with professors and others, I realized that accounting is the language of business,” he said. “Graduating with an accounting degree positioned me so that I could pivot to other industries or disciplines like finance or investment banking.”

Overture aircraft cruising at 60,000 feet

While at Tippie, Downes took full advantage of opportunities offered at the college, including passing the CPA exams while he earned his Master of Accountancy and being part of the Hawkinson Institute, which helps students interested in careers in investment banking.

He credits Hawkinson Institute connections with landing his first interview and job with Lehman Brothers in New York and the Iowa accounting department for equipping him with the skills he needed to thrive.

“The accounting program at Iowa prepared me extremely well for my career path,” Downes said. “I was able to go toe-to-toe with my Ivy League colleagues at Lehman and really perform well.”

Downes cites Tom Carroll’s rigorous accounting theory course as crucial to his academic experience.

“Courses like Tom’s really helped me prepare for environments like Lehman Brothers, where there is a very high bar for output and delivery,” he said.

After two years at Lehman Brothers, he stayed in investment banking but moved to Chicago to work at Lazard Middle Market. (His college sweetheart, and now wife, Lauren (Hovick) Downes (BA07) was in graduate school at Northwestern at the time).

Boom Supersonic aircraft interior

By 2009, he started to see friends getting laid off because of the recession. Serendipitously, a colleague at Lazard had a badge to a conference that he could no longer attend. Downes used the badge and ended up meeting Andrew Mason, the CEO and founder of Groupon, a new startup looking for someone with experience in accounting and finance.

“I knew I didn’t want to be on the investment banking track for the rest of my life, so I asked myself, ‘When am I going to have the opportunity to be the first finance and accounting professional at a potentially high-growth technology business in Chicago?’ I thought to myself, ‘This opportunity is never going to come up again in my lifetime,’” Downes said.

The economic landscape, along with the unique opportunity, pushed him to make the jump from investment banking to the startup world and become employee number 28 at Groupon. He saw the company through their early years of exponential growth (into the billions in valuation). The days were long, but Downes was used to investment banking hours and remembers it as being “crazy,” “fun,” and “a phenomenal learning experience.”

Booom Supersonic aircraft being assembled in a hangar.

After Groupon, Downes worked at a couple of other start-ups and finally landed at Boom Supersonic, where he has been since March 2019. Downes had met the CEO of Boom Supersonic, Blake Scholl, when he was still at Groupon and had a great deal of respect for him. Eventually the timing was right.

“I love professional opportunities that provide a big challenge,” he said. “What Boom is setting out to do, which is essentially return supersonic flight to commercial aviation, is no small feat by any means. Specific to finance, the capital needs of the business are going to be well into the billions. For example, we are dealing with pieces of hardware that could cost $200 million. That in itself is quite attractive, having to try and figure out the right long-term capital strategy. I’m attracted to hard problems, love big bets, and  finding challenges within the finance function.”

Boom Supersonic aircraft banking with sunset in the background.

Like millions across the country—and world—Downes was working from home when we spoke to him this summer via Zoom. His day-to-day varies. Earlier this year, it was budgeting and forecasting and establishing the basis for financial reporting, but more recently shifted to preparing for a Series C of equity financing round.

“I think it was Winston Churchill that said, ‘Never waste a good crisis,’” Downes said. “There’s a lot of pain in the United States and the world right now and there’s so much uncertainty, but I think we can use it as a learning moment. We can ask ourselves, ‘Is there something I can change about the status quo? Maybe we can operate better as businesses? Can families and communities come together in a better way?’”

According to Downes, we can also learn about what consumers are going to want post-pandemic. At Boom Supersonic, that means embedding changes into their design. (Think air ventilation, cabin configuration, and antimicrobial surfaces).

Considering the massive downturn in commercial air travel, it is lucky that Boom Supersonic aircraft won’t hit the market for another five to ten years. Even as virtual meetings have become necessarily popular and normalized, Downes still feels there is a market for quick travel around the globe.

“There are some things either from a business front or personal front that you just can’t do on Zoom. You can’t go visit the Eiffel Tower. I don’t think multimillion-dollar sales are going to be done entirely over Zoom,” he said. “People are still going to want to have in-person connections and explore the world. We think the tailwinds are still going to exist.”


This article first appeared in the 2020 issue of Iowa Ledger