New HNZ owners reach for the skies

ROB O'NEILL
Last updated 05:00 18/11/2012
Helicopters NZ
OVERSEAS PURCHASE: Helicopters NZ, New Zealand's largest helicopter operator, has been sold to Canadian Helicopters. It was owned by failed finance firm South Canterbury Finance.

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After being bought out of the late Alan Hubbard's business empire in 2011, Helicopters New Zealand is becoming a growth engine for its new Canadian owners.

While Helicopters New Zealand was much the smaller of the two companies, it has effectively transformed Canadian Helicopters Group's business, taking it throughout Australasia and up into high-growth Asian markets.

That fact, and the brand value of Helicopters New Zealand, was acknowledged earlier this year when the Toronto-listed company adopted the name HNZ Group.

New contracts, such as one in the Philippines, and extensions and renewals of existing gigs, such as with Shell in Australia, are coming in, while the business has also been strengthened by seasonal activity across two hemispheres.

In July 2011, Canadian Helicopters Group completed its $154 million buyout of the assets of Helicopters NZ and that, according to operations manager Denis Laird, has delivered a significant cultural change, a more rigorous approach to financial management and contracting - and a mandate to grow.

"There's a huge amount of enthusiasm. We're not hidebound by the past," he said.

And that was reinforced last week with the announcement that HNZ would establish an advanced helicopter training school in Nelson with an initial investment of $1m.

Keith Mullett said a 10-year contract extension with mining company Rio Tinto transferring marine pilots from shore to iron ore vessels in western Australia would result in a change of helicopter type, a $20m investment in new equipment, beginning next year.

"There's a lot of activity there, similar to offshore oil rigs and with the same challenges," Mullett said.

The new deal in the Philippines kicks off in September and was landed through HNZ's existing relationship with Shell in New Zealand which dates back to 1968.

"We're proud of that. It was a hard-fought win against international competition," he said.

"We're well-regarded, well-known and trusted in that space."

Laird said such contracts play to HNZ's strengths, with systems and management processes developed over the years allowing the company to target that type of work.

HNZ is looking to expand further and win new clients who value a "high-quality supplier". Mullett said customers will be "sophisticated procurers looking for more than the cheapest taxi in the rank". They will be looking for a quality, long-term partner.

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Geographically, that means Asia and parts of Africa and some investigation of opportunities in South America, he said.

Mature markets such as Europe and the United States, in contrast, feature heavy competition and low rates of growth.

"We're searching for niche areas where we can grow sustainably and make good returns," he said.

However, it isn't just organic growth the new HNZ will focus on. Mullett said acquisitions will almost certainly feature as part of the company's growth strategy.

Laird said the business increasingly requires high levels of technical expertise and finding good people can be a challenge. However, the merging of the two companies has helped create a buzz in the helicopter industry that is seeing talented people attracted to HNZ to further their careers.

Mullett insists the buyout of HNZ is good for New Zealand in that the company hasn't been "gobbled up" and its empowerment taken away.

"The reverse has happened here. ‘We like what you do and want you to do more of it'.

"It's not just good for NZ, it's good for the group," he said.

- Sunday Star Times

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