Lunch with Viking Air’s Dave Curtis

Dave Curtis.

It’s turbulent skies these days for Viking Air—a Canadian export success story—but nothing Captain Curtis can’t handle

You get the feeling that Dave Curtis likes to march to his own beat—both in and out of work.

Not only did the 53-year-old president and CEO of Viking Air Ltd. buck convention in 2007 to revive production of the Twin Otter (an iconic turboprop plane mothballed in 1988 by de Havilland Canada) and create the only complete aircraft-manufacturing facility west of Ontario, but he’s also a drummer in a rock ’n’ roll band, Seven Straws In. “I’m not good but it’s how I rejuvenate my soul,” he says of his group comprising other Vancouver Island entrepreneurs. “We have fun.”

Drumsticks out of sight today, Curtis has flown over to Vancouver in an Otter with part of a trade delegation from China’s Guangdong province following a tour of Viking’s North Saanich factory. With only around 500 general aviation aircraft (the category for smaller, civil aviation) in all of China compared with 250,000 in North America, according to Curtis, the country is ripe with opportunity; he hopes to sell some 400 Otters to the Chinese over the next 20 years.

A longtime pilot (Curtis started as a timber cruiser for Pacific Logging Ltd. and Western Forest Products Inc. in the early ’80s), he says he pinches himself that he was able to switch in 1983 to Viking, then just an aircraft- maintenance company, after being introduced to company founder Nils Christensen. “I’m passionate about flying, so I was lucky to fall into something that to this day is fun although challenging.”

Challenging, indeed. We’re meeting in late April, shortly after 116 of its 450 workers had to be laid off due to a slowdown in the market. Until recently, Viking had been on a tear, making an aircraft every two weeks or so; now it’s every 15 business days. Over salad at Coal Harbour’s Cactus Club, he explains that Russian buyers were being tardy in paying for aircraft following sanctions in the wake of turmoil in Ukraine, so Viking had to cut back production. “We have to make sure we’re in compliance with all the sanctions, which is like gravel in the transmission. I don’t want to go to jail so we have to be so careful about who we’re dealing with, where the money’s coming from,” says the father of two grown-up children. “It’s simply not conducive to business.”

It’s also the risk, undoubtedly, of manufacturing in Canada rather than outsourcing to a cheaper labour market. (In addition to the Saanich facility, Viking does some final assembly in Calgary.) “There’s extra pressure on us to be the most efficient we can be,” he concedes, adding, however, that having a niche aircraft with worldwide buyers helps. Not that Viking didn’t consider other locations, “but philosophically, you couldn’t say, ‘Oh, well, it’s a great Canadian Twin Otter that we’re building—but it’s man- ufactured in China or India or wherever.’”

It’s all part of a “long play” in which he knew he needed partners, such as the Toronto-based investment firm Westerkirk Capital Inc., which became majority shareholders in 2003 and enabled them to buy the licences to make six other aircraft. “This is not a quick-turn play of putting money in and three years we’ll get out,” says Curtis. Happy to be a minority share- holder, he adds, “It’s natural that you get diluted when we’re building a great company.”

Before leaving for further meetings with the Chinese delegates, Curtis sums up the difference in deal-making in emerging markets. “In the West, it’s, ‘Here’s my product; this is how much it costs.’ There, it takes time because it’s so much more about building trust.”