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Bristow CEO Jonathan Baliff Talks About Bristow Group's Future and Priorities

January 13, 2015

In this interview, Jonathan Baliff shares his personal story and his vision for Bristow's future that builds on Bristow's strong heritage and culture.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR MILITARY BACKGROUND WITH THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE.

Aviation was always my first passion, and I had wanted to fly since I was 10 years old. I remember being obsessed with aviation in books and on TV. Like many kids at the time, I pursued my aviation interest by building balsa wood and then radio-controlled models. Joining the United States Air Force was the first step in incorporating this passion into my career. My first posting (after flight training in Mississippi and California) was at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where I flew the F-4 Phantom “E” Model, the standard fighter bomber in the 1980s. I flew F-4Es for a few years to build hours in order to fly the last version of the U.S. Air Force F-4s, the “G” Model, which was also known as the Wild Weasel.

I flew F-4 Wild Weasels in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm as part of the electronic warfare missions conducted in the Persian Gulf in 1990 and 1991. The armament that we carried included High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs). The Wild Weasels sought out the radars that fired the surface-to-air missiles, and then used HARMs to disable them. The mission was highly dynamic and required a great deal of situational awareness and teamwork.

HOW HAS YOUR MILITARY EXPERIENCE INFLUENCED YOUR APPRECIATION FOR BRISTOW’S MISSION?

My military experience helped instill the importance of safety awareness in me, especially in high pressure environments. I was the victim of a ground incident during my last posting in the military. After a night training mission, I slipped, fell and was raked by a heated inlet duct pitot tube that went through my flight suit and parachute harness. I am reminded of that incident when I see the two scars across my chest, and the appreciation for safety consciousness is something I live with every day. I learned a lot about crew coordination during my time in the military. The F-4G had two aircrew flying in tandem. During Wild Weasel missions, excellent crew coordination was vital. These missions taught me teamwork, communication and the ability to be calm under pressure. My leadership style was greatly influenced by the dynamic environment of the Wild Weasel cockpit. Good crew coordination was essential not only in the cockpit, but also with our ground crews. Maintenance of the complicated Wild Weasel aircraft was critical to each mission, as the work of our engineering teams was literally the difference between life and death.

HOW HAS YOUR BACHELOR’S DEGREE IN AEROSPACE ENGINEERING CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR CAREER?

I learned problem solving as part of my engineering education at Georgia Tech that has positively influenced my entire professional career. I learned the discipline to take a big problem and break it down into smaller problems, then develop a solution for each part and eventually the whole problem. I gained confidence that there is no problem too big or complex to solve.

My engineering education was an extension of my love of aviation, and it gave me a better appreciation for my Air Force maintenance team members and their task of problem solving.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO PURSUE A MASTER’S DEGREE IN INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS?

My interest in international relations stemmed from my interest in international aid and development. When the Gulf War ended, my aircraft was retired from active duty, so I needed to take the next step in my career. I had always been intrigued by the World Bank and the work done to help in economic development. I saw real poverty in my military travels, and I wanted to help by getting involved in international aid and development. As I continued my studies, I learned I had a real affinity for economics and finance. My tendency to “go where the action is” led me to the energy sector with a heavy emphasis on global economics.

WITH DEGREES IN AEROSPACE ENGINEERING AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH FINANCE?

I began working in energy infrastructure financing because it allowed me to leverage my interest in international aid and development, as well as my engineering degree. This was during the time that Wall Street was becoming the source of financing for power plants overseas, as opposed to the traditional role of government taxes. I started on the ground floor in the mid-’90s when Wall Street first started financing power plants, pipelines and natural gas and oil reservoirs – all of the infrastructure associated with the energy value chain. It was an interesting time to be involved in the energy industry, and I gained invaluable experience that I use in my current role.

WHAT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON YOU LEARNED DURING YOUR TIME AT CREDIT SUISSE? AT NRG?

I built a large network of CEO, CFO and investor contacts while I was at Credit Suisse. Many of the current Bristow investors are people I knew earlier in my career. I also learned important lessons about client service at Credit Suisse. Excellent customer service is an indispensable partner, and provides critical solutions and consistent, long-term value to clients. I made the move to an energy company from banking when I joined NRG as executive vice president, strategy. NRG is the largest power plant owner and operator in North America.

BRISTOW CELEBRATED THE ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF TARGET ZERO ON AUGUST 25, 2014. FROM YOUR POINT OF VIEW, WHAT CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ACHIEVEMENT?

The one-year achievement of Target Zero is an excellent milestone. Target Zero is something every one of us must pursue every day as there is no finish line. We are continuously improving upon our safety management systems and processes to create a more enduring Target Zero result.

Three important elements came together to contribute to this achievement:

  • The passion of our employees. I am very proud of our employees’ passionate commitment to Target Zero. This is evident in the work they perform every day, supported by each employee’s enthusiastic belief that Target Zero should not just be aspirational, but habitual.
  • Bristow’s culture. With safety as our foundation, our other values – teamwork, integrity, quality and excellence, fulfillment and profitability – come together to help us achieve our goals and carry out our mission.
  • Our discipline. Bristow’s culture calls for the discipline of continuous improvement. We are always striving to be better, especially in safety.

