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NetJets Inc. is pressing ahead with plans to launch a corporate jet business in China, part of the turnaround plan that saw the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRKA, BRKB) unit deliver a 10% rise in pretax profits for 2011.
Columbus, Ohio-based NetJets is the world's largest provider of business jets, selling part-shares in planes and also renting them on a per-use basis, but the last economic downturn brought the company to the brink of collapse before a restructuring that has seen its fleet shrink by 20% over the past four years.
"A few years ago NetJets was my number one worry.... These problems are behind us," Berkshire Chairman Warren Buffett wrote in his annual letter to shareholders, published Saturday.
Buffett said NetJets saw an unexpected "uptick" in sales during December, though said it remained uncertain if this would be sustained, mirroring the still-murky outlook highlighted in recent weeks by the major business jet makers. It is also canceling some aircraft deals.
NetJets, which derives 80% of its revenue from North America and the balance from a Lisbon-based European joint venture, sought regulatory approval last year to launch an operation in China. That market remains small, in part because business-jet flying has been limited by the large tracts of airspace reserved for Chinese military flying and rapid commercial airline growth.
The China push was initially led by Jordan Hansell, who was last year elevated from president to become NetJet's chief executive after the unexpected departure of long-time Buffett lieutenant David Sokol in the wake of controversy over his share dealings in Lubrizol ahead of the chemical maker's acquisition by Berkshire Hathaway.
"NetJets is proceeding on a plan to enter China with some first-class partners, a move that will widen our business 'moat'," Buffett wrote in his annual letter. The Chinese partners have not been identified.
The company had said in the past it was aiming to launch a Chinese business by the end of this year and, having also considered an operation in India, last year dropped a franchise deal with a Saudi Arabian partner to serve the Middle East.
Though NetJets shrunk its fleet by around 10% last year, the company also placed its largest-ever order, an initial 50-plane order with Canada's Bombardier Inc. (BDRBF, BBD.B.T, BBD.A.T) worth $2.8 billion at list prices. It also took a further 70 options on the Global series jets, with first deliveries set for the end of this year.
Berkshire Hathaway also revealed that NetJet's 2011 earnings were reduced by charges related to the planned sale of some planes and fees related to the cancellation of unspecified aircraft purchases. NetJets' other big order aside from Bombardier was with Brazil's Embraer S.A. (ERJ, EMBR3.BR).
NetJets' pre-tax profits rose to $227 million last year, building on the momentum of the recovery after its $711 million loss in 2009.
-By Doug Cameron, Dow Jones Newswires; 312-750-4135; firstname.lastname@example.org