Highland Helicopters


April O’Brien has been working for Highland Helicopters since 1990. The family owned company has been servicing the Alberta, British Columbia and Northwest Territories’ airways with its fleet of 43 light and intermediateturbine helicopters since the company began back in 1959. “Highland Helicopters is a bit of a rarity” O’Brien says fondly.

“With steady input from the owners and Highlands team of managers, Terry Jones, Operations Manager, Dan Kolshuk, Director of Maintenance and myself, Highland has been and continues to be a vibrant, forward looking company. The diverse backgrounds of the people at Highland serve the company well giving it years of experience in the field as well as in maintenance and education.”

O’Brien began working in administration at Highland then worked her way up to Accounting Manager and on to a position on their board of directors. Staying power is a trend at Highland, where understanding the working requirements of their staff is a paramount concern.

The people and the projects
O’Brien goes on to discuss the ways in which Highland Helicopters manages the needs and expectations of their personnel.

"We have also wanted to commit to the communities we operate in and offer a stable work environment for our staff. Quite a lot of the helicopter industry work relies on pilots and engineers working in remote camps for extended periods of time. This type of work gets less attractive to employees who have families so we wanted to develop a company that could cultivate long term staff and support our clients operating in the smaller communities of western Canada” she says.

“This approach has resulted in Highland being able to retain long term highly experienced employees who are better able to support our clients. We repeatedly win work based on our staff’s local knowledge of the area and long term working relationships with our clients. We know that it is important to clients to feel comfortable with their pilot and that they want the same pilot or pilots each time they fly with us.”

This supportive structure certainly comes in handy when closer inspection reveals the diverse range of projects and places the company works in. “Highland’s work and responsibilities are very diverse from Caribou Capture work in the Arctic, to Avalanche patrols in the Rockies, to supporting our resource based clients” O’Brien explains.

"We take a long term approach in the places we fly such as Inuvik, Northwest Territories and Fort McMurray, Alberta. We entered both of these markets early as we anticipated that the oil and gas market would grow with the inevitability of deposits in these areas becoming viable. This has most certainly been the case in Fort McMurray but yet remains to be seen in Inuvik. In Inuvik there have been numerous delays in getting the Mackenzie Pipeline approved which has slowed our growth in this market. However this slow down has allowed us to gain experience in wildlife and other environmental work. It has also been a great learning experience on conducting business in the Northwest Territories.”

O’Brien also notes how thrilled the company is by their partnership with Kurt Wainman, owner of Northwest Industries Limited, which has allowed Highland to develop the area “into a permanent base.”

Tackling troubling times
O’Brien is refreshingly honest and remains optimistic about the challenges facing the helicopter industry, starting with Canada’s abundance of the aircraft themselves and the way in which the economic downturn has exacerbated this.

“Competition is fierce” she says. “This is compounded with the overall slowdown of the economy and has resulted in considerable downward pressure on rates which can lead to unhealthy practices. At Highland during these tough economic times we have not deviated from our high standards and continue to improve upon our safety, training and maintenance practices.”

However if you thought that Highland was merely waiting out the economic storm, that is far from the case.

“We are using this downturn in the economy to better position ourselves when the economy returns to strength. We have invested in technology that will make our operations much more efficient moving forward. We have just completed a major SAP Business One installation which we know will make us better able to manage and analyze our finances in the not too distant future” O’Brien says.

“We have also been looking at the makeup of our fleet to see if there are any opportunities to capitalize on. At the moment we are holding steady on this front. Currently our client base is looking for cost savings and continued focus on delivering services safely which fits together with Highlands’s philosophy. To date we have not had to lay off any employees as many of our competitors have. We view staff and their long service as a crucial part of Highland and something we are very proud of.”

Flying on forward
O’Brien explains that the economic situation has not deterred Highland from its short or long term goals. “We have (always) been a company that employs a long-term approach to our growth and evolution” she says.

“Our short-term goal at this point is very easy; make sure we are positioned to come out of this economic slowdown a better organization. The slowdown is forcing us is to review all aspects of how we work and how to most effectively invest for today and tomorrow.”

Highland is also developing and building upon their online pilot training program; another piece of the supportive and encouraging work environment the company cultivates. Their Abbotsford, British Columbia training school has been extremely successful.

“This has led our company to start to do advance training on pilots from other companies. We have just started advertising and believe we offer great training at a great price” O’Brien says.

“We also have a phenomenal crew of engineers who keep our fleet of aircraft extremely well maintained.” This is where their long-term goal begins. O’Brien explains that pilot and engineer positions can be “extremely hard to fill” and true to form Highland plan to introduce programs that will develop those roles and “go beyond industry and Transport Canada training standards.”

“Highland Helicopters is proud of being a forward looking company that has been able to respond to opportunities that have lead to growth. Improving our excellent safety record is always an important goal. We believe with a stable highly trained workforce, well maintained machines and a high degree of focus we offer a good product which enables us to have first class customer service” O’Brien says.

“I would like to think this spirit of capitalizing on opportunities will continue and that there will be bright future in the evolution of Highland.”

Not only is Highland creating a bright future for their workers, partners and company as a whole, but a promising step forward for the industry too.