How I Made It: Alan Purwin of Helinet Aviation
The gig: Co-founder and president of Helinet Aviation, one of the nation’s largest helicopter services companies that operates charter flights for celebrities and Fortune 500 executives, takes aerial footage for major films like “Transformers” and provides medical transportation for organ transplants. The private firm, based in Van Nuys, has about 60 employees and a fleet of 18 helicopters, and generates about $30 million in revenue.
Passion for flying: Purwin, 48, who grew up in North Hollywood, was 5 years old when he began flying with his father on weekends in a single-engine Cessna 182. He had to sit on a stack of pillows to see over the instrument panel. Purwin’s dad, a car mechanic, flew the plane as a hobby, mostly around Southern California.
At the prodding of his father, Purwin piloted a helicopter for the first time at age 16. He was hooked. Two years later Purwin began working as a helicopter crop duster in Greenfield, Ind., where he flew 10 to 12 hours a day.
“The ink was still wet on my helicopter certificate when I headed out there,” he said. “It was the perfect opportunity to rack up flying hours and become familiar with the aircraft.”
Starting blocks: After the short Indiana stint, Purwin returned to Southern California to work for a helicopter company that took aerial video footage of the 1984 Summer Olympics. He flew helicopters that covered cycling and sailing.
On his own: For several years, Purwin worked on filming television shows, doing aerial helicopter stunts for shows including “The A-Team” and “Airwolf.” Purwin quickly found “there wasn’t much competition for a flight services company.”
In 1987, Purwin said, he sold everything he owned and bought a Bell 206 LongRanger. He co-founded Van Nuys-based West Coast Helicopters with another helicopter pilot.
Mentor: Purwin also offered charter services, flying corporate executives and celebrities around town. One of his clients was Emil P. Martini Jr., then chief executive of Bergen Brunswig Corp., a major pharmaceutical company that in 2001 merged with AmeriSource Health Corp.
Martini, who became a close friend and mentor, taught Purwin how to run and grow a business, urging Purwin to expand helicopter services to emerging markets such as medical transportation.
“At that point in my life, I didn’t know much about business. I just knew I wanted to fly for a living,” he said. Martini “taught me that if you want to get ahead in business, you have to anticipate trends. Trust your gut.”
Doing good: The philosophy drove Purwin into the medical transport business. At the time there were few companies that flew doctors, organs and patients involved in transplant surgery, which requires moving them between hospitals as quickly as possible.
“Doctors can’t risk getting caught in traffic or on the runway,” he said. “You’re essentially talking about life or death. For me, it’s a lot more rewarding than moving around execs or shooting movies.”
That business now makes up the largest percentage of Helinet’s revenue.
Overcoming tragedy: In 1996, Purwin crashed his helicopter while filming a television ad in Palmdale. The crash killed his business partner and injured Purwin and a cameraman. The incident prompted Purwin to step up safety checks.
“It was a very tragic event and a life-changer,” he said. “I survived and he didn’t. It put things in perspective and reminded me how fragile life can be and how dangerous this business is.”
Making connections: Purwin has worked with top directors in Hollywood, including Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Michael Bay, who recommended Purwin to one another. Purwin is currently in Chicago filming Bay’s “Transformers 3.”
“If you establish strong relationships with clients, things begin to snowball,” Purwin said. “People will talk about the good service you provide.”
The company gets tens of thousands of dollars flying helicopters for movie shoots, but Purwin said it makes more money from royalties when the movies appear on pay-per-view and DVDs or become video games.
Eyeing growth: Always be on the lookout for new markets, Purwin says. When his charter flight business descended with the recession — Helinet used to carry real estate developers to hundreds of sites — he focused on securing government contracts.
Helinet has been using high-definition and infrared cameras to help the Los Angeles Fire Department identify hot spots during wildfires.
“We try to get into those niche markets,” Purwin said. “It’s good to get in before everyone else does.”