A man and a woman, both wearing reflective aviator glasses, walk off a helicopter pad in unison, as if coming off the set of “Top Gun.”
Rod Anderson and Barbara Perrin aren’t movie stars, but they have built their own legacy as two veteran helicopter pilots and the owners of HeliStream, Southern California’s highly regarded commercial helicopter operation.
As a long-time East West Bank client with a unique business service and model, Anderson and Perrin share some of their financial strategies and decisions that have helped launch and sustain HeliStream throughout the years.
The idea for a helicopter aviation school sparked only after Perrin and Anderson had met and completed their training as pilots. Perrin was initially a flight attendant at a major airline but decided to change career tracks by becoming a pilot. “I actually remember the exact moment that happened,” she says. “I’d been friends with another flight attendant, and, as we were pushing a service cart down the aisle one day, he looked at me and told me that I needed to sign up for lessons because he was doing it, too.” As an ambitious woman, Perrin took the challenge and met Anderson, who was her flight instructor at a nearby flight school.
Anderson had learned to fly as an army pilot and trained Perrin to become a commercial pilot and flight instructor. Eventually, the flight school that Anderson was teaching at ran into financial difficulties, sparking the idea for the two to start their own flight school.
Perrin soon realized that as a female entry-level pilot, she needed to find ways to gain experience quickly. “I don’t want to date myself, but back then, there really weren’t many female helicopter pilots,” she says. “As a result, I joined the army reserves and went through my initial training at Fort Rucker, Ala. After training, I returned to the reserves and served for about 13 years until our unit was disbanded.” Perrin’s role as a military pilot gave additional credibility to the reputation and standards of HeliStream.
In terms of what makes HeliStream a successful company, Anderson and Perrin highlight two factors: diversifying revenue streams and finding the best financial support.
More specifically, “the key to our success is diversity,” says Perrin. “We’ve been able to survive the downturns because we’ve picked up other areas to become experts in, where no other company could provide service or perform in.” HeliStream began with flight instruction but soon expanded into other areas of operation. “We needed to be diverse and multifaceted,” says Anderson. “Towards that end, we’ve gotten into other areas, including charter operations, helicopter maintenance, sales and aerial photography." Working closely with several power companies, HeliStream is now emerging as a source for the highly competitive field of utility operations. “We’ve been working very hard over the past 10 years to get into this very competitive, niche market. Hard work, a commitment to excellence and dedication to safety have all contributed to our success,” Perrin adds. Anderson and Perrin’s work ethic shows, as the business is growing quickly. “Rod and I are very hands-on with our operations, and we don’t want to lose that, but I think we want to get bigger,” says Perrin. “We definitely want to get into fire suppression, which will require the acquisition of more helicopters.” Anderson chimes in, “We’ve found that the key to success is also personalized touch. We genuinely want to see that our business is functioning as efficiently as possible, while also noting that safety is paramount.”
With unique services and products offered, HeliStream faces equally unique challenges in identifying and securing financial support.
“Helicopters are expensive, and purchasing aircraft isn’t anything like purchasing, say, a car,” says Anderson. “In California especially, you think about automobiles having a title and such. Well, aircraft don’t really have a pink slip or a title like you’d have for a car. As a result, banks that have little to no contact with aviation and helicopter businesses were reluctant to finance our assets. It really made it hard for us to find capital and operate our business. We were convinced that the only way that banks would be willing to loan us money was if we didn’t need it!”
Maureen Finn, senior vice president and regional manager at East West Bank adds that, “the best loans available for specialized businesses are loans that can be collateralized with sufficient trading assets for operating lines of credit or fixed assets for equipment acquisition lending. It should be the expectation of the borrower of a closely held company to provide the financial institution with their personal guarantee.”
Anderson and Perrin take out loans secured by collateral and always opt for the most aggressive payback options. “We like to pay off our loans as quickly as we can,” says Perrin. “It works for the bank, and it works for us.” The two stress the importance of finding the right bank. Of course, as Finn also points out, private equity as a source of funding is also a possibility. “If you can’t finance the equipment needed for your business, you’re not going to be able to do anything,” adds Perrin. Though HeliStream has had experience with a number of financial institutions in the last 34 years, both Perrin and Anderson are quick to acknowledge that none have come close to providing the customer service and unique partnership they’ve received from East West Bank. “We feel extremely fortunate to have formed a relationship with East West Bank. They have played a huge factor in our company’s growth and assisted HeliStream in adding six new helicopters to our fleet,” says Perrin. The two recognize that there are other ways to secure capital, but going through a bank and having easy access to funds is crucial.
Having a unique business for niche audiences has its drawbacks and opportunities. Anderson and Perrin have decided to leverage and diversify their products and use the most aggressive pay back schedule to keep their finances in line. “We’ve just been very diligent and are always trying to make sure that we’re capable of performing whatever jobs come our way,” says Perrin. “I think that’s a necessary survival tactic for all small businesses.”