How Becker Helicopters turned Night Vision into a $20m business

The following is an article by the Australian Business Review


The first day Becker Helicopter Services began business from an airport on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, it poured rain all day and co-founder Jan Becker was in labour with her second child. “I said to my husband, Mike, I don’t know whether this is good karma or bad karma,” Captain Jan Becker says. “But when is a good time to start a business? When is a good time to start a family?” That was in 1996.

Today Becker Helicopters is a $20 million business, and a staff of 70 with a fleet of 19 helicopters. While it provides some commercial helicopter services, including firefighting, its main focus is training helicopter pilots. Becker Helicopters trains more than 100 students a year, giving them a total of 15,000 hours of training.

The company has specialised in training pilots to fly with night-vision goggles. Clients include many overseas military. “There is no other company in Australia that does what we do,” says Becker who is a finalist in the national Telstra Businesswoman of the Year awards to be decided next week. “It’s very specialised. We have spent a lot of money, energy and time creating a company that is extremely professional and extremely international.”

Becker and her husband were working in Papua New Guinea in the 90s when they decided they wanted to return to Australia and start their own business. She was a trained nurse and midwife and he was a helicopter pilot. They spent a year developing their business plan and chose the Sunshine Coast for its good weather and open air spaces. Becker grew up in Singapore, where her father was involved in setting up a helicopter business which serviced the oil industry, and was keen from the beginning that their company had an international clientele. “If you train people from America and India and Asia and the Middle East and South Africa, you have a global business with global revenues,” she says.

Becker obtained a masters degree in Aviation Management while running the company with her husband and bringing up their two daughters. A few years ago they saw the need for a longer-term business plan. They saw a niche in training helicopter pilots to fly at night with night-vision goggles. “We did most of our flying during the day. We decided that we could fly at night, creating another new revenue stream. And if it was bad weather at night we could use night-vision goggles.” They couldn’t use US night-vision goggles because of laws restricting their use to US troops so they battled to get approval for European-made ones. “It took us three years and almost $300,000 in legal fees and testing to get the goggles approved for use in Australia,” she says. “We couldn’t use American goggles if we wanted to train pilots from China or India. It was extremely expensive. It was a big risk. It could have failed. But there is a tenacity and a courage you have to have in business.”

Becker says her company’s training in night flying has given it an important niche in the international pilot training market. “We train more pilots a year than the Australian Defence Forces,” she says. “Half our instructors are ex ADF. We have the best of the best because we pay them better than they were getting in the military.” Becker says their company has an edge with international military because it can offer high quality training at a much cheaper price than many of the forces themselves. She wants to see Becker Helicopter become “the premium helicopter flight training company in the world” — a move which could see the couple take in outside investors in the company. She is keen to get more business from the Australian Defence Forces.

She also wants to expand her humanitarian work using her midwife skills in Tanzania and other developing countries. Meanwhile her second daughter is planning to study medicine and her older daughter is training to become a pilot with Jetstar. Becker believes having a long-term plan is a key to success in business. “If you have a plan, your subconscious will find a way to make it happen.”


The full article inThe Australian Business Review website here. We acknowledge credit to Glenda Korporaal, Editor – The Deal Sydney and The Australian Business Review

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