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Not Maintaining the Status Quo

January 30, 2012  By Paul Dixon

To many, Delta, B.C.-based Heli-One is viewed as little more than the in-house maintenance department for Canadian-based helicopter giant CHC Helicopter.

To many, Delta, B.C.-based Heli-One is viewed as little more than the in-house maintenance department for Canadian-based helicopter giant CHC Helicopter.

The goal at Heli-One is to be creative with the level of services offered to the customer: not just maintenance or repair, but looking beyond what they are asking for.


Ironically, that’s how Heli-One’s new president, Larry Alexandre, viewed the company before he signed on in June of last year. Speaking with Helicopters shortly after joining the company, Alexandre said he was surprised to learn how much business actually came from outside CHC.

“I underestimated the amount of work that Heli-One does for third parties, meaning outside of the CHC fleet,” he says. “Today, it’s about 40 per cent of our revenues, and in the next 18 months, it will most likely represent more than 50 per cent, considering CHC’s growth.”


Alexandre brings 20 years’ experience in aerospace manufacturing and maintenance to his new position with Heli-One. He sports an impressive record of driving cultural change in his previous positions, most recently as CEO of Sagem Avionics and prior to that as COO of Turbomeca’s operations in North and South America.

“I like to joke with my team that I do nothing, but I do it well,” the self-effacing Alexandre says. “I’m not an expert in anything, but I’ve kind of touched every piece of the business, from the commercial side to the operational side. What I enjoy the most, especially in the past seven years in the CEO or COO role, is to have my finger on the pulse of every function in the company and make it all work together. That’s the fun part.”

Alexandre’s arrival at Heli-One is part of a refocusing of the core operations. One of his first steps was to announce the sale of Heli-One Composites, located in Gander, N.L. He notes that while the manufacture and repair of composite materials is a viable and growing segment of the aerospace market, “it’s not our core business and Heli-One does not want to compete in that area.”

“What I knew of Heli-One from being in the marketplace through Turbomeca and Sagem, was that Heli-One and CHC were very well-known entities,” he says. “I was fully aware that this company had gone through a lot of management changes in the past few years. There was a lack of stability in the leadership positions, which translated into an inability for the team to really come together – and when this happens, this usually leads to operational inefficiencies, miscommunication and poor financial performance as well as, probably, low employee morale. What I did not foresee before coming, which I discovered when I walked in to Heli-One, was that, as big as we are, we still have a lot of room for improvement in developing robust standards. We are very proud of our craftsmanship as mechanics and we have a lot of very good people. It wasn’t as robust as I imagined it could be, especially for the size of the company and its experience in supporting CHC.”

Improvement for Alexandre will come from introducing the concept of “lean” into the organization. He is determined to streamline processes and make improvements on a number of levels to maximize performance. “As big as we are, this was really not well known or applied by the majority of the employees – and it’s something I personally believe in extensively and try to drive into everything that we do, whether it’s in operations or other functions around the company,” Alexandre says. “When you’ve been doing something for 10 or 15 years, you become oblivious to the waste around you that might be apparent or obvious [to others]. You’ve done it so long, you’ve looked at it every single day for the last 10 years, you no longer see it. My hope is to get more than 900 employees coming to work every day thinking about what to improve today.”

Alexandre’s goal is to live up to the company’s motto of being the world’s largest MRO service provider. He wants Heli-One to be not only the largest MRO service provider, but also the best – in all areas.

Achieving this goal means making a stronger commitment to working on products and safety, and continuing to improve operation-wise through lean deployment. It also means expanding services and not just being the old-fashioned wrench turner doing MRO work – for example, by offering such services as power by the hour, tip to tail where they can do dynamic components in addition to engines, with the ability to address mixed fleets.

“We are trying to be very creative with the level of services we offer to the customer, not just maintenance or repair, but looking beyond what the customer is looking for,” he says. “We are developing mobile repair teams where we can send teams of mechanics out to do troubleshooting or lower-level maintenance operations in the field. It’s about realizing when a customer needs MRO services – not just about sending an asset to a repair shop. It’s also about having flexibility, quick response out in the field, or better financial terms or more adequate financial solutions such as power by the hour.”

A Commitment to Quality
Heli-One’s corporate headquarters in the Vancouver suburb of Delta is the anchor to the reborn Boundary Bay Airport (CZBB), located 17 kilometres southeast of YVR. The facility opened in 2008, bringing operations that had outgrown a number of small facilities at YVR and Langley, B.C. together under one roof. The facility is large at 235,000 square feet. The hangar has nine work bays dedicated to the six streams handled at the facility – the AgustaWestland AW139; Sikorsky S-61; Sikorsky S-76; Sikorsky S-92; Bell mediums; and Eurocopter Dauphins.

