Building a Solid Foundation
October 22, 2013 By Paul Dixon
Blackcomb Aviation is the little acorn that is well on its way to becoming the mighty oak.
Blackcomb Aviation is the little acorn that is well on its way to becoming the mighty oak. As economic confidence returns to the business sectors that aviation supports, Blackcomb is poised to grow ahead of the curve by adhering to a corporate culture based on an unswerving dedication to safety and customer service, seasoned with a liberal dash of Texas blues.
|Maintaining hundreds of kilometres of B.C.’s hydroelectric infrastructure represents a key area of expansion for Blackcomb. (Photo by Andrew Bradley)
Blackcomb Aviation is a partnership between John Morris and the McLean Group, a Vancouver-based family business with interests in commercial real estate, construction, communications and a significant position in Vancouver’s Hollywood North with Vancouver Film Studios. As confidence in the economy recovers, Blackcomb is poised for growth, leveraging its strong performance history with savvy leadership.
Morris started flying with Okanagan Helicopters in the mid-1970s and then, in his own words worked “all over the place” doing a little bit of everything. In the late ’80s, Fletcher Challenge (then a major player in B.C.’s forestry sector) needed someone with a multi-engine, rotary-wing background to run its in-house aviation program. It was a dream job for Morris.
“I flew a Jet Ranger, the 222, the Beaver, the Falcon 20 – it was fantastic!” he says. By the mid-’90s, Morris was the both operations manager and director of flight ops and then the bottom fell out of the global market for pulp and paper. The immediate impact for Morris was that as Fletcher Challenge struggled to stay afloat, the company started shedding non-core business elements, and aviation was one of the first to go. Directed to sell off the corporate aircraft, he went home and thought about his situation.
“I talked to my wife about remortgaging the house again and the rest is history,” he says. “With two helicopters and five people, we launched Omega Aviation. Later that year, we acquired a third helicopter and it just sort of grew from there. My relationship with the McLeans started when I met Sacha McLean.”
|Blackcomb’s daily operating environment presents some of the most challenging flying conditions in the world.
(Photo by Steve Gray)
McLean recalls being introduced to Morris by a common friend who thought they might hit it off. “That friend was absolutely right,” McLean says. “John is a bright guy, a serious aviation professional – I mean, how many guys do you know who have dual airline transport ratings in helicopters and planes with a lot of experience in both? It’s absolutely unheard of. So, we got along like a house on fire.”
Staff at Vancouver Film Studios had been lobbying McLean to buy a twin-engine helicopter specifically for the film business. The studio complied by buying a Twin Star, then leasing it to Omega to operate and that’s where the operation began. The relationship bloomed into a partnership several years later when the opportunity arose for Morris to acquire Blackcomb Helicopters from founder Steve Flynn.
Looking at the proposition more closely, Morris realized this would more than double the size of the existing Omega. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to jump in without the requisite background, so I approached the McLean family with the idea that if they wanted to get a little further into the aviation business, this was the opportunity,” Morris says. The McLean Group had been very aware of Blackcomb Helicopters for a number of years. As McLean notes: “We liked what Steve Flynn had done, we liked the brand, we liked the positioning and we liked the diversity of the customer base, so we jumped at the chance.”
Shortly thereafter, Goldwing Helicopters of Sechelt, B.C. was acquired, and the three entities were merged as the new Blackcomb Aviation – a very deliberate decision to capitalize on the strong name recognition.
Jonathan Burke joined the company in February of this year as president/chief operating officer (COO). A self-described aviation nerd, Burke flew helicopters in B.C.’s forestry sector for 11 years before marriage and family commitments gave him cause to rethink his direction in life. In 1998, he moved into the venture capital sector and earned his MBA.
In Morris’ opinion, Burke brings precisely the right tools to the Blackcomb mix. “He’s a professional manager, he knows how to manage a company, he knows how to allocate resources, he knows how to set goals and how to get them done and how to measure what we’ve done,” Morris says. “I’m not that guy, I’m an ops guy. He’s been an ops guy, but now he can speak to both sides. Our company is made up of pretty cool pieces, because my partners (the McLeans) are serial entrepreneurs, I’m the check and balance on the ops side, and Jonathan is a professional manager.”
McLean recalls when he knew Jonathan Burke was the right man to add to the team. “When we met him, John Morris and the four McLeans were on the search committee. When we interviewed him, we knew right then and there he was the right guy. He’s been in place since February and he’s done things already that I’m the first to admit that I couldn’t have done,” McLean says. “I’m an entrepreneur, not an operator. He’s an operator, he’s a through and through operator. He has the respect of our people – he’s developed a strategic plan. You can feel the excitement around the place. He brought with him a very unique background. How often do you come across a logging pilot with an MBA?”
