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Entrepreneur of the Year: David Lauzon

If it weren't for a record year of forest fires in 1995 that ravaged Ontario and parts of Western Canada, Lauzon's aviation enterprise might never have gotten off the ground.

David Lauzon chalks up his aviation company's early success to the destructive power of Mother Nature.

If it weren't for a record year of forest fires in 1995 that ravaged Ontario and parts of Western Canada, Lauzon's aviation enterprise might never have gotten off the ground.

"We wouldn’t be here if it wasn't for those fires," says the president of North Bay's Gateway Helicopters Ltd.

Unfortunate but true, forest fires are big business and this was the aviation equivalent of the motherlode.

During that first summer, the fledgling company flew 850 hours in one Jet Ranger ferrying personnel, food, gasoline, hose, and performing water bucketing into fire sites. "That's what put us on the map."

But Lauzon didn't want to cross his fingers every year and pray for fire. He realized he needed to diversify and when opportunities popped up, he went for it.

Today, with between 60 and 70 full-time employees, the company provides services for the mining exploration and forestry sector with helicopter charters, aerial spraying, a flight training school and in-house helicopter maintenance.

The reach of Gateway's pilots and personnel is far ranging with work throughout North America from the high Arctic to Arizona, and as far south as Mexico.

This year they expect to post a record $17 million in sales, mostly from their growing aerial spray work, a $3 million business.

The company counts Vale Inco, Xstrata, Domtar, Canadian Royalties, Weyerhaeuser, Grant Forest Products, Hydro One among their clients as well as UAP Timberland, a large U.S. forest management company.

"We could have only dreamt of what we do now, it would have been a fantasy," says Lauzon, a Cochrane and North Bay-raised entrepreneur who grew up in a flying family. "I was 10 days old, the first time I was in a helicopter."

His father, Guy, founded Abitibi Helicopters, a successful aviation company in northern Quebec.

But David didn't get the itch to fly until his late teens when his dad was ready to sell the business.

The graduate of West Ferris Secondary School pinned his hopes on landing a coveted spot in Canadore's helicopter aviation program. Lauzon survived the first round of cuts among the 400 applicants, before falling just short of getting one of the 18 seats.

Undaunted, he obtained his fixed-wing commercial licence and instructor rating at age 18, before obtaining his helicopter pilot's licence in Sudbury.

The Arctic was calling and Lauzon headed north in the early 1990s for a three-year stint at Great Slave Helicopters in Yellowknife, at the onset of the diamond exploration rush.

It was an invaluable training ground allowing Lauzon to fly all types of aircraft in all kinds of weather. "I can’t think of a better place to get experience."

While home on leave, he started thinking of starting his own business. His father had kept one aircraft and together with then-business partner, Bruno Prieur (still with the company as a pilot-engineer) they took the Jet Ranger and started Gateway Helicopters in 1994.

They were aggressive out of the gate, establishing sub-bases in Sudbury and Timmins by 1998. When opportunities arose, they went after charter service contracts with Domtar, Grant Forest Products, CN Rail and TransCanada Pipelines.

Along the way, there's been some financial turbulence. Like most first-time entrepreneurs, securing capital to buy new aircrafts has been a tough slog.

"I put my house up. There would be guarantees over guarantees, personal guarantees, I put it all in. There were times I wasn't sure I was going to make it another six months."

In the last few years, it's all come together through a combination of charter work, the mineral exploration boom, aerial spray contracts and a flight school partnership with Canadore College.

Delivering Canadore's helicopter pilot instruction allows him to pick and choose the best students each year.

Most of his newbies start out in ground support roles, whether it's driving a pick-up truck or mopping a hangar floor before they ever climb into a cockpit on a real job. "If they’re going to be in charge of a million-dollar piece of equipment, they need to show some responsibility."

One of his graduates from his inaugural class of 1997 is Jeff Beaudoin, his current general manager. "In the last five years, every one of our students have gotten hired right out of the course," says Lauzon.

He takes great pride delivering a real-world education on how to operate "beyond the pavement." There's courses on underwater egress, chain saw instruction, helicopter pad building and winter survival.

"Our guys are ready, they show up with their boots."

Lauzon attributes much of the reason behind the company's success to his service-oriented employees. "A lot of our jobs are repeat contracts, based on our air crew."

He promotes outside-the-box thinking and is not afraid to experiment.