Posted 140 days ago ago by Admin
“It’s not fake it until you make it , but keep working until you obtain it,” says the entrepreneur pilot who accelerated through the pilot ranks into management faster than a V-22 Osprey and decided that wasn’t enough. So, he bought four helicopter tour operations that fly from Montana to Mount Rushmore. That wasn’t enough. So, he’s starting up a fifth utility operation to balance his tourist-heavy holdings. Yet, if you’re expecting to meet some hard-charging, win-at-all-costs egomaniac, you’re in for a pleasant surprise and time.
Here, let’s introduce you to Mark Schlaefli president and owner of Dakota Rotors LLC, and (deep breath now): Black Hills Aerial Adventures, Rushmore Helicopters, Badger Helicopters (DBA Badlands Helicopters) and Yellowstone Helicopters. Coming this fall is the addition of a Part 133 and Part 137 certificate to Dakota Rotors to enhance their ability to deliver a full spectrum of services throughout the Midwest and Mountain West.
Before you get acquainted, let’s first get the closet skeleton out of the way: Schlaefli’s first love was airplanes over helicopters. “I always loved aviation and spent a lot of time in school daydreaming and drawing airplanes, but I didn’t chase that interest. I was under the false impression that you had to be a military pilot to have a real aviation career.” So, as a young adult, Schlaefli held working-man manufacturing jobs: steel mill work and fiberglass fabrication. Then his parents brought their blue-collar son into their white-collar San Diego engineering firm, where Schlaefli comfortably excelled at computer modeling and animation for engineering and architecture. He struck out on his own and that was his career until he went fishing. “I spent a lot of time fishing in the Gulf of Mexico and saw helicopters come and go from the oil rig platforms. I started researching helicopters and visiting flight schools, and discovered that a helicopter career without a military background was completely viable.” That research involved taking an introductory helicopter ride: “Once I took that flight it was all over—helicopters had me. It was way more exciting than the airplane intro. flight.”
Schlaefli got dubious info. and got frightened that his rotorcraft career dream was sheer fantasy. “In 2005, I went to Heli-Expo in Anaheim and somebody there told me that it was almost impossible to have a helicopter career after the age of 40 (things have since changed). That motivated me to jump in and get started,” he says.
It was just the jolt he needed. Schlaefli was determined to simultaneously pursue his two loves: the sea and helicopter flight with the goal of becoming a transport pilot in the Gulf of Mexico. “I first earned my ratings and became a certified flight instructor-instrument (CFII) and worked in Carlsbad, California, at Civic Helicopters for a year and a half teaching other people what I barely knew how to do myself. It was the most frightening and educational time in my aviation career.”
Tour Pilot to Tour Owner
What also frightened—and frustrated—Schlaefli was that the required minimum flight hours for his Gulf goal kept rising faster than his accumulated hours. So, to stack the odds—and hours—in his favor, he started tour flying for Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters in Las Vegas. He says, “Rotor Pro’s HeliSuccess career event played a part in my introduction to Papillon and I’ve regularly participated as a tour representative at HeliSuccess to give back.” (He also gives back to the industry as a Helicopter Association International board member.) At Papillon, Schlaefli rose to the rank of chief pilot southern Nevada and left to take a chief pilot position for another Grand Canyon tour operator, Sundance Helicopters. Sundance didn’t survive the COVID economy, but Schlaefli ended his time there as director of operations and quickly took a chief pilot position with utility operator Redding Air Service. “I was working there with very talented pilots who had a level of skill beyond what I even imagined amassing and fully intended to end my flying career with them.”
Then, a year later fate intervened. “The owner of four helicopter tour operators approached me, asking if I knew anyone who might be interested in purchasing the companies. I was, and here we are!”
It’s been not only a big career change, but becoming a multi-business owner has also changed how Schlaefli leads. He explains, “My style has certainly changed over time. When I first undertook leadership roles, I honestly had no idea what I was doing; I learned on the fly. In the helicopter industry, you work with a lot of Type A strong personalities and I started with a command-and-control leadership style. I’ve since become more of a service-minded leader as I really like to work alongside my team and empower them to succeed. I try to serve the team and equip them to get them where they want to go. By doing that, I think I’ll get to where I want to go.”
