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When Hugh Andrews started Aero-Smith Heli Services with his wife Wendy on Vancouver Island in 1997, he kept a hydraulic press in the back of his pickup truck and hit the road anytime a job demanded it, like a doctor making house calls.
“I’d go to to customers’ places and tear down a transmission, anything it took to keep them flying,” said Andrews, 55, a licensed mechanic and helicopter pilot who was in the process of building a full-service maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) company that specializes in Bell, MD and Airbus helicopters.
Aero-Smith focused initially on component repair and overhaul, but it quickly grew into a nimble, multifaceted operation offering parts supply, structural repairs, field and line maintenance, 12-year inspections, complete aircraft rebuilds, component overhauls, a paint shop and Jet A sales, among other services.
The company’s diversification was not a deliberate strategy — it happened organically, as Aero-Smith responded to the needs of its customers. But it helped the company establish itself as a one-stop helicopter shop with a reputation for going above and beyond to get the job done.
“It’s 24/7,” said Andrews. “They could call me night, day, wouldn’t matter: ‘I need a part.’ I’d personally drive it to the airport or jump on a plane and go wherever the client was to get them back in the air.”
Aero-Smith is located on the same 10-acre parcel of land as the Andrews family home in the small community of Coombs, B.C., about 45 kilometres (30 miles) northwest of Nanaimo.
The company has eight full-time employees who work in a 743-square-metre (8,000-square-foot) hangar that has been expanded three times over the years as business grew. Many of those employees have been with Aero-Smith since its early days, and Andrews gives them much of the credit for the company’s success.
“Your reputation’s everything, but at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them,” he said. The crew has worked together so long, he thinks of them as family.
“I spend more hours a day with most of these people than I do with my own family, especially in the in the busy summer season, where maintenance support is critical to the operators,” said Andrews. “So at the end of the day, yeah, they’re definitely family. If they were sick or in any kind of bind, we would do whatever is required to help them.”
Aero-Smith is a Transport Canada-approved component shop capable of overhauling or repairing major dynamic components for all Bell 206 series and MD 500 series helicopters, with both rentals and exchanges available.
The company aims to meet its customers’ everyday parts needs from its large, in-house inventory, with the ability to quickly source parts that aren’t in stock. All parts are fully certified and ready to install.
“We have recently started expanding our sales and marketing outside of North America, but the big bulk of our business is Western Canada and the Yukon,” said Andrews. “And we have clients in the U.S. as well we prep, pack and ship helicopters globally–Philippines, Great Britain, China and Mexico.
“We’re endeavoring to broaden our market base,” he added. “Over the last couple of years, with industry downturn, Aero-Smith is looking outside the box and trying to develop new initiatives to generate additional business and grow our revenues.”
With the oil and gas, logging and mining sectors all struggling, Aero-Smith is learning to adapt to challenging economic times, using the company’s in-depth knowledge of its customers in those industries.
“We have to adapt with them,” said Sean Sinclair, who recently joined the company as general manager. “As they change their business profiles, whether they venture into tourism or EMS [emergency medical services], as examples, we have to be ready to meet their requirements as their needs change. I believe as a smaller company we have the fluidity to accomplish that and help support those changes. We can be a lot more flexible and go down whatever road our customers require from us to keep them flying, to keep them doing what they do.”
Sinclair will oversee daily operations at Aero-Smith on Vancouver Island. This will allow Hugh and Wendy flexibility to explore and expand the business profile to maintain a positive growth pattern for the company. Apart from that, nothing will change. Aero-Smith will continue to serve the needs of its customers as it always has, with Andrews as always being the key component.
“We still need to take care of our customers,” said Sinclair. “We can’t let that slip.”
As Aero-Smith moves forward, it aims to continue being the company it has always been, providing outstanding, customer-focused service while it tries to broaden its base and evolve with an ever-changing industry.
“As OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] start changing the rules of the game, we have to learn to work with those rules,” said Sinclair. “I think our partnerships with OEMs is really what’s going to help keep us going in the direction we’re going.”
As part of its growing diversity, Aero-Smith Heli Services owns four Bell JetRangers and one Bell LongRanger L-3, which at this time are part of the company’s lease fleet and currently serving the Canadian helicopter industry.
In another exciting development, Hugh and Wendy’s eldest daughter, Holly, recently successfully completed her commercial rotary wing course, and is now ready to participate in the evolution of the company, wherever that may lead.
Andrews actively tries to ensure Aero-Smith is a fun place to work, perhaps because he is the kind of person who jokes often and laughs easily, a larger-than-life personality who feeds off human interaction.
He is the kind of man who will tell you–perhaps jokingly, perhaps not–the company’s name is a nod to blacksmiths and goldsmiths, as well as nearby Mount Arrowsmith, and the rock group that penned “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).”
“They’re a good band,” he said with a laugh. “When we first started, we had a person call and say, ‘Yeah, are there tickets available for next week’s show?’ ”
But there is a serious idea here, peeking out from under Andrews’ relaxed demeanor. What it comes down to is, everyone who deals with Aero-Smith Heli Services is considered family or something close to that, from long-time employees to the clients Andrews has always gone above and beyond to serve.
“Many of my customers as well as the staff are kind of like my family. I know those clients are here because we keep them in the air. When they’re broke down and they need us, we’ll be there for them.”