Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. History

Address:
2121 Airline Highway, Suite 400
P.O. Box 578
Metairie, Louisiana 70001-5979
U.S.A.

Telephone: (504) 828-3323
Toll Free: 800-235-2452
Fax: (504) 828-8333

Website:
Public Company
Incorporated: 1949 as Petroleum Bell Helicopters, Inc.
Employees:1,850
Sales: $250.88 million (1999)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
Ticker Symbol: PHEL
NAIC: 481211 Nonscheduled Chartered Passenger Air Transportation; 481212 Nonscheduled Chartered Freight Air Transportation; 48819 Other Support Activities for Air Transportation ; 62191 Ambulance Services

Company Perspectives:

Our mission is to provide worldwide helicopter services that are unsurpassed in safety and customer satisfaction. We are a team dedicated to continuous improvement in an environment that promotes trust, personal growth and mutual respect.

Company History:

Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. (PHI), based in Louisiana, operates one of the largest fleets of commercial helicopters in the world. It provides a wide and diverse range of transportation services to the petroleum company, principally in the Gulf Mexico. It also has contract operations at various places throughout the world, including spots in South America, Asia, and Africa. The company also provides medical and emergency evacuation services, including a growing air ambulance operation. In addition, PHI conducts extensive pilot and crew training and helicopter-repair services, which in no small measure account for its excellent safety record. Although it is a public company, 51 percent of its stock is owned by CEO Carroll Suggs, widow to Robert Suggs, the company's renowned founder.

1949-59: Starting Out to Fill Oil Industry Needs in Louisiana

With the close of World War II, a marsh-land and offshore oil and gas industry began emerging in states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, notably Texas and Louisiana. The placement of drilling rigs in remote or difficult to access places posed significant problems. In Louisiana, seismograph crews often had to traverse rugged terrain in four-wheel drive jeeps and trucks, and marshes and swamps in swamp buggies, sometimes getting bogged down. It was a slow and fairly dangerous way to get to potential drilling sites. Jack Lee, who was then president of a seismographic company, was appalled by the situation and anxious to find a viable alternative. Thinking that helicopters could provide both a more efficient and safer mode of transport for his crews, Lee approached Robert L. Suggs and M.M. Bayon with his idea. Under the leadership of Suggs, the new company officially went into business on February 21, 1949, with an initial investment of $100,000, three Bell 47 D model helicopters, and a small workforce of eight employees. The company was initially named Petroleum Bell Helicopters, Inc.

Potential use of PHI's services quickly increased when, in the 1950s, offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico started its rapid expansion. The company was already positioned to provide timely transport services to and from drilling rigs and platforms, not just for seismic crews but for other industry offshore workers and equipment. By 1952, it also began expanding its services on an international scale, starting up operations in oil field locations outside up the lower, 48 states of the United States. By the end of the decade, it had operations in Alaska, Canada, Bolivia, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Greenland.

The changes in the nature of its services required larger aircraft, and in 1955, PHI began using Sirkorsky S-55s. In the same year, the company designed and built offshore refueling facilities in the Gulf of Mexico for its growing fleet of rotary-blade aircraft. By 1959, it had added Sirkorsky S-58s to its fleet and, among other things, used them to transport power poles over mountainous terrain in Puerto Rico. Such special use of its helicopters demonstrated PHI's willingness to adapt to the needs of its customers.

It was also in the 1950s that PHI began taking significant steps towards achieving the industry's premier safety record. At that time there was a paucity of helpful guidelines for helicopter maintenance and operation, reliable ground rules for ensuring the safe and efficient use of the aircraft. In 1956, the company established its own in-house training program, something that thereafter played a major part in its enviable reputation for safety and high quality of service.

1960s: Continued Expansion and Unique Missions

In the 1960s PHI continued to expand its operations both at home and abroad. Demands for its services were quickly growing. Between 1961 and 1963, its number of flight hours increased from 200,000 to 300,000 hours. Eventually, customer needs would take the company to 42 countries, where it established associations that in some cases lasted to the end of the century. An important step occurred in 1967, when PHI began operating in Africa, in Angola, or what was then Portuguese West Africa. The long range development of Angola's Cabinda Gulf Oil Company has ever since kept a fairly sizable number of PHI aircraft and personnel working there.