From his perspective, Burke describes Blackcomb as a phenomenal company with a top-notch group of people who provide a sound foundation for growth. “We’ve got the managed aircraft business here in Vancouver, the fixed-base rotary operations up and down the Sea-to-Sky corridor and then we’re moving into the rotary-wing utility construction and maintenance where we are going out and repairing or building new power lines,” Burke says. “So, we’re preparing three areas for growth, which is more than just saying, OK, we’re going to grow. It means putting the systems and processes in place, with the right people in the right positions to handle that growth.”
From Burke’s perspective, the pitfall for many small or medium-sized companies that seek to expand is that they are not able to transition their business practices, such as accounting and human resources to handle the transactional volume of an enlarged business.
From the very beginning, Morris built his company on three words – safety, respect and value – SRV or the mnemonic Stevie Ray Vaughn. “We’ve got these three words,” Morris says. “Safety is a cultural thing. It’s ongoing: the buy-in process never stops. The respect proposition is very simple. Respect for the people, respect for the equipment, respect for the employees, respect for the customers, respect for peers and your subordinates.
“The other one is value and when I come back to that value proposition, one of the things I always talk about with our customer is, with that value proposition comes the maturity and level of respect, the maturity of our safety systems and our training and that’s what you’re paying for. That’s the world we operate in.”
Hiring the right people is also a key for Morris. “You can have the best pilot on the planet, but if he doesn’t get along with his co-workers and he doesn’t get along with the customer and it’s a constant battle, then he doesn’t fit into the respect component here very well,” he says.
An Electrifying Environment
Driving the 160 kilometres from Vancouver to Blackcomb’s rotary-wing maintenance base in Pemberton, B.C., gives the casual observer an introduction to the world that Blackcomb operates in every day. Postcard beauty and some of the most challenging flying conditions in the world are Blackcomb’s daily operating environment. The ski resort at Whistler is the largest in North America and Blackcomb supports the resort’s mountain operations as well as medevac services to the ski patrol.
|Blackcomb AMEs in the shop at Pemberton. (Left to right) Nelson Hsiao, Tom Ralphs (production manager), Ryulho Lee, Mike Meloshinsky, Ryan Zant (chief engineer), Steven Denomme, Terry Irvine (director of maintenance), Ian Jardine.
(Photo by Paul Dixon)
The mountains attract outdoor enthusiasts from around the world year round and Blackcomb provides helicopter support to Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton search and rescue teams. High voltage transmission lines dominate much of the road between Squamish and Pemberton, underscoring the fact that 99 per cent of B.C.’s electricity is hydro-generated hundreds of kilometres from the market. Along the route, the highest peaks are topped with cell towers and microwave relays. Like so much of the infrastructure in North America, the high-voltage transmission system is aging, requiring more frequent inspections, maintenance and new construction.
Burke points to hydro infrastructure as a key area of expansion for Blackcomb. “All of these major grids that supply electricity to utilities were built about the same time and they are aging out. They’re all starting to age at the same time,” he says. “No utility is immune from not having invested enough to keep their network up to date and now they are all playing a bit of catchup. So, the amount of investment going into new construction or upgrades is just phenomenal right now, the rotary-wing roving utility support and construction business. We’re investing very heavily in modern, sophisticated, twin-engine helicopters to do the work.
“What we did with BC Hydro last year with human external transport, was getting the aircraft a hundred feet above the power lines and placing crews on the lines to do spacer-damper changes. [What this means is] you are eliminating multiple layers of risk, you are taking the helicopter further away from the lines . . . so you are getting the aircraft removed from the lines, you’re getting much more precision placement of the employees where they need to do the work. It was a much more efficient, very, very quick way to get their people on and off the lines as opposed to coming in with a platform of some type or doing touch and goes off the towers. We did prove that through methodology, a new system with twin-engine helicopters would actually increase efficiency by getting crews on and off the lines. We intend to keep our people safe and we don’t see any reason why customers shouldn’t consider paying for a second engine in areas where you are putting helicopters within the height-velocity curve and challenging environments.”
Andrew Bradley, Blackcomb’s vice-president of operations, underscores the importance of hydro work, pointing out that while there is currently one AS355N dedicated to hydro work out of Squamish and Sechelt, there is so much more to this market segment.
“We have a second 355N and two Twin Stars that we use to support the utility market, not just hydro, but all their subcontractors as well,” Bradley says. “There is a lot of local base work out of here (Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton, Sechelt). We support forestry out of here as well as communications companies and mining companies. They can be as close as Gold Bridge or Bralorne, but we also did a huge job up in Nunavut last year.” At the height of the summer, there were two aircraft off on firefighting duties as well.
Blackcomb’s footprint in the industry is not all-traditional blue-collar work, though – not by a long shot. Whistler and its sister mountain Blackcomb form North America’s largest ski resort. Heli-skiing is a big draw throughout the winter and continues through most summers with glacier skiing and mountain tours in the summer. Mountain-top weddings can be arranged and the highlight of this summer was transporting 120 visitors to a reception on a glacier. The exercise, which took all day, involved lifting in supplies, guides and musicians, and using three helicopters to shuttle guests to and from the site.
