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Executive Watch - Howard Hadley, CEO/Owner Main Line Helicopter LLC (Helicopter Handler)

Posted 161 days ago ago by Admin

Howard Hadley apologizes again—and yet again. During our interview, we’ve been repeatedly interrupted by others needing an answer from Hadley who co-founded Main Line Helicopter LLC with his late wife, Sherry. Main Line sounds mainstream, but you probably don’t associate the name with its mega-selling specialty product: Helicopter Handler, a sturdy steel-based platform specifically built to securely roll helicopters to, from, and around hangars. (Full disclosure: Helicopter Handler is one of the longest running regular advertisers in this publication, but that has no effect on this profile—except to put this writer on notice not to be too favorably biased.)

But what’s with all these interruptions? Does Hadley consider our interview an intrusion? Is he attempting to avoid personal details that might fill in the brushstrokes of his portrait?  

As these questions begin to coalesce into a cloud of suspicion, the little cloud bursts with a thundering realization—Hadley isn’t hiding; these intrusions are showing who he really is: an open-door open book. He’s letting us see a not-so-secret active ingredient in his successful, varied career. “I’m very much a believer that the person at the top must have an open-door policy,” he resumes.  “I believe in being extremely inclusive. I’ve always tried to manage businesses as if we’re a family. When you’re in a top executive position like CEO or COO, you still have tough decisions to make, but it’s very helpful when those decisions start at the bottom and rise up. I don’t like top-down management with no input from below. I didn’t even like it when I was in law enforcement, which is usually structured in a top-down way. A lot of small-business owners lose sight of the fact they wouldn’t be where they are if it weren’t for the people that work for them. People are a business’ greatest asset.”

I’m thunderstruck—and somewhat shamed for my unfounded suspicion—by this unassuming, inclusive leader who speaks simple truth at a comfortable, confident pace that comes from having lived and learned. (He didn’t rush through our questions; he generously gave us over an hour of answers and insights.)

Wait, what was that he said about being a cop?

Tulsa Police

Surprisingly, for a small-business owner who now sells Helicopter Handlers, Hadley began his career as a patrol officer on the Tulsa, Oklahoma, police force with a fresh associate’s degree he received in criminal justice under a law enforcement education assistance grant from Northwestern Oklahoma State University in 1972. Actually, he was nudged into this career path by his farming dad, Bob, who wanted his four children to not depend on the whims of agriculture as the family had when Hadley was growing up on their 17,000-acre West Kansas working farm and cattle/sheep ranch. “It was probably for the best because each of us has done well,” Hadley surmises.

Still, back then he didn’t know exactly what he’d gotten into in Tulsa. The police department borrowed a Hughes helicopter and started up an air unit in 1981. Two weeks later the helicopter went down in a fatal crash killing its two officers onboard. Hadley was now the only person on the force in a management position left with flying experience. (In college, he’d worked at the Alva Municipal Airport and earned his personal fixed-wing license on the side. Roughly half a century later, he's now accumulated approx. 4,000 flight hours in fixed-wing and 3,000 hours in helicopters.) Shortly after that fatal crash, Hadley’s superiors asked their only pilot in management to resurrect the air unit. Hadley recalls, “My first action was to hire a retired chief helicopter pilot from Kansas City’s police department. Then, we spent 90-120 days doing nothing but training with our department’s pilots.”

Rotorcraft Career

Thus, was born Hadley’s new career with helicopters. (He still stayed connected to fixed-wings; when the small unit needed a plane in the air, they borrowed Hadley’s Cardinal.) The next year, 1982, he was invited to attend HAI Heli-Expo. “That was an eye-opening experience for me,” he says, and soon thereafter he joined the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (now the Airborne Public Safety Association) and wound up on their board of directors.    

Hadley retired from the Tulsa force in 2001, and only five days later he began his business career with an MRO, Consolidated Heliflight, as director of marketing. (Shortly after his start with them, they changed their name to Northstar Aerospace.) After four years of working on the marketing side of the company, including international travel, Hadley was promoted to general manager.

All this executive experience and travel (he met a U.S. based business owner in a bar in Bangkok) primed Hadley to be recruited as U.S. CEO in 2006 for North American Turbines in Miami, where he was given the immediate mandate to relocate the business.  Hadley and its Gibraltar-based  ownership changed the Miami company’s name to Segers Aero Corp. and in a couple of years the Miami business relocated to the town of Fairhope, Alabama, on the Gulf Coast. “I moved 55 families from Miami to Baldwin County, Alabama. It was a huge culture shock, but we were still on the water and it worked out very well. Many of those families still remain in the area.”