Starting even earlier, in the 1950s, PHI also established a reputation for public service, even the extremely dangerous work of saving lives during disasters, notably the great hurricanes that ravaged the Gulf of Mexico and the Carribean. For instance, in 1961, when Hurricane Carla slammed into the Texas coast with winds of 145 mph, PHI pilots rescued 500 people. During the decade, such heroic efforts won several PHI pilots Winged S Awards for rescue work under hazardous conditions. It was in the mid-1960s that PHI also engaged in the first of many unique missions for the U.S. government when one of its pilots undertook the mid-air retrieval of a rocket-launched space module upon its return to earth. Thereafter, PHI often worked for NASA, retrieving objects released from spacecraft. The company was also undertaking some unique assignments for other agencies and businesses, developing a diverse range of uses for its craft and crews outside petroleum industry needs.

By the end of the 1960s, PHI's fleet of aircraft numbered 87. The rapid growth of the offshore oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico fueled PHI's own expansion. As a result, in 1969 PHI built a new facility, the Lake Palourde Heliport at Morgan City, Louisiana, which was then the largest heliport in the world. The growth also required a tracking system that would allow reliable communications between pilots and flight-following facilities throughout their missions. PHI began developing such a system, one that would ultimately become a computerized network allowing effective and dependable communications with airborne pilots from Texas to Florida.

1970s: Oil Boom Leads to PHI's Accelerated Expansion

No decade in the 20th century matched that of the 1970s for the petroleum and related industries in the United States. It was boom time pure and simple. By the time that it began, PHI already had in place techniques and procedures for ensuring safety and quality service, setting industry standards.

By the decade's first year, PHI had logged over 1 million flight hours, the first commercial helicopter company in the world to achieve that milestone. Two years later, in 1972, PHI placed a major order for new helicopters costing about $5 million. The purchase increased the company's fleet to 233 aircraft by 1974, when PHI was employing almost 1,000 people. The company continued to find diverse uses for its fleet of rotary-winged aircraft. In 1971, in Costa Rica, its pilots fashioned a sling load technique for transporting goods to offshore rigs, including pallets of bananas weighing two tons.

PHI growth was steady and very strong through the entire decade. At the time of its 25th anniversary in 1974, it was maintaining operations at 13 Gulf Coast and 5 foreign bases. By the end of the decade, the company's fleet reached 308 aircraft, the largest non-military fleet of helicopters in the world. Only the fleets of the U.S. and Soviet Union militaries were larger.

1980s: PHI Weathers the Oil Industry's Collapse

Unfortunately for U.S. oil and related industries, the boom did not last, and with the resulting collapse in the early 1980s, PHI faced the prospect of a major decline in the oil field's need for its services. Robert Suggs and his staff knew that the company's continued growth would depend on increasing diversification. An important step was taken in 1981 when, in support of Acadian Ambulance's newly created Air Med Program, PHI put its Aeromedical Services Division into operation. The company quickly became one of the major providers of air medical services, expanding beyond its Louisiana base by mid-decade.

In 1984, it reached another milestone when it logged its five-millionth flight hour. At that time, it was operating a fleet of 417 aircraft. Nationally, it also greatly enhanced its profile through its support of the Los Angeles Olympics and its participation in the Louisiana World's Fair Exposition, where it prominently displayed one of its Sirkorsky S-76 helicopters on the deck of an oil rig erected for the event. It was the same model helicopter that in 1986 PHI put into use for its medical helicopter support of the Cleveland MetroHealth Medical Center's services. It was also in 1986 that PHI introduced innovations in training services with in-house courses focusing on the impact of human factors on pilots and their decision making. Another innovation came in 1988, when the company established PHI Technical Services, a new business providing maintenance services to third-party customers.

When founder Robert Suggs suffered a fatal heart attack in 1989, there was some apprehension about PHI's future, including a possible corporate raid, but Carroll Suggs, his widow, quickly allayed concerns when, in 1990, she took over the company's reins as chairman, president, and CEO. In an industry dominated by males, she demonstrated that she could get the job done, garnering several awards in the process.