WHAT ECONOMIC FACTORS DO YOU SEE POTENTIALLY AFFECTING THE GROWTH OF OUR INDUSTRY?

My perspective is a 10-year horizon. What’s impacting growth now is that we’ve lived in a low interest-rate environment with rising oil prices for a long time, and now oil prices are falling fast. We will see a lot of stress among the operators. Bristow has about $700 million in cash and cash equivalents to protect ourselves and our clients, so we can operate in a weak economic environment.

WHAT ARE THE RECENT TRENDS YOU’RE SEEING IN THE OIL AND GAS AND SAR SECTORS?

The oil and gas industry is experiencing some serious cyclicality, but we still have upward movement in the growth of offshore aviation. We’re looking at government outsourcing of search and rescue (SAR), and we think this is a good trend because it will allow governments to do more with lower costs. We are being asked to go further offshore, into harsher environments, with the Arctic, the Falklands and other new basins opening up. This trend and current market environment will require a higher level of integration with clients because none of this will happen unless we continue to improve safety and reliability in the industry.

WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE CHALLENGES IN THE HELICOPTER INDUSTRY?

One of our challenges today is the current partnering arrangements with our helicopter manufacturers (known as OEMs). We have become a very large and sophisticated company – the other operators as well – and we have to buy aircraft in a more sophisticated way. Generally the contracts have been about the initial purchase, rather than the entire life of the helicopter. These purchase contracts don’t make provisions for risk sharing with our par tner OEMs, similar to warranties for cars that we buy for our family use. That has to change.

The OEM supply chain needs to be able to anticipate what will happen in year 20, not just in the first five years. When we purchase a helicopter going forward, we’re going to look at the contract as the beginning of a relationship, and we’re not going to buy just a few aircraft, but a whole fleet. Going forward, we’ll want to see a lot more sharing of risk with strong warranty-like assurances from our OEM partners. We think that will be better for our clients and the OEMs.

YOU OFTEN SAY THAT BRISTOW IS THE COOLEST COMPANY NOBODY HAS HEARD OF YET. WHERE DOES BRISTOW EXCEL? WHAT CAN WE DO BETTER?

When I talk about Bristow as the coolest company no one has heard of, there’s recognition that what we do is unusual and interesting in that we fly, maintain and provide a safe service with helicopters. Helicopters are perceived as being very cool. We’re such a big part of the civilian helicopter sector, yet we don’t have the household name recognition of a British Airways, who frankly are a smaller part of the fixed-wing space than Bristow is in the rotary space. When people think of cool companies, they also think of companies that serve, and there’s a service element to Bristow that makes us a cool company. If you look at companies that are successful in client service, it’s because they offer a unique type of service, have a strong service culture and are committed to a high level of service performance. Bristow is that company because not everybody can do what we do.

We can strive to improve our client service capability. Our hearts and heads are in exactly the right place, but we are working on getting our legs stronger as a larger global brand. We are doing this in a number of ways, including bringing in new leaders who will help us deliver on our client promises. We recently hired Chet Akiri as senior vice president and chief officer Corporate Development, New Ventures and Strategy. Chet joins us from GE and has a long history of serving growing businesses. He’s going to build a new team that goes after new clients and new products. We also recently hired Vice President of Business Development Mike Sim, who will expand on our client promise and improve client focus. Both executives are very aligned with our culture and bring a lot of added capability. I am very excited about Bristow's future. We have the passion and commitment to serve our clients; the right culture and drive to break through the clouds.

IN ADDITION TO BUILDING OUR CLIENT SERVICE CAPABILITY, WHAT ELSE WILL WE DO TO SUPPORT OUR CLIENTS?

One way is to accelerate the sharing and adoption of best practices in safety, which we are doing through HeliOffshore. Having an industry approach to safety – not just one that is specific to Bristow – is invaluable. In HeliOffshore, we will share intellectual property on safety across the industry to bring safety to a higher level. We also need to educate regulators and the public about the real story behind the decade-long improvement in helicopter safety – not just within Bristow, but across the industry. This is a safe industry, but the safety and success of our industry gets lost in the newspaper headlines.

WHAT ASPECTS OF OUR CULTURE SHOULD BE CHERISHED, AND WHAT SHOULD WE CHANGE?

The most important aspect of our culture that we should cherish is our focus on safety. The one thing we can change is to broaden that core value to include collaboration with our competitors to improve industry safety. We need to share how we’ve been able to unite the company under the safety banner with other companies that may be at the beginning of their journey. We still have farther to go on our journey, and we can learn from others too, but that sharing will help us to better appreciate what we’ve already successfully accomplished.

This article appeared in Bristow World Issue 1, 2015. View the full magazine here.