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The Boss Drives an EC120

June 28th. It is Election Day in Canada and James Boudreault has a lot of ground to cover if he is to return to Quebec City before the polls close.


July 13, 2007
By David Carr

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JUNE 28TH. It is Election Day in Canada and James Boudreault has a lot
of ground to cover if he is to return to Quebec City before the polls
close. In an age of manufacturing consolidation, Boudreault, the
Canadian president of American-based Guardian Glass, has a business
strategy that moves aggressively in the opposite direction.

Guardian,
the world’s second largest supplier of industrial and residential glass
products, has plants scattered throughout Quebec, southern Ontario and
New Brunswick. Boudreault, who first entered the glass business with
his own plant in Cover, Quebec near Lac St-Jacques prefers this
approach; basing larger manufacturing facilities close to major markets
and transportation routes, while locating smaller plants in more remote
parts of the province to tap into the enormous wealth of skills that
reside in those communities.

The challenge for Boudreault, a
self-described hands-on manager, is regular access to each plant. Based
in Quebec City, he likes to visit each of Guardian’s manufacturing
centres at least once a month, and some such as the Montreal operation,
weekly. In addition to being founder of his own glass company and
president of Guardian in Canada, Boudreault is the Canadian operation’s
chief and only pilot.

“There is too much ground to cover to rely
on the roads. If it wasn’t for this machine I would have sold the
business years ago,” he said pointing to the metallic rust-coloured
Eurocopter EC120 that had just been rolled out of the Esso Avitat at
Quebec’s Jean Lesage Airport.

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Launched in the mid- 1990s as a
replacement aircraft for the popular Bell JetRanger series, the
five-passenger, single-engine EC120 light utility helicopter has
settled into its market after years of struggling to find its footing.
Over 300 are in operation worldwide, including the one for Guardian
Glass delivered in September 2003. “In the beginning, I don’t think the
market knew how to accept it,” said Boudreault, describing the EC120’s
early struggles. “For what I need – fuel consumption, range, cruising
speed and low maintenance – it is the best machine on the market.”

* * *

It
is 8:00 a.m. Today’s agenda involves visiting four plants spread out
over 450 kilometres by air. It works out to be over eight hours driving
time in good conditions compressed into approximately 180 minutes of
flying time plus whatever is spent conducting business on the ground.

With
over 1,000 hours of fixed-wing under his belt, Boudreault is a born
flyer who has a healthy respect for Canada’s bush pilot heritage. He
even upgraded his own floatplane because it lacked the power to get in
and out of the remote lakes he likes to fly into. “There are hundreds
of thousands of lakes in Quebec that haven’t even been named yet. Each
one of them is a potential airport,” he joked. He began flying
helicopters in 2001 when the US parent transferred a Bell 206 to its
Canadian subsidiary. He has now clocked over 600 hours in helicopters,
spending on average six to seven hours a week piloting the EC120.

* * *

The
first trip is a ten-minute hop from the airport across the St.
Lawrence. The EC120 is an infrequent visitor here, given it is driving
distance from Boudreault’s home. The plant is private property so no
Transport Canada regulated helipad is necessary. If it was not for the
bright orange windsock riding the current of this morning’s
unseasonably cool summer breeze, there would be no hint of aviation
activity. Such is the case at most of the plants Boudreault flies into.

Where
a more formal landing site is necessary – such as the Montreal facility
– Guardian has worked with Transport Canada and a neighbouring golf
course to facilitate the landing of the helicopter. The company uses
Buttonville Airport on flights to Toronto.

* * *

After
another short jump to a second plant in nearby St. Agpit, the first
substantive leg of the day – a 40-minute flight to Baie Saint Paul – is
underway. It is a bright day so Boudreault is navigating over a tract
of land clear-cut for hydro lines. In harsher conditions, he would hug
closer to the St. Lawrence shoreline, where the Coast Guard operates a
network of helipads. Guardian Glass is Baie Saint Paul’s largest
employer, although the picturesque artists community, rich in street
culture and unusual boutiques, is better known as the home of Cirque de
Soleil.

Boudreault likes to keep a tight lid on costs, insisting
on poring over budgets line-byline and squeezing out items such as
excessive mobile telephone charges. It is clear that he made a thorough
cost benefit evaluation before spending US$830,000 plus operating costs
on an EC120.

