Columbia Helicopters has a new chairman who understands the goals and aspirations its late founder, Wes Lematta—his wife Nancy. He passed away in December at age 82, but Lematta’s succession plan was in place long before that.
“The leadership won’t change because I’ve taken cues from Wes, and having been married for 47 years, I pretty much know how he wants it,” Nancy Lematta told Rotor & Wing during an interview at Heli-Expo. She added that there is “a strong support system that is mentoring me. Even though I’ve had a sort of ‘crash course’ over the past three months and still have a lot to learn, I have my own ideas.”
President Michael Fahey noted that “Nancy’s been involved for several years on the board and attending all the strategic meetings. Whenever I had a conversation with Wes about what’s going on, we always did that [with Nancy present]. In his wisdom, Wes was making sure Nancy became integrated in the company.”
Among the ideas that Nancy Lematta brings to the table is a desire to strengthen Columbia’s board of directors—potentially adding a couple new members—and review some of the board’s structural and democratic procedures. She’s started this process by asking for a “resume” of sorts from current board members about what they can contribute, in order to help identify strengths and improve weaknesses. But, she adds, it all boils down to Columbia’s employees.
“What [Wes and I] have both wanted for the company from the beginning is something that’s good for our employees. Our employees come first. We can trail along behind, because whatever the employees are doing, it benefits us.”
On the day that Nancy Lematta spoke to the employees for the first time since becoming chairman, there was a large snowstorm in the Portland area. Along with her daughter, she was returning from the funeral home, and a trip that would normally take 30 minutes lasted three-and-a-half hours. When she walked into the meeting with employees, she said: “Mike may have told you that there won’t be any changes, but this will be the major change: There will be pink ruffles around all workstations.”
Fahey added: “You scooted right out and said, ‘I don’t know what Mike told you, but here’s the thing: there’s a new boss in town, and we’re going to have pink stripes in all the workstations, in all the offices.’”
Noting that the humorous remark “just came to me” after some employees placed pink ruffles around her daughter’s computer following Wes’ death, Nancy Lematta added that the comment “broke the ice. Then I turned to Mike and said, Get these people out of here’ because of the snowstorm.”
Fahey noted that Columbia continues to improve its maintenance capabilities and processes for the Boeing-designed Model 234 and Boeing/Kawasaki Vertol 107-II. The company acquired the type certificates for the two helicopters in 2006, and the production certificates in fall 2009.
“Now that we’re the OEM of the aircraft, the supply chain is dependent on us, and we intend to broaden the use of the aircraft,” Fahey said. Included in the push is more maintenance for military aircraft, as Columbia is seeing increased work for the U.S. Army at Fort Rucker, Ala. The company is also securing overseas contracts with various governments, including Australia, Thailaind, Singapore and Spain, which all fly CH-47s, the military version of the Boeing/Columbia 234. As the operator with the most accumulated time on the Model 234 and 107-II, Columbia is able to incorporate experience and lessons learned into its maintenance practices, and share those tips with customers.
“We operate the aircraft up to 300 hours a month sometimes, that’s unheard of for a helicopter. And that’s because of the kind of maintenance systems we have.”