As President and CEO for Columbia Helicopters, an aircraft manufacturing and operator company based in Aurora, Oregon, Jim Rankin has a strong passion for what he does every day. Jim comes from an extensive, 25-year background in the airline industry and finds the change to the rotary wing industry exciting.
Roads Much Traveled
Jim ventured into aviation when he was studying business as an undergraduate at Carroll College, a small liberal arts school in the State of Wisconsin. In his senior year at Carroll, IBM hired him to work full-time in the summer and part-time during the school year. While finishing college and working for IBM, Jim began taking flying lessons and received his pilot’s license the day after he graduated from college. That set the path for where his career would eventually take him.
“I stayed at IBM for a time but really fell in love with flying, so I ended up leaving about six months later and going to flight school full-time earning my commercial, instrument and CFI licenses, and then started instructing.” Not long after, Jim landed his first airline job where he flew Beechcraft 1900s for Skyway Airlines, and eventually became Chief Pilot and Director of Operations.
Jim accepted a pilot position with Skyway’s parent company, Midwest Express Airlines and flew to many East Coast cities like Boston, New York, Washington, Orlando, and Atlanta, and some West Coast destinations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. After upgrading to Captain on the MD-80, he learned that Skyway, the Midwest subsidiary airline he initially started his flying career with, was looking for a president, “…and they asked me if I would go over there on an interim basis while they began a search for a new president. After about 6 months, they asked if I wanted to take the president’s position full-time. I had found that I really enjoyed the business aspects of aviation, so I gladly agreed. Since I had made captain on the MD-80s, I felt I had accomplished what I wanted to do on the flying side and I saw a new and interesting career direction managing airlines. Having a more normal schedule was also appealing as my wife and I were just starting our family.” It was at this juncture in his career that Jim went back to graduate school and received his MBA – 10 years after he’d started as a first officer on the Beech 1900.
In 2006, Jim joined Air Wisconsin Airlines, an American Eagle carrier, as CEO. Air Wisconsin started as a branded airline in the 60’s, but over time, it had turned into a fee-for-departure airline. ”When I came onboard, they were flying for US Airways, and after US Airways merged with American, we became an American Eagle carrier flying roughly 500 flights a day mostly on the East Coast. I stayed there from 2006 until I came to Columbia Helicopters in 2014.”
How Did He Get There?
When we asked Jim what was interesting about joining Columbia Helicopters, he responded, “The airline industry is a great industry. It’s a lot of fun, it’s dynamic, but I was really looking for a business that served more industries and had an international component to it.”
And what’s nice about Columbia Helicopters? “We’re involved in many different industry sectors, which I find really fascinating - we’re in Papua, New Guinea (PNG), Afghanistan, Canada, Alaska, and firefighting in the lower US.”
“Nothing Stays the Same.”
In comparing his Columbia Helicopters’ experience with the airline industry, Jim’s response was enlightening, “I would say it’s dynamic! It seems like nothing stays the same for more than a week. What we do at Columbia is faster-paced because we’re working with companies in different segments. For instance, our oil and gas segment has been on a roller coaster ride recently following the price of crude oil. Our military, government services work has been extremely strong. We are moving and reacting to many different markets, which I find absolutely fascinating and very rewarding from a business perspective. I enjoy it.”
Jim is well aware that diversification is beneficial and key to success in the industry. “We’re diversified in industry segments and duration of operating contracts, as well. For example, oil and gas and government services contracts are generally long-term, whereas logging contracts can be short-term. Having both types of contracts allows us to optimally manage our fleet.”
Like any aviation company, Jim said, “Helicopter operations are capital-intensive. You have a huge investment and the last thing you want to do is have an aircraft sitting on the ground. You want to make sure that you have opportunities where you can move assets around to keep them flying. The cost effective way to run any aviation business is to run it safely and with very little operational disruption.”