Working alongside his team is not just lip service, but sometimes (toilet) lid service. “After the daily morning team briefings, you can find me doing whatever’s necessary to keep the operation going, whether that be flight training, flying tours myself, working on business development or even cleaning the bathroom.” Now that’s service!
Schlaefli is modeling the service mindset he wants his companies’ teams to have. When he hires, he first looks for team members who have “emotional intelligence.” He says, “Today, that term is overused, but I’m sticking with it because what I really look for in my team are emotionally intelligent folks who have a service mindset and who are not afraid to participate in all facets of the business. I find that by hiring such people, we’re able to build some pretty phenomenal teams.” Is it working? “This past season’s team was fantastic,” he answers. “They were enthusiastic and very positive. I never had to sit somebody down and talk to them about things they weren’t doing, and when someone started to slack off, the other members got on them and brought them up to speed. That’s because they all were emotionally intelligent. They could make decisions without getting excited and emotional. That ability translates directly into good decision making, predictability, and the eventual result of all that is a much safer operation.”
If you’re interested in this team approach, Schlaefli suggests two books: No Ego by Cy Wickman and The No Asshole Rule-Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t by Robert Sutton. Schlaefli says, “Both provide excellent information on business leadership and team building. I discovered over time the hiring choices I make can make or break my particular work experience and company culture.” In addition to these two books, he also passes on two pieces of advice he received in his career that stand out. The first: “Listen to your team.” The second, he received with his first experience in Part 119 operations: “Take notes and document everything—and then take notes on your notes.”
Schlaefli receives guidance whenever and wherever he finds it. “I approach mentorship a little different than most people; I’m more of a lurker who watches and listens to people who can teach me something. I have discovered that even the newest team members often have some great things to teach. I’ve had many mentors and most of them don’t know it. I watched—and listened—to a lot of people and still do to this day. Randy Rowles [our Rotor Pro “Checkride” columnist] is probably my biggest mentor—and he doesn’t even know it. [He will now!] I don’t ask him specific questions about what I should do in specific situations, but I listen intently to what he has to say. Lyn Burks is another similar mentor [and another familiar name to Rotor Pro readers]. The owner of Civic Helicopters, Chin Tu also had a significant impact in his approach to business and flying.
Seeking and receiving such wisdom has helped Schlaefli have a stellar career. You’d think he’d have no past haunts from his current proud perch. Not quite. Like in the movie Citizen Kane, he has his “Rosebud” from the past. “I’m just going to lay it on the line,” he says. “Honestly, when I think about accomplishments, it’s true that I went as a pilot through the management ranks pretty fast, probably faster than was healthy, and I now own several helicopter operations. But when I got my ATP (airline transport pilot certification), that was a huge accomplishment for me. I regret that I did not go to college and have no academic degree. (That hasn’t held me back in my chosen field.) When I walked away with that ATP, it was the only thing I could point to in my life at the time as an earned credential. I know it sounds weird and benign, but I saw that ATP as my college graduation.”
Now, from his graduated view as a successful rotorcraft entrepreneur, Schlaefli sees something that’s concerning. Almost without exception, executives we profile see sunshine and blue sky for the future of helicopters. Schlaefli is almost an exception. He sees partly cloudy skies. As a relatively small operator, he sees more shadows than most larger corporations who have substantial resources to rise above the clouds. Schlaefli says, “From a small business perspective, the risks are greater than in most industries and the profit margins are small due to rising fuel and insurance costs. It can be hard for small helicopter operators to be successful. In the engineering field I started in, we didn’t have the same level of risk that we have in the helicopter industry. Mitigating risks is crucial to success in this industry, but reducing those risks is what makes this industry rewarding.”
Finding that silver lining shows Schlaefli doesn’t fake emotional intelligence. He’s obtained it.
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