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Friday, Jun 21, 2024

Accident Leads to New Leadership at Helicopter Firm

Following the death of the company’s founder, a sense of turmoil pervaded Helinet Aviation Services. People wondered what would happen with the business after a plane accident killed Alan Purwin while in South America to film a Tom Cruise movie in September. Kathryn Purwin, Alan’s wife, said that rumors started flying that the business based at Van Nuys Airport would close. “There was a lot of fear,” she said. “But it kept going. Everybody kept doing their job; nobody skipped a beat.” This month Kathryn Purwin took over as Helinet’s chief executive. She is ready to continue the legacy created by her husband in the aviation industry by growing the company. “It is our family business,” said the mother of two. “I felt a responsibility to come here for Alan and for my family.” Ground control Al Sousa, who has been with Helinet 12 years and serves as director of operations, said he was glad to see Kathryn controlling the daily functions of the company because the executive team that had been in place following the accident was taking Helinet in a direction that the founder perhaps would not have wanted, such as wanting to get out of aerial photography for feature films and television. “She knows what he wanted, and it is great to have her involved,” Sousa said. Alan Purwin founded Helinet in 1987. The company has 51 employees, including 24 pilots and nine mechanics for the 16 helicopters it owns. It has five divisions: charter flights for corporate and celebrity clients; aerial coverage for television news stations; medical flights; aerial production for film and television; and Helinet Technologies, an integrator of surveillance systems for law enforcement and security clients. The company would not disclose annual revenue. Alan Purwin was something of a pioneer in the aviation industry, particularly when it came to the aerial photography for television and film productions in that he did never-before-seen piloting and shooting. Some noted credits include “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “San Andreas,” “Entourage,” the “Hunger Games” franchise and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The 54-year-old pilot was killed Sept. 11 when the twin-engine Piper Aerostar he was aboard crashed after flying into bad weather in Medellin, Colombia where he had been working on “Mena,” starring Cruise. Corporate philanthropy was also a big part of who her husband was, Kathryn Purwin said. Starting in 1999, the company donated the use of two helicopters by Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and made crew members available round-the-clock to fly them. Last year, Helinet helicopters transported 472 children to Children’s Hospital and more than 800 organs for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and UCLA Health System and USC Medical Center, Purwin said. Yet while building the company up, there was one thing that Alan Purwin had not put in place at the time of his death – a succession plan. “Alan was an entrepreneur,” Kathryn Purwin said. “That worked well for him but it is something that we have to think about now.” Alan and Kathryn jointly owned Helinet in a trust. After he died, she became the sole owner of the company. According to the global Family Business Survey done by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2014, succession plans are not a priority for most U.S. companies. While two-thirds of family businesses have some sort of succession plan, only about 25 percent have a plan that is robust and in writing, the survey found. Bill Black, a certified exit planner and consultant based in Orange County, said that the mindset of entrepreneurs is to push their companies forward. Most are expecting to sell their businesses before anything happens to them and so a succession plan is not a consideration. “It’s about what will happen tomorrow and growth,” Black said. “It’s not about what would happen if something unthinkable happens like sudden death or disability or a stroke.” Captain’s chair Like her late husband, Kathryn Purwin is a pilot. She can fly both jets and helicopters. Unlike Alan, who got into flying at a young age while growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Kathryn started flying while at UCLA, where she was a double major in political science and history. Her career goal was to attend law school and become an attorney. She met Alan in 1987 at Santa Monica Airport, the same year she received her single engine aircraft pilot’s license. She got her multiengine commercial license the following year, and was rated to fly helicopters in 1989. “I didn’t grow up around (flying),” Purwin said. “Once I caught it, I caught it strong.” The couple married in 1994 and her involvement in Helinet was as the sounding board for Alan’s plans for what he wanted to do. “I was the person who was there when he came home and was excited about something or he had a new idea,” she said. Now, as chief executive, Purwin has found sounding boards of her own. Lacking the entrepreneurial spirt of her husband, she is making Helinet a more structured environment. To achieve that, she said, she is relying on Sousa and Garrett Dalton, the chief pilot, and giving them more input into the daily operations. “I don’t know if I would call them my mentors but they are extraordinarily helpful,” Purwin said. Additionally, she is following up on an idea that Alan had been pursuing of putting together a board of directors to act as advisors. Arnie Kleiner, the former president and general manager at KABC-TV, the Glendale news station owned by Walt Disney Co., was a long-time client of Helinet. Alan Purwin had approached him two months before his accident about being a member of the board. While he knew Alan well from the years that Helinet provided the KABC helicopter, Kathryn he did not meet until a few weeks after Alan died. “You immediately like the woman,” Kleiner said. “She’s just that kind of person.” Kleiner is helping Purwin with the formation of the board, which also includes Jim Adams, former chief executive of Reach Air Medical Services, in Santa Rosa, and Tom Norton, who comes from a law enforcement background. His relationship with Alan was different than it is with Kathryn, Kleiner said. Alan Purwin commanded loyalty and accommodated the needs of KABC and its helicopter. When contacted by other helicopter companies to get the station’s business, he wouldn’t even meet with them, he added. “We all loved Alan and we all love Kathryn. She’s softer. And I don’t mean that in a female sense,” Kleiner said. “They are different people.” That is a description that can be used for Kathryn and Alan’s children – son Kyle and daughter Michaela. The pair are pursuing their interest in the arts at colleges in Boston for Kyle and New York for Michaela, Purwin said. Helinet, on the other hand, holds no attraction, she added. “They love helicopters but they have no interest in flying or being a part of the business,” Purwin said. “At this point, anyway.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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