1990-2000: PHI Tightens Corporate Belt but Continues to Grow and Diversify

In 1990, PHI had a fleet of 291 copters or one out of every 69 non-military whirlybirds in the world. In its primary use market,

1949:Company is founded by Robert L. Suggs.

1952:PHI begins its international expansion.

1956:Company begins in-house training program.

1966:Aerospace role begins with work for NASA.

1970:PHI reaches over one million flight hours.

1981:PHI starts up its Aeromedical Services Division.

1982:Oil bust hits industry hard, but diversification helps PHI.

1989:Robert Suggs, PHI's founder, dies.

1990:Carroll Suggs becomes chairman, president, and CEO.

1991:PHI reaches seven million flight hours.

1997:Company acquires Air Evac Services.

1999:PHI opens new heliport facility in Boothville/Venice, Louisiana, and begins construction of new operations and maintenance facility in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Despite the U.S. oil industry's stagnation, PHI continued to grow. By 1991, it had logged its seven millionth flight hour. It was also reaching some important milestones. Under Carroll Suggs' leadership, the company attained a new level as a service-orientated and customer-driven organization, one able to customize operations to fit the specific needs of its clients. Suggs also stressed PHI's continued commitment to both safety and diversification. In order to improve its already enviable safety record, the company dedicated a million dollars annually to a safety incentive program. The result was that PHI's accident rate fell to one-seventh of the national average. Its excellent safety record earned the company international recognition and several awards, including, in 1996, the Federal Aviation Administration's High Flyer Award.

Among other new challenges, in 1994, during the Haiti embargo, PHI put some of its craft to use patrolling the Haiti-Dominican Republic border, making it the first civilian company chosen for such a service. In 1997, it was also selected as the first civilian operator to support the National Science Foundation's Antarctica Program. It was also a landmark year in other ways. Among other important measures, PHI established Acadian Composites, Inc., which repairs and overhauls structural composite panels on helicopters. It also acquired the Arizona-based Air Evac Services, Inc., the country's largest air medical transport service.

Through the decade, PHI continued to play a major role during disasters. For instance, in 1997 it began fighting fires for the U.S. Forestry Service, and in the following year helped transport food and medical supplies to Nicaragua, which had been ravaged by flooding caused by Hurricane Mitch.

A new downturn in oil prices in the late 1990s led to a further reduction in drilling activity in the Gulf of Mexico with disappointing results for PHI. The worst year was 1999, when the Gulf drilling rig count dropped to its lowest on record and, in real dollar terms, the price of crude oil plummeted to lows not posted since the Great Depression. Although the company realized record revenues, its flight hours in the area and income from its transport services declined from the previous year and resulted in some further belt-tightening measures, including the sale of underused assets and a reduction in labor costs. However, a solid increase in revenues from its Aeromedical and Technical Services operations helped offset the impact of the decline in production rigs. Between them, the operations produced an increase in revenue of $14.3 million, a growth, respectively, of 30 and 25 percent over the previous year.

At the close of the century, despite the volatility of the oil market, PHI remained very upbeat. It looked for new ways to use its air fleet and planned for additional growth In August 1999, it ended construction and put into operation a new, state-of-the-art heliport in Boothville/Venice, Louisiana named the Robert L Suggs Heliport in memory of PHI's founder. At year's end, it was also on its way to completing its new operations and maintenance facility in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Principal Subsidiaries: Air Evac Services, Inc.; Acadian Composites, L.L.C.; Evangeline Airmotive, Inc.

Principal Competitors: Offshore Logistics, Inc.; Air Methods Corporation; Rowan Companies, Inc.

Further Reading:

  • Barrett, William P., 'Do I Look like a Haggard Cat?,' Forbes, October 29, 1990, p. 44.
  • Biers, John M., 'Helicopter Firm to Get New Home,' Times-Picayune (New Orleans), January 5, 1999, p. C1.
  • Griggs, Ted, 'Exec Tells Challenges of Business,' Advocate (Baton Rouge), November 6, 1999, p. 1C.
  • Lear, Calvin, 'Larger Facility Planned to Keep PHI in Lafayette,' Advocate (Baton Rouge), October 23, 1996, p. 3B.
  • 'PHI 50th Anniversary,' special issue of The Daily Advertiser (Lafayette, La.), February 19, 1999, pp. 1-56.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 35. St. James Press, 2001.