Alberni needs change: Wayne Coulson

Coulson Group CEO Wayne Coulson watches over his aviation empire from his office at Chances RimRock. - KATYA SLEPIAN/Alberni Valley News
Coulson Group CEO Wayne Coulson watches over his aviation empire from his office at Chances RimRock.
— image credit: KATYA SLEPIAN/Alberni Valley News

Between fires, waterbombers, political drama and an airport expansion, it’s been a busy year for Wayne Coulson.

Sitting in his office at Chances RimRock, Coulson admits that he didn’t think that the airport expansion would garner so much attention—or controversy,

“We didn’t think there would be so much focus on us,” Coulson said.

“We’ve been there 20-plus years; 1994 is when we had the grand opening of the hangar. So we’ve been out there doing our own thing for 20-some odd years.”

But when the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District went to Alberni Valley residents to decide whether or not they could borrow the $6 million, not all of them were happy that they were being asked to pay for an expansion that some saw as Coulson-inspired.

“There was some debate in the community,” said Coulson.

“We kind of got pulled along—and there was some animosity, which was interesting.”

It’s the animosity, rather than just the interest, that perplexed Coulson.

“Why would there be animosity?”

These days, that animosity is more than just perplexing Coulson­—it’s making it difficult to expand his company’s business operations in the Alberni Valley.

In order to expand at the airport, Coulson has been expanding his work force and trying to bring new employees all around the world.

“We very much have become an international company. We have companies operating in the United States now, we have companies operating in Australia, we’re working in southeast Asia on some new projects... so we’re having to bring in some new people.”

But even though Coulson has hired a recruitment firm to help with that, convincing potential new hires to move to Port Alberni has not been easy.

“I have three examples in the past two weeks of people who have turned down moving to Port Alberni. These are very talented people that we need to grow our business internationally that we can’t acquire because of things like Google, something that simple.”

Port Alberni’s Google ranking has taken a hit in recent years after MoneySense Magazine ranked it as ‘the worst place to live’ in Canada.

“Our new problem is that if you Google ‘Port Alberni,’ look what comes up—worst place to live in Canada,” said Coulson.“We’ve lost three people so far out of eastern Canada that we’ve been trying to bring in because of this environment that has been created by outsiders. We now have to find a way to turn that around.”

It’s an effort that’s become an urgent priority for Coulson and he’s working with the mayor and council to make the ‘worst place to live’ moniker a thing of the past.

“We need to come up with a strategy that changes this image and allows people to put a target on our community from the outside and negatively impacts the whole region.”

To Coulson, the image of Port Alberni needs to be worked on the same way that he has looked after his company’s corporate image.

“If we allow that image to stay, then shame on us. It’s like a company—if you don’t change that image, you’re not going to have any work. In a community, if you’re going to allow that [negative image] to stand, then you’re never going to grow.”

And that image revitalization needs to happen before companies like the Coulson Group have to turn away more employees.

“We’re very proud to be here, we love the community, grew up here... but I have to move this business forward, I have no choice.”

Coulson would rather do it in his hometown but if business stalls, he says he will have to look elsewhere.

“If I had to move a bunch of our business because I couldn’t move here... we’ve got some work ahead of us on the image side.”

If that image doesn’t improve, then infrastructure investments like the runway extension at the airport won’t continue to spur economic activity like they did this fall, when Coulson announced a contract for the Airbus C295s and a foray into the long-range medevac business in November.

“We’re announcing today that we’ve been the chosen installer and manufacturer of the new C295 tanking system,” Coulson had said at a Nov. 10 press conference.

The tanking system was designed in the Alberni Valley by Brit Coulson and his team and could be installed in planes all around the world.

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But it could also mean a huge payout for the Alberni Valley when a search and rescue contract bid for the Canadian government is bid on.

“It’s a $3 billion contract that the Canadian government is going to do with an aviation company—and Airbus is one of the options.”

Airbus is one of three companies fighting for the contract, Coulson said.

If Airbus wins that contract, it will have to spend that $3 billion somewhere in Canada.

The SAR contract would be an offset contract—meaning that whatever company wins that contract must spend the equivalent amount of money in Canada.

“That means Airbus [could have] to spend $2.5-3 billion in Canada.”

While there’s no guarantee of where Airbus would spend that money if it were to win the contract, Coulson said that his company’s two-year relationship with Airbus, as well as the soon-to-be extended runway at the Alberni Valley Regional Airport (AVRA), makes it likely that the Alberni Valley would see at least some of the dividends.

“We have a great opportunity on the West Coast here because the aircraft are being operated so close, that we could be a central hub for Airbus.”

Increasing the opportunity for an Airbus base of operations in Port Alberni is the proximity of the 19 Wing Comox Air Force base in the Comox Valley. Currently, the C-115 Buffalo transport and rescue planes fly out of 19 Wing Comox,

Coulson said that in the world of aviation contracts, there’s nothing bigger to aim for.

“I don’t know of a bigger deal out there, ever, where there’s a linkage between the largest manufacturer in the world of airplanes and [their potential base] being so close to home.”

The first C295 to be retrofitted will come to Port Alberni in the new year.

“We’re going to have one in town at this time next year and we’re going to be tanking it. To me, that’s a pretty big deal.” But if the payout for Port Alberni from that deal is to be maximized, it will take more than just the Coulson Group behind it.

“We focus on it and we should really have the community focused on it, we should have the Island focused on it because everybody will win.”

And there’s no reason, said Coulson, why the chief winner couldn’t be Port Alberni.

“We as business just create the tools for companies like Airbus to work here. They come to Canada and they don’t really know anyone. They don’t have a manufacturing facility here—but they could in Port Alberni. There’s no reason why they couldn’t. They have to do it somewhere.”

With large-scale international contracts like the C295s and the previously announced C130 tanker retrofit on the table, Coulson said he’s not overly concerned with the provincial fire fighting contract for the Hawaii Mars.

“We’ll try again but it’s really hard to sell anything to anyone who doesn’t want to buy it.”

During the summer of 2015, contract negotiations for the Coulson’s Hawaii Mars waterbomber seemed to go on and on—as the Dog Mountain fire raged on the shores of the same lake the plane was based at and the province experienced one of the worst forest fire seasons in years.

The province and Coulson finally signed a one-month contract for the waterbomber at the beginning of July—long after it was needed, according to Coulson.

“The government has ample time to contract the aircraft. In the scheme of things, it wasn’t a lot of money. They spent multi-millions on Dog Mountain and then we burned the mountain up. It was just a sad story.

Then Sechelt lit off, Port Hardy... it really was a piss-poor decision by government.”

But Coulson is looking ahead to the rest of 2016, rather than dwelling on what’s swiftly becoming a very  small part of his business.

Climate change is leading to more forest fires in countries that have never dealt with this level of fires.

“We saw what happened in southeast Asia. They’ve never burned like that before but climate change is a big problem. You’ve got that whole region that has never really burned and has lots of C130s that they’re looking to put in a fire fighting program.”

With 2,100 C130s worldwide, Coulson Aviation’s unique ability to retrofit those planes puts them in a solid position to fight fires in locations that have never burned before.

And that’s not the only thing Coulson is working on.

Another deal three years in the making is set to be announced in the first quarter of 2016—a deal that will be based at the Alberni airport.

Big things are possible for Port Alberni, Coulson said—it’s just up to the community to fight for them.

“What we’ve found out there, outside Alberni, is that what you work hard for and what you fight for, you can accomplish.”

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