“Time is the biggest factor. If there is a problem
at one of the plants that needs immediate attention, I don’t hesitate.
I can be there on the ground in a matter of hours,” Boudreault said.

The
EC120 has also stepped in to smooth out bumps in production, such as
when a machine goes down. “We work on three to four days guaranteed
delivery,” Boudreault added. “Our product is all custom ordered so we
can’t make it in advance. If a machine breaks down, we don’t have two
days to wait for a part to be transported from the manufacturer. Better
to pick it up and deliver it by helicopter.”

Besides
maintenance, the cost of fuel (approximately $23,000 per year) and
hangarage at the Jean Lesage FBO (estimated to be about $1,700 per
month), insurance remains the single largest operating outlay. Despite
being part of the larger Guardian fleet, which includes a Gulfstream,
two Eurocopters (an A Star 350 and 135 twin turbine) and Boeing 737 (to
transport Guardian’s championship winning NHL Tampa Lightning and NBA
Detroit Pistons), premiums for the EC120 are still about US$83,000 per
year. “In ten years I will have paid for the helicopter insurance
fees,” Boudreault complained.

The Revenue Canada Agency is also
a frustration in the usual tug of war to prove that a corporate
aircraft is a business tool rather than personal plaything. On weekends
when Boudreault does use the helicopter for personal flying he rents it
from Guardian for $400.00 per hour.

* * *

It is 13:25,
and the EC120 takes off for the final stop of the day, a one-hour
journey to Boudreault’s first plant in Cover, Quebec. Unlike the rest
of Guardian’s Canadian assets, the Cover facility is a joint venture
between Boudreault and the American parent, trading under the name
Thermafix.

The weather has turned and progress will be slowed as
Boudreault guides the aircraft around rather than through the most
severe storms. Today’s visit is necessary to go over books that
Boudreault is bringing with him, and to discuss production with plant
management. “There is another advantage to having this aircraft,” he
pointed out as rain lashed against the windscreen. “I need fewer
managers for each of the plants since we can easily move people from
location to location.”

But would this be as cost beneficial if
Guardian had to add a pilot to the payroll rather than Boudreault doing
the flying himself? The short answer is ‘yes’. “We could not have
covered what we are covering today without this helicopter. In addition
to the time we save transporting people from plant to plant, we have
tighter control over production and production costs because we are in
the plants more often.”

While Boudreault does the bulk of the
flying, Guardian does occasionally contract out from the Canadian
Helicopters Flight School that shares the same hangar. “I have to give
final authorization over anybody who is going to fly,” he explained.
“Nobody gets near my baby without my say so.”

Separation is made
easier by the EC120’s flight recording system. “The nice thing about
this helicopter is it won’t let you lie. It records everything. If
somebody over torques, I’m going to find out about it,” he added.”

* * *

The
day’s business over, it is time to return to Quebec City. Boudreault,
who has learned to sense changes in weather, delays departure by about
45 minutes. As the helicopter flies toward Quebec, Boudreault is
deliberately 20 degrees off track, expecting to still arrive in Quebec
City within an hour’s flight time by catching a tail wind. He is less
than five minutes off his estimate.

“You learn to understand the
weather,” he explained as large tracts of lush green forest accented by
lakes and the occasional village slip away. “It doesn’t happen during
your first flight, but when it does you can use this time to enjoy the
scenery and for quiet reflection. The time it takes to fly from plant
to plant actually relaxes me. It is like watching a real life IMAX
movie.”

* * *

It is 7:00 a.m. on June 29th, and the EC120
is again being refueled outside the Avitat. There is a deal to be
negotiated in Montreal, and this time three other Guardian Glass
executives are accompanying Boudreault. Even with low-cost airline
Jetsgo now competing with Air Canada on the Quebec to Montreal route,
the helicopter is paying for itself in terms of airfare saved. If time
permits, a brief stopover at the plant in Three Rivers is planned, once
again proving the EC120’s versatility. By the time the helicopter
completes its first year of service this September, Guardian will have
clocked just over 300 hours.

“If you are going to operate a
network of plants, you’ve got to be there,” Boudreault explained. “You
have to travel to settle problems and put out fires. Every time I use
this machine it provides a payback.”


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