By Paul Dixon
Capitalizing on opportunities and having the foresight to create your own is how many successful Canadian firms stay profitable
By Paul Dixon
Capitalizing on opportunities and having the foresight to create your own is how many successful Canadian firms stay profitable in tough times and this is precisely the path the owners of London Air Services have taken over the past several years.
|While Sonora is a large part of LAS rotary operations over the summer months, Whistler provides a year-round market, as it’s less than 30 minutes from YVR or downtown Vancouver by air. |
(Photo courtesy of London Air Services)
London Air Services was initially created to be a time machine within B.C.’s H.Y. Louie Company, a $4-billion empire that includes the IGA food chain and London Drugs. In an interview with Helicopters magazine this past summer at London’s home base at Vancouver International import, Wynne Powell, CEO of London Drugs and London Air, explained how he became charged with the responsibility of building that time machine.
“Back in 1998, our chairman was stuck in Chicago for what ended up being an 11-hour layover,” Powell described. “It was happening too frequently and this was the last straw. He came to me and said, ‘I can’t put up with this on an ongoing basis . . . we have to get our own plane.’
Initially, deterred by what he saw as the high cost of ownership, Powell chartered aircraft as required. However, this approach quickly proved unsatisfactory. “We found that the planes weren’t to the quality that we were necessarily comfortable with,” Powell recalled. “We were always safety conscious, whether or not they had safety problems you couldn’t say, but they were older aircraft which always raises the safety concern over new aircraft. Also, you couldn’t get them on short notice.”
Powell realized that more than simply buying an aircraft to solve his dilemma, it made financial sense to turn the endeavor into a business. Given a green light by his chairman, London Air Services was born. Starting with one Lear 45, it quickly became apparent that one jet was not enough. “We’re all about customer service, it’s all about the customer,” Powell said. “This business is totally customer driven and anyone who doesn’t get that doesn’t stay in this business. Throughout all of our companies, being customer focused is one of our core competencies. So, we applied this service to our airline, our one plane. It soon became abundantly clear that our business was growing and one plane was not enough, so we bought a second. Then it became clear to us that we needed equipment that went beyond the range of a Lear 45, so that led to the acquisition of a Challenger 604, which put London into the international market.” Within a couple of years, London Air Service had grown to a fleet of five Lears and three Challengers – and then it moved into the rotary world.
The High-End Set
The catalyst for the acquisition of helicopters was Sonora Resort, acquired by H.Y. Louie in 2001. Nestled on the coast of Sonora Island, north of Campbell River on the Inside Passage, the lodge had existed for years as one of the scores of fishing lodges that dot the coast of British Columbia, where men were men and fish were nervous.
|London Air Services CEO Wynne Powell says the AW139 has met or exceeded every performance indicator AgustaWestland has given it. |
(Photo courtesy of London Air Services)
The new owners took their enterprise in a totally different direction. Rebuilt, expanded and rebranded, Sonora Resort today is an 83-room complex that wouldn’t look out of place beside the chateaux and estates that line the shores of Italy’s Lake Como or Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. The target audience has broadened to include families and couples along with corporate groups from around the world by offering eco-tour excursions, ocean kayaking, grizzly bear watching, aboriginal journeys, whitewater rafting, glacial helicopter tours, fishing and a full-blown spa.
Having made a substantial investment in a property that operates for only six months of the year, it is imperative that guests arrive and depart as scheduled, with a minimum of disruption in a wide variety of B.C. weather conditions. Historically, guests had been transported by water taxi from Campbell River by floatplane from Vancouver. But as Powell notes, reliable transportation to and from a resort is of critical importance – the experience starts with an impeccable flight.
“Seaplanes are great, but they can’t fly at night, they can’t fly in windy conditions and for the amount of money that we were investing in this resort, we needed to be sure that clients could get in and out,” Powell said. “Seaplanes also have to run too early in the day for people to have their schedules accommodated. We realized that while you could buy five or six seaplanes for the price of one new helicopter we were looking at that the best business decision for us was to buy a state-of-the-art helicopter.” For a business that would be open six months out of the year, using helicopters ensures flights in and out from May through October would be critical to the success of the lodge.
Having made the decision to move into the rotary realm, Powell set out to find the right machine. Comfortable in the fixed-wing world, but knowing little about helicopters, he made the rounds of all the major manufacturers. Describing himself as having a “great interest” in technology to go with his accounting background, he was attracted to the AgustaWestland AW139. The 15-seat medium twin helicopter is growing in popularity worldwide for a variety of applications from everything from law enforcement, offshore oil and gas operations and medevac to corporate transport – London Air’s primary use.
“Once I started looking at the specs, how it’s built and the performance numbers, it was really impressive,” Powell said. “They were using standardized parts and we were familiar with the Pratt & Whitney engine (the AW139 is powered by two PT6C turboshaft engines).”
|London Air Services currently has three AW139s, though the business plan is for two aircraft. |
(Photo courtesy of London AIr Services)
Ironically, what sealed the deal for Powell was some negative feedback from another manufacturer about some of the AW139’s features – features Powell felt were very appealing. “The more he spoke against it, the more I realized it was one awesome helicopter. [His comments] had the reverse effect on me; it built my resolve that this was going to set the helicopter world on edge. So, I went back and ordered the helicopter. Our particular helicopters were manufactured and assembled in Italy, which was our choice. The helicopters have met or exceeded every performance indicator that Agusta gave to us; it’s a phenomenal machine, with about a 99 per cent dispatch efficiency on it which is phenomenal.”