When he realized his seven years as Segers’ CEO was coming to an end, Hadley and wife formed Main Line Helicopter LLC, which acquired the manufacturing and distribution rights for Helicopter Handler in 2013 from Jacques Guequierre. “Sherry was president and I was vice president,” he says.

Sadly, Sherry passed away this past November. Not only was she beloved by her husband, but was also well liked and respected in the helicopter community. Among her contributions to the industry: she served for over 15 years as executive director of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association. Even after Sherry’s tenure as ALEA’s executive director, she continued to be responsible for managing tradeshow logistics up to the point of her passing. “The best and greatest thing in my life for the past 31 years has been my wife. Sherry was pointing me in the right direction for more times than I like to admit. She was my rock. She’s been by my side since 1992 and kept me focused and grounded. (Hadley understandably alternates between past and present tense when talking about his recently deceased love) That’s why we’ve been successful at Main-Line and why I had successful careers. We had each other to lean on and sought advice from each other. I’d been a bachelor for nine years when I met Sherry and we just clicked from the start and enjoyed life together. I would say my marriage to Sherry was my greatest accomplishment, if I can call that an accomplishment. She was more than that.”

Main Line and Helicopter Handler were intended as a semi-retirement occupation for the couple, but it kicked off the busiest of times for them. If you haven’t noticed, Hadley has a pattern of so-called “retiring” and then quickly jumping into a new job or career before a microscopic moss spore has a chance to germinate. His “retirement” from Segers proved no exception. Not only did he not really retire, but instead cranked up a new company with Sherry, but he decided to compound their activities by signing a one-year contract to be the chief operating officer for a defense-logistics company in Virginia.

Sherry handled Main Line’s home office in Fairhope during the daytime and Hadley moonlighted to fulfill his part of their shared responsibilities from Virginia (calculating price quotes and costs). He also piloted his way back to Fairhope monthly for long weekends. (Virginia to the Alabama coast is not the shortest commute!) Adding another wrinkle in these logistics is that Helicopter Handlers are not made in Fairhope, but built by PBZ Manufacturing in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch/Amish country. All welding and fabrication happen there in one smooth, quality-controlled process and the products ship to Main Line’s customers from The Keystone State. To stress the value of this long-distance relationship, Hadley says, “My main challenge today (for Helicopter Handler) is to maintain an excellent relationship with our manufacturing company in Pennsylvania. It would be a huge challenge to find someone who would do as good a job as they have done for us.”

Late Afternoon Life

After completing his year as COO in Virginia, Hadley returned to Fairhope, where now his work days—and commutes—are deservedly shorter. “Commuting to work is pretty easy,” he says, “because I just walk from one end of the house to the other.”

Fortunately, he and Sherry had time in their semi-retirement to enjoy their joint passion for travel. For 10 years before COVID, they took nine different Viking river cruises, as well as several small boat ocean cruises. “We liked smaller river cruises to mass commercial cruises because we preferred not to be packed at sea with 5,000 of our closest friends,” he remarks with a touch of humor. His three favorite cruises sound like a bucket wish-list. “Viking has a lot of good cruises,” he says, “but my favorites were the Danube River (that flows through the middle of Europe), the Douro River (through North Portugal and into Spain) and the southern France cruise from Avignon up to Lyon.” He pauses these travel recommendations for a half-beat that serves to make his next comment more poignant, “We liked to travel… I’m not sure what I’m going to do without her….” Yet, before that heartfelt moment weighs too heavy, Hadley bounces back, “But I still like to travel and I’m certain I’ll figure out something. (He might buy an EU rail pass, which is his favorite way to tour Europe.)

So, overall Hadley is adjusting to these comfortable late-afternoon, widower days as well as one could. His Helicopter Handler business keeps him busy and runs like a fine-tuned machine. He says, “This is a pretty stable business that slowly varies according to overall helicopter sales. We don’t have regulatory oversight because ground-handling equipment doesn’t have oversight from anybody, which is unlike the regulations that the aircraft on our platforms must meet.”

He also finds stability and comfort in the industry he entered as a cop those many years ago. “Little did I know when I was asked to restart Tulsa’s aviation unit back in 1981 that it would lead me down the paths I traveled to own a manufacturing company in the helicopter industry,” he muses. “What I found when I first started at ALEA and got involved with HAI is that this industry gets in your blood. Once you’re exposed to helicopters, you’ll carry them with you the rest of your life.”  

What a full life of love and work it’s been.   


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