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The following cover story appeared in the November, 1996 issue of Island Business Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
The “Entrepreneur of the Year” award goes to David and Patricia “Patti” Chevalier. He’s the president and she’s the director of marketing for Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, based in Kahului.
After a three-year stint flying helicopters for South Sea Helicopters on Maui, former Vietnam scout pilot David Chevalier used a nest egg built over his years of contract work as a pilot to buy the company in 1986. At the time, his wife, Patti, a schoolteacher from Green Bay, Wisconsin, was teaching at St. Anthony’s in Wailuku. “It was pretty dicey,” she says. “We had a new company, a new house and a new baby. We could have lost it all.”
David deserves all the credit for this award, according to Patti. “He’s the essence of a true entrepreneur.” The second of eight children, he’s never received a nickel from anyone and had no previous experience running a business, she adds. “But he has a strong character and great adaptability.”
David and Patti started their helicopter tour company, Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, with one four-passenger Jet Ranger helicopter. They employed six people: two pilots, one salesperson, a dispatcher, a maintenance person and one bookkeeper.
Over the past 10 years, Blue Hawaiian has grown to be the state’s largest helicopter tour operator, flying about 140,000 passengers annually on 10 state-of-the-art, six-passenger ASTAR helicopters. The company operates out of the Kahului Airport and on the Big Island out of the Hilo Airport and the Waikoloa Resort. “We never planned to be the largest helicopter tour company in Hawaii, it just worked out that way,” says David. “Our driving force is to be quality operators and make sure we can continue to deliver the type of product we’ve developed to get to this point.”
Blue Hawaiian currently employs 63 full-time and nine part-time people. Because of the company’s strong sales growth, the Chevaliers obtained $3.2 million in financing to acquire four new aircraft and expand to the Big Island over the past two-and-a-half years.
Patti’s brother, David Griffin, runs the Waikoloa operation. He moved to Maui from the Midwest in 1988 to take over sales and marketing and to function as the company’s vice-president. In 1995, David Chevalier designed and had a new hangar facility constructed at the Kahului Airport for $1.2 million. The facility houses the company’s maintenance facility, corporate offices, reservations center and passenger terminal.
The Chevaliers also provide aerial photo services to the film industry, using David (a member of the Screen Actors Guild) to pilot the company’s aircraft, or providing the use of the company’s facility. Blue Hawaiian has been used to film Jurassic Park, Honeymoon in Vegas and Flight of the Intruder, as well as several television shows.
“I like to show people that Hawaii is more than leis and grass skirts,” says Patti. “My favorite thing is to fly people over Maui for the first time, including people who were born and raised here. Their hearts burst with appreciation over what they see. If we do our job right, they forget being in a helicopter and focus on the beauty of the island.”
Hawaii’s helicopter industry, which has shrunk considerably over the last few years, comprises about 20 companies with about 45 helicopters. The industry suffered a small series of accidents that led to closer government scrutiny and the implementation of Special Federal Aviation Rule 71 in 1994. SFAR mandated altitude restrictions of 500 feet and other requirements for air-tour operators in Hawaii. “Although the quality of the experience was somewhat diminished, we were more concerned about the safety of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters all squeezed into a narrow band of airspace,” says Patti.
David traveled to Washington to talk to officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. Videos taken by other helicopter companies reinforced his case for reducing the altitude restrictions from 1,500 feet to 500 feet.
Safety is an essential element for the long-term viability of a helicopter tour operator. Blue Hawaiian has a flawless safety record over its 10-year history, and is the first helicopter tour company in the United States to be certified under the National “Tour Operator Program of Safety,” whose standards exceed the FAA’s. The company’s Kahului maintenance facility is also a factory-authorized service center for ASTARs. Besides outstanding maintenance, the company’s 17 military-trained pilots are experienced with tens of thousands of hours of flight time.
David is the chairman of the Helicopter Tour Operators Committee for the Washington-based International Helicopter Association, representing the worldwide helicopter industry. Blue Hawaiian has also been awarded the prestigious five-star Diamond Award of Quality from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences.
As for working together as a husband and wife team, Patti admits it’s a big risk, but “we get along amazingly well.” They are friends, have skills that complement each other, and negotiate all disagreements. “If we weren’t married, we’d still be good business partners.”
“It’s truly been a Ph.D. in business,” says David, who earned a degree in political economics from the University of Wisconsin. He credits the company’s success with “being open, realizing how much I had to learn, and being associated with some good businesspeople.”
“Blue Hawaiian Helicopters represents the type of high-quality Hawaiian visitor experience that will enable Hawaii to compete with visitor destinations worldwide,” says Brian Kakihara, vice president of First Hawaiian Bank in Kahului.
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