Going Vertical: Jim Rankin Joins Columbia Helicopters
Aurora, Oregon — Jim Rankin is poised to soar to new heights as the new President and CEO of Columbia Helicopters.
Late last year, Rankin left a position as the head of Air Wisconsin, the largest independently held regional airline in the U.S., to take over one of the oldest, largest, privately-owned heavy-lift helicopter companies in the industry. Columbia’s Board of Directors saw Rankin’s experience in aviation as providing a firm leadership base. Equally, they were excited by the bold potential of having someone lead the company with a new and energetic approach.
Certainly, Columbia Helicopters is not the first company to look externally for a new leader. However, Columbia did enter uncharted territory for itself when it went outside its doors for the first time when seeking a new president. The company timed the announcement of Rankin’s hiring with the announcement that Chairman of the Board Nancy Lematta and CEO Michael Fahey were retiring, and that former President Stan Wilson was becoming Chairman of the Board.
“These are very significant changes to our organizational leadership,” said Wilson in an announcement to employees in November 2014. “And these changes have been carefully planned by our Board of Directors. Jim brings a fresh outside view to our company, and we are very impressed with his leadership capabilities.”
Rankin came to Columbia with close to 30 years of experience in the aviation industry, including over 14 years as a CEO, first with Skyway Airlines followed by Air Wisconsin. He is an ATP pilot with 11,000 flights hours, with type ratings in the Beechcraft King Air 350/1900 and MD-80 aircraft. He has served as a representative on the FAA’s NextGen Advisory Committee, and as an active member of Northwestern University’s Transportation Center’s Business Advisory Committee. He holds a Bachelor of Business degree from Carroll University and an MBA from Northwestern.
The comparisons between the two industries are both easy and difficult to make. On one hand, leading a company that flies one type of aircraft can’t be significantly different from one that is also in the aviation field. On the other, the differences between a regional airline and a helicopter company that carries more cargo than passengers are significant. Despite the obvious differences, Rankin sees many similarities in the two companies.
“Air Wisconsin is a great company with a culture that is very similar to Columbia’s,” said Rankin. “Both are closely-held companies and both have been successful for over 50 years. I really liked Columbia’s unique position in the heavy-lift industry and its diversified, world-wide customer base. I was also impressed with the level of commitment of Columbia’s ownership and their recent investments in the future of the company. “
Leaving Air Wisconsin and a known industry was not the result of a fast decision by Rankin. “There were several elements that shared equal weight in my decision process, and I needed to assure myself that each of these criteria were met as I went through the process. I needed to make sure that I was joining a company that shared my personal values and one that truly values its employees. I also wanted to make sure my skills and experiences would lend themselves to advancing Columbia, and it absolutely had to be a positive situation for my family. After being with Columbia for several months now, I’m confident I hit home runs on all three accounts.”
As might be expected, the first few months at the CEO’s desk have involved an extensive learning curve, involving the company’s history, current market share and targets for the future. My initial impression was that Columbia is a remarkable company with a rich heritage and strong work ethic. I was impressed that the company has reinvented itself a number of times over its 57 year history. I was also pleased to see that the company has moved from a family-owned and managed company, to a company still owned by the founding family, but now with the support of a Board of Directors holding a wealth of external business experience.
Rankin sees his experience as an airline CEO making the transition to CEO of a helicopter company somewhat smoother than one might expect. “I have extensive aviation experience and I have worked through many regulatory challenges, including the initial certification of an airline and the post-9/11 security changes.
Most of my experience in the airlines has been running regional airlines that provide services under contract to major airlines. I’m familiar working with large, global companies and negotiating strong partnerships with them. I’m also used to leading large employee groups that are scattered across many geographical regions and the unique communication challenges that presents.”
Since Rankin took over on December 1, his knowledge and understanding of the company has expanded. “Since I’ve become associated with the company,” continued Rankin, “I’ve come to appreciate that this is a very complex, very unique company with an amazing history. Not only do we have operations around the globe, we support a number of industries from oil and gas exploration to logging, construction and firefighting and finally supporting military operations, currently in Afghanistan.
“Since I’ve started I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for the employees and the strong work ethic they have,” said Rankin. “Columbia employees will truly put our customer’s interests ahead of their own. I recently returned from Afghanistan, and I was so impressed with the level of commitment of our employees over there. To a person, they worked from sunup to sundown, supporting our military in ways the military leaders didn’t envision when they awarded us the contract three and a half years ago.”
Equally, Rankin has learned about the company’s abilities to work in remote areas under arduous conditions. “Currently, Columbia has a number of advantages over its competitors, advantages that we will use to their fullest, to accelerate the company into the future. Along with the employees’ level of commitment, I’ve been impressed with the resources we have to support our fleet of aircraft, and to provide maintenance support services to other operators, mostly military operators. We have an extensive support capability with the ability to overhaul engines, fuel control units, transmissions, rotor heads, avionics and hydraulics. And since we own the type and production certificates, we can design and manufacture many of the piece parts on our aircraft.”
As the learning curve lessens and the day-to-day work continues, Rankin expects some changes will take place at Columbia, and much will also remain the same. “Every business today faces changes in its industry. Over my 25 year career, I’ve seen every segment of our economy becoming more competitive. This competitiveness is driving companies to become faster and more nimble. One of the best lessons that I’ve learned to keep yourself and your company moving ahead of the current business environment. You have to always be moving to where your industry is headed, not focusing exclusively on where it is today. My goal is to position
Columbia to be success five and ten years from now, not just for the next couple of years. “My job is to set the direction for the company and then make sure that all of our employees understand their role in reaching our goals” finished Rankin. “That process has already begun. Within three weeks of my arrival, I added a number of key executives to the top leadership team. I felt it was important to have all the heads of our departments playing a part in deciding our future. But more importantly, they are the leaders that are responsible for successfully executing our plan, so they need to have say in that plan and then be able to effectively communicate it to the rest of the company.
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