With their most recent purchase of three Chinook 234s and eleven Chinook CH-47Ds, Columbia Helicopters will have a lot more flexibility to meet diverse opportunities. “We have a number of helicopters in our Chinook and 107 fleets that we can put into action quickly. For many years, we had to pass on opportunities because we simply did not have an available aircraft. Today, with our recent investments in additional helicopters, we have the capacity to meet the market demands for our unique services – really for the first time in decades. We are well-positioned to continue growing for the foreseeable future.”
Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill
“Columbia really does have awesome people,” Jim told us. “I know it can sound like a cliché but when I stop and think of what the Columbia people do on a daily basis, I can’t help but be amazed at their professionalism and dedication to our customers. We provide them with the resources to do their jobs, but in the end, they’re the ones that are on the ground in Papua New Guinea or, in Alaska taking care of our customers. They deliver the Columbia service we are known for, and they do a phenomenal job.”
Jim shared a mantra that he believes should resonate with every leader, or hiring manager. “We always hire for attitude and we’ll train for skill.” Jim says he always looks for people who have the temperament that aligns with the culture and the core values of the company.
One of Jim’s core skills is collaboration. He uses this strength to solicit varying views and ideas from employees. His role as CEO at Columbia Helicopters puts him in an advantageous position to establish “…an environment of openness where employees feel very comfortable expressing their thoughts, even if they may be contrary to mine, or others.”
Jim is not afraid of making changes, especially if such action will improve operations, streamline processes, or help others succeed. “It’s really about enacting improvements that keep the company moving forward and getting better, while diligently watching for the unintended consequences.”
Challenges Are Opportunities
When we asked Jim what he sees as his greatest challenge for Columbia, he very candidly responded, “I think the biggest challenge is that we have been contrary to the industry. By that, I mean that the rotary wing industry has been struggling with the drop in military activity and lower activity levels in the oil and gas sector. There’s a fair number of idled rotary wing assets in the market-place right now – it’s an extremely competitive environment at the moment.”
Despite the odds, Columbia Helicopters has experienced growth for which Jim believes the company has been very fortunate. “We’ve been able to grow our government services work. In the oil and gas sector, where we only operate in the onshore segment, we have seen a decline, but not nearly as much as in the offshore segment. I feel we are riding the downturn fairly well, considering how steep the price of crude dropped, from over $100 a barrel to sub-$30 per barrel.”
As Columbia Helicopters’ CEO, Jim likes what he sees in the firefighting sector. “Overall, our firefighting business is growing. We’ve recently added three CH-47Ds that are firefighting now. Two of them have the FAS (Fire Attack System) internal tank that we developed. This gives us added versatility in that platform. In 2016, we stayed on contract probably as long as we ever have, with one CH-47D working into late-November, and another into early-December in the eastern side of the US.”
Work Hard, Play Hard
When Jim is not working, he’s playing – whether he’s playing golf, riding his motorcycle, reading books, or just doing fun outdoor stuff, he somehow manages to keep work and play in perspective.
From his bookshelf, Jim shared one that has brought perspective to his role as a businessman. That book is, ‘The Innovation Race: How Do You Balance Innovation to Stay Ahead of the Curve?’ He compared this reading experience to how it aligns with Columbia Helicopters, “…on a scale where Preservation is on one side and Innovation is on the other, there is a balancing point, but we always need to be looking to the future.”
We learned from Jim that his wife is also a former airline pilot. Once they started their family, she decided to retired to care for their two children, a 16-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. Jim’s son has a passion for flying as well and will be learning the skill from his dad this summer.
While Jim and his company are looking to expand into other markets, he is extremely proud of Columbia Helicopters’ accomplishments. He reflects on the company’s robust engineering department and MRO capabilities. “I think that’s another advantage for us as we’re looking at getting into different types of opportunities. For instance, our engineering department was very instrumental in the internal fire suppression tank project. We are also looking to improve and develop other types of capability, like our recently added NVG operations.” He added that, “It’s such an opportunistic industry that you have to be ready when the market has a demand for something – you have to be nimble and quick to respond to be successful over many years.”