Business
Mark Rendell

New Helicopter Biz Takes Off In YK

Bembridge's new birds: with international backing, a veteran aviation entrepreneur launches new venture in the face of stiff economic headwinds

Despite a general slowdown in Northern mining and exploration, a new Yellowknife-based helicopter company is set to begin operating later this month.

The company, Acasta HeliFlight Inc., is a partnership between long-time Yellowknife aviation entrepreneur Adam Bembridge and international helicopter company HNZ Inc.

They’ll be starting with a fleet of six helicopters, four of which are currently enroute to Yellowknife, and focusing on a broad range of industries: mining, exploration, environmental monitoring, power and telecommunications infrastructure and firefighting.

Right now we’re in a pan-Canadian resource slump from Newfoundland to B.C. – one of the first times it’s been pan-Canadian – but it will turn.

HNZ has been operating across the North for a number of years with bases in Norman Wells, Inuvik and Iqaluit and contracts that include servicing the U.S. Government’s North Warning System. The new venture, which will be a subsidiary of HNZ, is a way to expand the company’s Northern presence and tap into Bembridge’s know-how and connections; the 52-year-old used to own Great Slave Helicopters, a company he built up over 30 years from a single aircraft to a fleet of 85 by the time he sold it to Discovery Air in 2006.

“Acasta is a promising partnership which combines the technical expertise, financial strength and economies of scale of HNZ with the Northern know-how of a proven innovator like Adam Bembridge, who has deep ties in all corners of the North,” said Don Wall, president and CEO of HNZ, in a press release sent out on Tuesday.

“Realistically it’s a meeting of the minds, to take the best of both philosophies and create a new company that is efficient and Northern-based,” Bembridge tells EDGE. He came out of retirement to start the company and is investing the operational capital while HNZ is providing the helicopter assets, an investment worth around $3.4 million.

When everyone is selling it’s time to buy

There’s little doubt it’s a tough time to be starting an aviation company; earlier this year, CBC reported that Great Slave Helicopters had “reduced the work hours of 23 of its 56 employees in the Northwest Territories in response to the continued slowdown of the mining and oil and gas sectors.”

Bembridge however is optimistic about both his company’s prospects and the NWT economy in general: “Right now we’re in a pan-Canadian resource slump from Newfoundland to B.C. – one of the first times it’s been pan-Canadian – but it will turn. We need to make sure we’re positioned to capture it... It’s like the stock market: when everyone is selling you’re supposed to buy.”

“Our new entity has a very strong balance sheet, zero debt,” he adds. “So we intend to be as efficient as you can be, lean and mean. We’re focusing on a quality, not quantity approach, and obviously leveraging some current and past relationships with end users.”

To start, the company will employ around 12 people, most of them based in Yellowknife. That could grow to as many as 18, “depending on the utilization and whatever else, whether we add machines,” says Bembridge.

The new company may well end up in competition with Bembridge’s old, much larger company Great Slave Helicopters. But he’s confident that Acasta’s Yellowknife-based approach will give the company a leg-up.

“In a sense the market is somewhat well-served, but the focus of some of the larger companies has been to move infrastructure and jobs out of the North. We’re going to have 75 percent of our people based in Yellowknife, so they’ll be able to play hockey with their customers, go camping with them, develop stronger bonds and relationships.”

Acasta signed a lease to use the Adlair Aviation base out by the airport earlier today, and plans to host an open house in the near future. The company hasn’t yet secured its first contract, but Bembridge expects Acasta will be able to begin bidding on contracts by the end of March.