The geography, coupled with weather that can change without notice, makes the Sea-to-Sky corridor a challenging place to fly and it’s not a place for inexperienced pilots. “We have nine or 10 Class pilots,” Bradley says. “I like our pilots to have a varied experience in long-lining, so they can do hydro work and forestry work, plus we do all the search and rescue flying in the corridor. Having versatile pilots is our key, in that it gives us a much bigger scope and range of work to go to. Our aircraft may be a bit too diverse and we’re looking to communize some of our aircraft, but we have 407s, AStars, TwinStars, Jet Rangers and 205s. In that respect it allows us to meet a lot of customers’ demands.”
Blackcomb’s helicopter crews are also very skilled in another area – television work. For example, if you watched the 2010 Winter Olympics on television, you can thank Blackcomb Aviation for the aerial work. The company had one dedicated helicopter in Whistler for the Nordic, downhill and sliding events; a second helicopter at Cypress Bowl in West Vancouver; a third helicopter exclusively for NBC; and a fourth helicopter providing HETS medical support for the Whistler site. Steve Gray, assistant rotary operations
manager, flew the primary camera ship for Whistler, a job that lasted a little over two weeks but was more than a year in the planning.
Through the corporate relationship with Vancouver Film Studios, Blackcomb has established an international reputation of excellence. Gray, as one of the primary film pilots, says the key to success is all about developing a relationship with the clients.
“I think we’ve done well to position ourselves for film work in the past four years by providing them with the aircraft they want,” Gray says. “Film work is really all about reputation, networking and connections. If you can keep people happy, they’ll come back to you. It’s customer service, knowing what they want. If you’ve been hired or recommended by a producer, you need to uphold that relationship with the producer and make sure you act in the correct way on the set so you don’t ruin your reputation with him. It’s a very interconnected industry with companies and individuals and you have to keep your reputation.”
A United Approach
Blackcomb’s maintenance facility moved to Pemberton a couple of years ago when operations outgrew the facilities at Whistler. Terry Irvine, director of maintenance, and chief engineer Ryan Zant, chief engineer, have a staff of 22 engineers, apprentices and support personnel. While Pemberton may seem remote to some, its location 35 kilometres north of Whistler offers some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. For outdoor enthusiasts, there are year-round activities and should the need for a visit to the big city arise, Vancouver is only two hours away. A common theme with employees is that while most have worked in many places around the world, when it comes time to start raising a family, this is the place that seems like the best spot.
|A nice cross-section of the Blackcomb fleet – from left, a Bell 407, a Eurocopter AS350 and a Eurocopter AS355.
(Photo by Paul Dixon)
Zant also notes that Blackcomb employees have a very strong commitment to their workplace and exhibit a personal pride in their work that reveals itself in many ways.
“I see guys do the little things, like touching up paint on a machine or touching up scuff marks,” he says. “It’s that sort of personal pride that the engineers have. They are very keen, very smart, and always seem to have a lot of good ideas, so whenever we seem to have a problem, we try to use the mass knowledge of everyone on the floor and try to tap that and come up with a good solution. As far as the maintenance is concerned, we try and do things ahead of schedule, and be proactive instead of reactive. From the day I started here, it’s always been very proactive maintenance. [It’s about] taking care of things earlier rather than being grounded somewhere out in the field.”
For Irvine, it’s all about maintaining the current tempo while planning how to grow to meet future obligations. “It’s always a challenge, trying to find the people who already have the endorsements and experience,” he says. “As the ‘N’ models are getting to be more popular because of the hydro work, we can fall back a little bit on some of the engineers who have experience on the ‘F’ model experience Twin Stars and bring them up, but you still need a differences course. So, it’s a bit of a challenge that way, making sure we have enough people endorsed on the aircraft for when we want to send them out. The work is all over the province, even over into Alberta. Because of the amount of time they are spending away from the base, we have to make sure we send them away fresh off the large inspections, so nothing big for components is going to come due out in the field.
Echoing Zant, Irvine says it’s the people who make the difference at Blackcomb, separating it from competitors. “Our pilots are definitely a big plus in experience and we have a lot of experienced engineers working on the machines,” he says. “The twins are definitely a maintenance draw, so the people working on those are all high-time engineers. I’m not saying other companies wouldn’t do that, but that’s how we do it. With all the people we have here, it’s definitely a good team effort – the pilots, engineers, apprentices and everybody work very well together. I think that we’re still small enough so where we can work really well together.”
Looking to the future, McLean says the key to growing the organization is crafting just the right team and never forgetting to take calculated risks. “It’s an overused statement, but we’ve really worked hard to build a great foundation, so I think we truly are poised for growth. We have a fabulous core group of staff who can take on more challenges,” he says. “I don’t think we have any crazy ideas about making this thing enormous; we just want to grow it organically over time. I think it will always have that nice small feel to it.”
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