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At first glimpse, it might seem like the process of buying and selling helicopters is fairly straightforward. But there’s much more to it than meets the eye. Beyond understanding the intricate physical details of a helicopter, there are several other factors that are crucial to knowing an aircraft’s true value before it is bought or sold. Having decades’ worth of connections in the helicopter industry certainly helps, too.
All of these elements are central to the inner-workings of Kelowna, British Columbia-based helicopter brokerage and appraisal firm Heli Connections Aviation Inc. It all started in the early 2000s after company founder Barry Hewko decided to resign his position as general manager at a large commercial helicopter operator to pursue what he is truly passionate about — selling and appraising helicopters. Together with his wife Susan, who has a strong background in banking, he founded Heli Connections in 2006 to help helicopter owners and operators find common-sense solutions.
Hewko, who is a helicopter pilot and a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer (AME), has over 48 years of helicopter industry experience under his belt; he sat on the Bell Helicopter Customer Advisory Board for seven years, and is a founding director of the Helicopter Association of Canada.
“Barry is the magic on the brokering side. . . . He has so many connections within the industry, and he knows who is looking for what,” said company president Scott Hope, who joined the Heli Connections ownership and management team in 2017 to continue the company’s story.
“If we have an aircraft to sell, Barry has a pretty good idea of who may be interested,” Hope added. “Quite often we can place [an aircraft] before we even need to advertise it.”
Heli Connections also has considerable experience with either selling companies as a going concern, or in liquidating the assets of a company that may be in receivership. Recently, a large Canadian helicopter operator closed its doors after a long legacy of utility operations. Heli Connections has been working closely with the receiver and the lender to arrive at the best solution possible, given the current challenging circumstances.
The company has the ability to assist owners and operators with the buying and selling of any helicopter type from the major airframe OEMs. The same goes for its appraisal service, which has been keeping it busy despite the Covid-19 crisis. “We normally do well in excess of 200 appraisals a year,” Hope said. “We’re at around 200 already for 2020.”
Hope recently became accredited with the American Society of Appraisers, and is aiming to expand the company’s appraisal practice to offer more types of appraisals to customers, and to broaden the clientele base internationally.
“Having that knowledge of what’s going on in the market — like this type is selling for this amount; this type has really dropped in popularity; or we’ve got a lot of demand for this type — it really ties in with our appraisal side,” he added, “because it’s invaluable market intel. We can form a good opinion of what an aircraft is worth if we’ve been involved in some transactions on the specific type recently.”
This intel also comes in handy for Heli Connections’ consulting services, which company founder Hewko specializes in. Customers can receive inventory evaluations, merger and acquisition support, and helicopter fleet recommendations, among other things.
“People will approach us if they have a project where they’re looking for some specific aircraft,” explained Hope. “We listen to what our clients’ needs are, then will make recommendations to facilitate their success.”
Heli Connections will suggest an aircraft type that would be suitable for the intended operation, and will provide the customer with information on the cost to purchase or finance the aircraft, the maintenance costs, and the operating costs. Then it will ultimately assist with the acquisition.
In the last 14 years, Hewko estimates he has been involved in about 300 helicopter sales. Now, he is passing the baton to Hope, who has brought a few new facets to the business — including pre-purchase inspection and technical record-auditing services.
Hope, who has had his AME license for 30 years, has traveled beyond North America to customers in Australia, Europe, and the Middle East to perform pre-purchase helicopter inspections and on-site appraisals. In a nutshell, a pre-purchase inspection is an in-depth aircraft evaluation that informs the customer of all the important details about an aircraft before they commit to buying it.
“I’ll travel to wherever the helicopter is, I’ll spend three to seven days there (depending on the aircraft), and I’ll go through it methodically, perform inspections, and look at the technical records. Then I write a report so the buyer can be informed about what the aircraft really is.”
This skill is Hope’s specialty, and it’s something unique that he has brought to Heli Connections.
Since pre-purchase inspections require intimate knowledge of an aircraft type, Hope stays within his area of expertise — which is mostly Bell airframes, along with some Leonardo types and larger Sikorsky models that would typically be used for heavy-lift operations.
“You’ve got to stay within your realm of expertise [for pre-purchase inspections] because there’s just so much that you would need to know,” he said. “It’s not just knowing the aircraft mechanically, it’s understanding what should be there for records, bulletin compliance, etc.”
Assisting customers with technical records is another area that Heli Connections has expanded into since Hope acquired the company.
“Helicopters have many parts that have many different lives, overhaul intervals, etc., and the record keeping is paramount,” he explained. “If you don’t have good records for your aircraft, the values can be significantly compromised. If the records are not organized, the aircraft may be difficult to sell or, if there are important records missing, it’s possibly not even marketable.”
Hope and a handful of Heli Connections’ contractors are equipped to help customers work through their technical record issues to get them to a state where the aircraft could be sold. Recently, Heli Connections helped a company in Saskatchewan that had a hangar fire in 2018 and lost “every single technical (paper) record they ever had,” along with some helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, Hope said.
“We were approached through their insurer about the possibility of helping them out,” he added. “We went out there and studied what they had electronically in their systems. Obviously all log books were lost, all records, all component cards, and all engine records, but they had a fair amount of good electronic data. We did a couple of sample aircraft and it worked out, so we took on the whole project. We were able to restore the records for 33 aircraft, and they were extremely pleased with the results.”
Over the years, Hope, Hewko, and the company’s contractors have travelled around the world to help customers with their helicopter buying and selling needs, but Heli Connections’ roots remain in its home base of Canada.
“To be honest, our specialty is working with Canadian utility operators; we understand them, as this is where we came from ourselves — this is really our niche,” Hope told Vertical. “We feel that we provide an important and valuable service for the helicopter industry. We’ve been fortunate to have developed a customer base of clients we genuinely enjoy working with, and the way to make that happen is to listen to what your customers want, then make those valuable connections.”