Sharon Desfor has been elected by the American Society of Appraisers (ASA) to become its international president. She has interacted with the multi-discipline, nonprofit, international organization for more than a decade. Before being elected to her new role, Desfor served as ASA’s international VP. But as familiar as she is to the society, Desfor’s name is just as familiar, if not more so, to many buyers and sellers of helicopters. She is the president of HeliValue$, an appraisal firm founded by her husband in 1988, publishing “The Official Helicopter Blue Book,” among her other duties. One of those duties has her on the R&WI Advisory Board.
R&WI Advisory Board members help guide the magazine in covering the important aspects of the rotorcraft industry. Members are chosen because of their unique positions in the industry; they have their fingers on the pulse of what is currently happening and what is going to happen. Not only must a member have the professional credentials to relay such guidance, but they must also have a passion for the industry. Desfor has both.
In the wake of her ASA election, R&WI asked about her new position, and explored what exactly it is about helicopters that drives her to these new heights.
What does it mean to you, personally, to be ASA’s international president?
Sharon Desfor: It means offering an improvement, just one, that will outlast my term. It’s my belief — my goal — that we can stretch our board to think more strategically. Instead of your typical agenda, I’m introducing a strategic agenda. At every meeting, instead of routine business taking up the first 90 minutes of our hour, I plan to begin with a strategic question to focus our talents on our Society’s growth and progress. Things like, “What does it mean to be an international organization? How do we serve our members outside the US more effectively? How do we put education into countries where it might not be cost effective to hold a course? How do we gain information on regulatory issues that might affect appraisers in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America?” Oh look, I just outlined my first meeting’s agenda! I’m pretty sure I we save our routine stuff for the last 15 minutes, we can still get it done.
What different duties do you have to undertake as international president?
SD: It’s a typical chairman of the board position. I have a variety of perfectly normal responsibilities, like contracts and keeping in touch with our 19 standing committees. But my chief responsibility is cat-herding. ASA has a fairly large Board of Governors, and the saying goes that if you ask a group of three appraisers for an opinion, you’ll get five different opinions. We have 19 appraisers, so I expect 25 different opinions for every agenda items — times 10 agenda items per meeting — you get the picture! So the challenge is to keep our board meetings focused on the topic at hand.
What is it about the helicopter industry, and helicopter appraisal, that makes you so passionate?
SD: Honestly, I didn’t walk around as a child saying that I wanted to appraise helicopters when I was growing up in Benton Harbor, Michigan. I never actually thought about aircraft at all, except when I was a kid and would wave at small planes that passed overhead to see if they’d waggle their wings back at me (yes, usually!) I didn’t even take my first commercial flight until halfway through college, when I got a summer job out of state. So I began accidentally, just looking for a job rather than a career. But I’ve always had the “why?” brain. From the minute I started as the office assistant for “The Official Helicopter Blue Book” in 1984, I kept asking “why?” Why does a helicopter stay in the air? Why did [Petroleum Helicopters Inc. founder] Bob Suggs decide to operate helicopters, and why did the oil companies agree to put helidecks on their production platforms? Why did that buyer pick this helicopter instead of that one? Why does a helicopter hold its value longer than other machinery?
Barry, my husband, has the passion. And passion begets passion. Every “why” question I posed as a new baby appraiser got me first an answer, then homework. Why does a helicopter fly? “Here’s my brief explanation, and here’s Ray Prouty’s book. Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk about it,” he would say. I guess he lured me in by appeasing my curiosity and challenging me. “I can understand that” led to “I can do that” led to “I can improve that.” And that’s where I got hooked. When I think I can do something better, faster, more efficiently, I have to try it.
There is so much to be curious about in our industry. The way my mind works, trends are obvious. If this happens, then that usually happens. If they both happen, then I can make an educated estimate that this other thing will come next. That is so much an appraiser’s trait.
And really, appraising helicopters is the fulcrum between helicopters, finance, and valuation. I get to talk to the coolest people in the helicopter industry, the equipment leasing and finance industry, and the appraisal industry. I get to read up on helicopter trends, finance news, regulatory changes. It’s the best of all worlds. And it’s never boring.
Do you have any favorite experiences/memories from your time with ASA so far? (If so, do tell!)
SD: Oh, goodness. My first committee meeting, my first board meeting, the first time I led a meeting, the first time I won an election: Those were all incredibly exciting days. But my very favorite memories are from the people who made me welcome on those committees, and on the board. After my first committee meeting broke for lunch, two of the long-term members took me and my husband to eat, introduce themselves, talk about the committee, ASA, and to give me encouragement that I could be useful and productive as a member. It’s like the helicopter industry – when you go back to the meetings or conference year after year, you see people that you haven’t seen in too long and you just smile.
Of all the messages and advice you have given to the industry during your experiences, what is most important piece to reinforce?
SD: “Don’t try to do it yourself.” No, not in a pejorative sense; in the sense that no one knows everything, so you have to make calls to people who do know, and ask people with expertise, and then keep probing those people to find out what else you should be asking. I still make those calls, and I’ve been doing this for 33 years now. One call raises a question, the next one answers that question but raises a different one.
What are your thoughts on the roles women play in aviation? Women are, at this point, a minority in the industry. Do you think that will change any time soon, or is changing right now?
SD: Not as much a minority as when I started! Back then, at HeliExpo, you could find the Whirly Girls booth, Wanda Rogers, Barbara Krauss and me. Ms. Rogers was this venerable person who had chaired the HAI Board, and terribly unapproachable to my young mind. Barb was very much like me, just five years older and on a fast track in her company. Through the late 1980s, we spoke semi-regularly and visited each other at the show. She married Frank Robinson in 1983; I married Barry Desfor in 1985. She got pregnant; I got pregnant. I was always just a few years behind her accomplishments. I often compared my life to hers during my early years in the industry, and looked at her as a great example of how to grow myself into someone to look up to.
Today it’s not nearly as uncommon to find women on the show floor, in the cockpit, and in the boardroom at helicopter companies. Carol Suggs became the CEO of PHI in 1990 and JoAnn Parker of Omniflight in 1992 when each of their husbands, who had founded their companies, passed away. The predominant view in those days was that those women would never be able to handle it. Yet each brought a new level of professional management to their companies that had been lacking in the pioneer days of our industry. I think we have them to thank for the professional behavior that has come into play since the 1990s.
Lynn Tilton may be a very controversial figure, but she is also very visible. The first female owner of a helicopter original equipment manufacturer, she’s made the idea of becoming an OEM executive feasible for our next generation of women in the helicopter industry.
Wow, I’ve been privileged to know and work with a remarkable number of women pioneers in helicopter businesses. Until I started recounting my answer, I hadn’t really thought about how many of those women that I’ve met through the helicopter industry were “the first” in doing something notable.
Can you give a quick, high-level state of the market? Is everything on the up and up (or not)?
SD: Nothing is on the up-and-up, sadly. Heavies are on the down-and-down, and you can blame that on oil prices. Light twins are just as bad, if not worse. Mediums are pretty flat, with the exception of the AW139, which is doing quite well for itself. Singles, especially older ones, are in pretty good demand and their values are rising, but the newer variants are suffering as the whole market tries to fulfill contracts with the cheapest possible machine.