William Amelio

William Amelio, CEO, CHC Helicopter Corp.


William Amelio, CEO, CHC Helicopter Corp.

Richmond’s CHC Helicopter is one of the world’s biggest helicopter service companies, with most of its $1.3 billion in yearly revenue earned by ferrying workers to and from offshore oil-and-gas facilities. It was acquired in 2008 by Connecticut-based private-equity company First Reserve Corp. for $3.7 billion, a massive sum by B.C. standards. And now another piece of international flavour: William Amelio, originally from Pittsburgh, joins CHC after a lengthy career in the global personal-computer business, most recently working in Singapore as president and CEO of the world’s fourth-largest PC manufacturer, Lenovo Group Ltd. As a company looking to grow in a big way, CHC just might benefit from a little global insight.

First a Chinese firm and now a Canadian one. Are you attracted to foreign companies or did it just work out that way?

I like the whole idea of global companies and international opportunities and the idea of melding different cultures together and using diversity as a competitive weapon. I have a firm belief that the more diverse the ideas and thinking are, the more creative the innovations you can come up with. I think there’s an unbelievably diverse background in Vancouver. It’s a remarkable city. Every time I come here, I’m taken aback at what you see and the people that are here.

What other parts of the world have you worked in?

Literally, almost everywhere. By the last count I had, I think I’ve been in 60 countries. I have about four different passports now that have run out of pages. Probably the only continent I haven’t been on is Antarctica.

Is there any place that’s had a business culture or mindset that really impressed you?

There are best practices everywhere, but you can’t help but be impressed with China. When you see the entrepreneurial spirit there and the number of people that have taken just a kernel of an idea and turned it into a pretty big business, it’s quite impressive. I think it’s ingrained in their history. All the way up until the mid-1800s, they were one of the leaders in trade in the world.

How did you wind up in Vancouver?

I hooked up with the First Reserve team, and they told me of this opportunity. At the beginning I said, “I don’t have the depth of experience, of course, in helicopters.” But as they started talking about the set of problems and challenges, it fit right in my strike zone.

CHC is a smaller company than others you’ve worked for. What attracted you?

We have plenty of opportunities for organic growth, being able to expand our oil-and-gas business into different geographies and expand into different markets like search and rescue. And then there’s great acquisition possibilities. The helicopter service industry has a couple big players and a couple smaller players; it’s ripe for some amount of consolidation where economies of scale could help. And I’ve done plenty of acquisition integration in my career. CHC is a conglomeration of a lot of acquisitions as it is, and there is a need still to get one CHC, to get the company to focus on that brand as opposed to many of the little individual brands.

What are the challenges in bringing these different pieces together into a single strong company?

Well, one of the hallmarks of CHC is its safety culture. It’s second to none, world class. However, it’s not embedded everywhere in the culture, and we have an opportunity to get best practices in some of our far-flung areas. We’re lacking some amount of process that would help us become more reputable and reliable. We depend a lot on the expertise of all the teams that we have, but what would help that is to make sure we’re sharing best practices across the world. That’s what truly global best-practice companies do. We’re still a relatively modest-sized company that’s growing, and a lot of the time these aren’t the things you establish at the beginning. But you need to establish them because the bigger you get, the harder it is.

Tell me about the Amelio Foundation.

My wife and I have been involved in charities all of our lives, and when we moved to Singapore we decided that we wanted to do something with a little more impact. My wife was on a visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. She was in a temple and she happened to run across a little girl who asked her for money. She asked the girl, “Before I give you any money, can you show me your school and the village you live in?” She ended up in tears, and by the time she left, she was sponsoring a dozen girls. 

So within a month I made it to Cambodia, and over a glass of wine at dinner my wife said, “You know, Mother’s Day is coming up, but I don’t want anything for Mother’s Day; what I do want is for you to build a school here in Cambodia.”

At which my jaw dropped and I looked at her and said, “This is a Third World country. There’s corruption. Can I wire money here and actually build something?” And she stopped, sipped her wine and looked across the table at me and tapped my hand and said, “You figure out how to run a couple of global companies; I’m sure you’ll figure this out.” Now we’re at eight schools and 5,300-plus kids helped.