New president Larry Alexandre has one goal at Heli-One – to live up to the company’s motto of being the world’s largest MRO service provider.
(Photos by Paul Dixon)


Says Alexandre of Heli-One’s client base: “The level of awareness out there of who Heli-One is and what we have to offer is actually quite low. The large fleet operators know who we are, but as you know, the helicopter business is very fragmented and you have a lot of smaller fleet operators or small operators out there who don’t know what we do. They know we do Turbomeca engines, but they don’t know we do PT-6 engines or CT-58 engines. So, we definitely need to do a better job of communicating our array of capabilities to the market. The other thing, too often – and it was my view as well – customers see Heli-One as mainly CHC’s maintenance and repair centre. It is still the main customer at this point, but the ratio is quickly evolving and we do almost as much work with third-party customers as we do with CHC. So, we are clearly focused on the third-party and not just CHC.”

Heli-One currently has approvals on 17 different aircraft types, including several that are not part of the CHC fleet. One of the largest external customers is the Canadian Forces with Heli-One performing 600 hour inspections, 3,000 hour/five-year inspections, and repaints for CF’s fleet of CH-146 Griffons.

Coping With Challenges
The challenge for Heli-One in Delta – as well as in its other large facility in Stavanger, Norway – is the struggle to find qualified technicians. The two locations present slightly different challenges, according to Alexandre. “British Columbia is not an aerospace hub and other than existing local operators, there is not a large pool of talent to draw from,” he says. “In Norway, we have a slightly different issue. There’s the offshore oil and gas business, which is just a very attractive field financially and it’s a different challenge.

The nine work bays at the Heli-One hangar are dedicated to six streams of aircraft – the AgustaWestland AW139; Sikorsky S-61; Sikorsky S-76; Sikorsky S-92; Bell mediums; and Eurocopter Dauphins.
(Photo by Paul Dixon)


We find competent, skillful people, but it’s a different challenge, which is how to retain them in such a competitive environment.”

Hangar manager Tony Sonnendrucker says bluntly, “we’re short-staffed. I’ve only got five apprentices (out of 42 AMEs) and I need more. It takes four years to get trained on a machine and get comfortable. I have a finite amount of time, so I have to keep bringing in new staff because the young ones eventually want to go travel and visit the rest of the world.”

By “travel,” Sonnendrucker means taking the opportunity to work around the world supporting CHC operations in the field. It’s something he encourages, but at the same time, he wants them to return to where they started and bring that field experience back to the hangar. Sonnendrucker also points out that there is a shortage of qualified people, specifically for the type Heli-One is searching for.

“To bring them in here, you have to literally search the planet,” Sonnendrucker says. “I need that experience, because I only have a certain number of people with hard time, hard field experience. They’re all my leads. They’re the ones you want at the end of the job, going through the troubleshooting, when the aircraft is going to ship in three days and you don’t have a week to troubleshoot it – that’s where these guys come in.”

The BCIT Aerospace program is a major source of local talent for Heli-One. In June of 2010, Heli-One donated $50,000 to sponsor a rotary-wing classroom in the YVR campus as well as serving on the program’s Industry Advisory Board. For BCIT’s Jack Baryluk, the partnership represents a true win-win situation.

“We are very proud of our relationship with Heli-One,” says Baryluk. Sonnendrucker goes even further, adding that the benefits are immense. Having such a close working relationship with the instructors means he often gets a tip on a “keener” who will be offered the opportunity to job shadow at Heli-One. As an example, he says “there’s one guy who’s in here and we put him with the Dauphin team. He liked it – I tracked him through BCIT and was able to hire him when he graduated. He’s here now and doing a good job.”

Maintaining Ironclad Relationships

One way Heli-One is building on Alexandre’s vision of looking beyond what clients’ needs are today is by expanding its range of services. The AW139 commitment is a perfect example. Heli-One had the first OEM tailboom assembly in North America in August, 2010, even before it was available at AgustaWestland’s facility in Philadelphia. In August, 2011, Heli-One also had an AME on site at an ORNGE base in Ontario working on a service bulletin and a second AME deployed to Honeywell in New Jersey for similar work.

Heli-One currently has approvals on 17 different aircraft types, including several that are not part of the CHC fleet.
(Photo by Paul Dixon)


London Air Service, located at YVR, operates three AW139s and is the Canadian sales agent for the aircraft. For company president Wynne Powell, the relationship with Heli-One is “a strong fit. They have expanded their services and the number of trained staff. “All the work they have done for us so far has come in on time and under budget,” says Powell. This allows London to focus on its role as AgustaWestland’s sales agent with Heli-One as the MRO service provider. Even better, from an operator’s perspective, Heli-One is a six-minute flight from London’s operation at YVR, versus three days each way flying to AgustaWestland’s North American facility in Philadelphia.

For Alexandre, it all comes down to meeting customer expectations at every step of the process. “We have a lot to offer to the market, we’ve got strong talent and dedicated professionals across the globe. It is a major investment on our customer’s part. It’s an expensive asset and expensive repairs or modifications. I think our customers are looking for the best quality service out there. When you’re going to be spending that much money you want to make sure you’re sending it to a trusted source.”


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