Lunch with Danny Sitnam

Danny Sitnam, Helijet | BCBusiness

Helijet’s Danny Sitnam on how 27 years of business success—including the “bizarre-est business plan”—can easily be summarized in just 15 minutes… while eating lunch

I hit the ground running while lunching with Danny Sitnam, president and CEO of Helijet International Inc. In between his offices—which are a few runways over at YVR’s south terminal—and a meeting downtown, he’s squeezing in a bowl of seafood chowder and a tomato juice in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel. Twitching a bit in his seat and volleying back with full, but rapid-fire answers, Sitnam freely confesses to being a “restless person,” who likes to limit meetings to 15 minutes. “My colleagues say, ‘If you’re going out with Danny, order right away because you’re not going to be sitting around,’” he says with a laugh. “Truth is, I’m already thinking about the next thing we have to do.”

It’s a trait that’s obviously worked for a business now in its 27th year. His scheduled helicopter service between Vancouver and Victoria is no small feat. Citing the difficulties of marrying “economics with great service and very great safety standards,” the 56-year-old explains the highly regulated operation is tough. “Most business people would say there are easier things to do than that balancing act every day,” he says.

To date, Helijet has clocked more than 22 million kilometres of passenger service. The company has 135 staff, 13 helicopters, two Learjet airplanes, and $30 million in revenue. Sitnam, however, tallies the accomplishments differently: “As my chairman and I always call it, ‘Wow, this is the however-many payroll [periods] we’ve made—who would have ever thought it?’”

Originally trained as a machinist and then as a pilot, Sitnam flew resource and utility missions around the Yukon and northern B.C. for eight years. He admits that the Helijet route began as “probably the bizarre-est business plan” anyone could propose. Rejected by myriad banks, the service was bankrolled by, among others, Alistair MacLennan and Stewart Vorberg, with whom Sitnam had started an executive helicopter charter in the ’80s. The Langley-based business, called WM Aviation, was short-lived as that market at the time was non-existent.

“It was more like Danny, a helicopter pilot who convinced a couple of buddies to put some money on the table, and some grandiose idea to start a service,” he remembers. “We did not know what we were getting ourselves into financially and when I look back now I’m just amazed that we got through it.”

Over the decades, Helijet has been consulted for potential services in such countries as China and Japan. Sitnam has attempted to cultivate, to no avail, other scheduled helicopter routes to Whistler, Abbotsford and Seattle. Today he is trying to bring on partnerships: Helijet has a contract with the B.C. Air Ambulance Service and has also teamed with numerous properties and associations such as the Fairmont hotel group and sport fishing lodges in Haida Gwaii and on the central coast of B.C. (“It’s like Jurassic Park up there. I love it.”)

Sitnam tries to convince me that he relaxes at home, but even then he points out all the work to do on his “high-maintenance” North Shore property. “That keeps us busy,” he adds, referring to his wife, Laura. The pair met in Grade 8 at North Vancouver’s Windsor Secondary, when their lockers were side-by-side.

The couple has two grown-up children. Daughter Corra-Rose is in hospitality management. Son Owen is flying helicopters for a company in northern Alberta and recently flew with his father. “It was the shot of the century,” Sitnam says proudly. “Aviation is still my passion even if now I really only fly a desk.” n

Danny Sitnam’s Favourites

1. “For a glass of wine or beer after work in Victoria, I enjoy the Strathcona Hotel (919 Douglas St., Victoria;—especially the upstairs bar, which has a volleyball setup complete with sand. It has a beautiful view over the city and it’s a real Cheers kind of place.”

2. “The Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria (721 Government St., Victoria; has a wonderful restaurant called the Bengal Lounge, where they make the best curry in the world. I’ve taken our staff there. It has a casual flair and I know most of the folks who work there now.”

3. “A fine spot that I enjoy so much is the Marina Restaurant at the Oak Bay Marina (1327 Beach Dr., Victoria; It has a long-standing, old-world aura about it, and a calming seaside view that’s to die for, just on the waterfront of the Oak Bay community. Sushi works well here.”