London Air Services currently has three AW139s, though the business plan is for two aircraft. As Powell learned with the purchase of the company’s first Lear jet, “in the aircraft business you can’t operate with one of anything, you may have an aircraft on the ground, you may have capacity issues, you have to have two, no matter what volume of business you think you might be doing.” Facing a wait time for the first FIPS-equipped AW139, London Air Services purchased a second regular AW139 to fill the gap. With the FIPS equipped aircraft now fully in service, the original AW139 is now for sale.
Keeping the aircraft in immaculate condition to properly serve top clientele is an ongoing challenge but it’s made easier with the company’s excellent team, notes Powell. He is quick to expound on the value the organization places on its employees – without them, the commitment to focusing on customers’ ultimate needs would be impossible.
“We’re a great employer and we have great staff,” Powell said. “Gord Dale heads up our mechanical division for the rotary side and Dylan Thomas is a great chief pilot. Now, he’s also assistant director of operations. We’re very careful when we hire because we want to get good people. We give them full-time work, they have good benefits and we try to build a strong team spirit. While we’re a large company, we’re privately held – we’re a family company and we try to have those family values still show within the environment.”
Powell notes that the advantage of working for a privately held company is you have more control over the ultimate outcome in key decisions. “You can always do what you believe is right to do; it makes a world of difference. We truly care about our staff; they know that. For the airline business we’ve had a relatively low turnover. A lot of the pilots that we hired 10 years ago are still with us and that’s unusual. We are very fortunate, because we buy the newest and best equipment and our policy is to keep with the newest and best equipment, so we attract pilots who want to fly the newest and the best. They love the equipment and they love the safety standards.”
Leading by example is an important element of establishing just the right corporate culture, and Powell takes careful note of this principle every day. A commitment to all aspects of safety is also paramount. “Safety starts at the top and I can tell you that the ‘tone at the top’ from myself is extremely safety conscious. We started our SMS before it was required and there are no shortcuts on safety or repairs. Everything is done to factory specifications. We do everything the factory way, the best way. The mechanics understand there’s no cutting of corners, we always want it done to the very best of specifications. We want the people flying our aircraft to know that everything is done to the highest standards.”
Setting New Parameters
A high commitment to safety and developing just the right corporate culture aren’t the only areas in which London Air Services is reaching the pinnacle. Achieving Relais & Chateaux certification for Sonora Lodge in 2009 also reflects how London Air Services has raised its game. It took five years for Sonora to earn the certification, and its one of only 14 properties (resorts, hotels and restaurants) in Canada to have achieved this distinction. Powell takes obvious pride in saying, “you cannot buy Relais & Chateaux certification, it’s impossible to buy. It took us five years to earn it and our standards were already high, but their standards are incredible. They run secret reports on you all the time, and your standards are among the top in the world. It’s the platinum standard.”
|Behind Avitat at Vancouver International Airport is a new 60,000-square-foot hangar that serves as London’s headquarters. |
(Photo courtesy of London Air Services)
The achievement has not gone unnoticed as evidenced by glowing testimonials from the world’s top media outlets, including Forbes, the Globe and Mail, Huffington Post, National Geographic Traveler and the Michelin Guide, to name but a few. TripAdvisor, the world’s largest online travel advisory site, has ranked Sonora as the top Canadian destination resort. Flying guests to and from the resort in the most immaculate conditions possible is a key aspect of the experience.
An attention to detail also extends to every facet of the operation. London Air is a minority owner of Avitat, the Esso FBO at YVR, which is London Air Services’ passenger hub. “We bought in as part owner because we wanted to be sure that that business provided the standards that we needed,” Powell said. “It worked out very well for us and our partner, Derrick Watts, does a great job for us.” Behind Avitat is the new 60,000 square-foot hangar that serves as London’s headquarters.
|Wynne Powell says the advantage of working for a privately held company like London Air Services is you have more control over the outcome of operations. |
(Photo by Paul Dixon)
Flying in to Sonora by helicopter is expensive, but when put into the perspective of time as money and meeting or surpassing customer’s needs and expectations, it makes a lot of sense. There is daily service to Sonora during the summer months, while a recent visit to Avitat saw five fully booked flights on a Friday, with clients arriving from all over the world. It underscores the importance of getting people into and out of the resort on time.
While Sonora is a large part of LAS rotary operations over the summer months, Whistler provides a year-round market, as it’s less than 30 minutes from YVR or downtown Vancouver by air. The summer sees charters that include a round of golf on one of Whistler’s PGA championship courses followed by dinner in one of the renowned restaurants and return to Vancouver before dusk. In the winter months, the attraction for customers is Whistler’s challenging Olympic slopes. In 2010, London Air Services bought the first AW139 with Full Ice Protection System (FIPS) specifically for the Whistler market. It’s truly a “phenomenal” machine, Powell notes, and ideal for the Canadian market.
Establishing key relationships with customers and suppliers is essential to any operator’s success, and Powell is very pleased with the relationship London Air Services has with AgustaWestland. “It’s about helping a great company make sure everyone knows their product is good and they are a reliable company to deal with,” he said. “With our customers it’s all about relationships and with our vendors, it’s been about relationships. The relationships we have formed in the aircraft business are very strong, very supportive.”