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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Breeze Eastern Revitalizes to Re-engage Operators

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

The improving financial position of U.S. rescue hoist and winch specialist Breeze Eastern was one of the reasons that the company decided to hold its first user conference in five years during the fall. Hailed by President and CEO Mike Harlan as an indication that the company is moving ahead positively in both product development and customer service, the Breeze Eastern User Conference took place September 14-15 in Newark, N.J.

This belief was seemingly borne out a month later when Breeze Eastern’s second quarter 2011 and first half 2012 sales were announced at the end of October 2011—the company’s debt had been reduced by $4.9 million over the year to stand at $10.7 million. The inherited debt, said Harlan, had once stood at more than $60 million. Backed by the board, Harlan, who joined the company in 2009, has led Breeze Eastern forward in its bid to strengthen its financial position with an improving balance sheet.

A U.S. Coast Guard team carefully deploys a rescue swimmer using a Breeze Eastern hoist. Breeze Eastern

Sales for the first six months of 2012 were $36.1 million (a record figure for the period), up 14 percent on the previous first half in 2011. This also followed a record sales figure of $17.9 million for the second quarter of 2011, a rise of 18 percent over $15.1 million for the period. According to Harlan, Breeze Eastern invested $5.5 million to move the company into its new facilities at Whippany, N.J. from its old base in Union. This had been completed in August 2010.

“There is a new mindset at our company now,” said Harlan. “We are taking a fresh look at all aspects of our business with more focus on customer centricity.” He said that the company’s 50 years in the industry had resulted in reliable products that were used in over 50 nations, including Russia and China.

Harlan also understands that the company needs to improve its turnaround time in getting products back to customers, and the new facility gives the company that opportunity, he says. “We want to improve process—to get faster. Past performance has not been consistent.”

There are numerous areas that the company needs to address, including ensuring that operators have the opportunity to engage in quality hoist training and that technical questions that are generated by customers operating ‘in the field’ are responded to quickly. Other issues being addressed include more localized spares around the world, the need to support service centers and especially the need to keep customers current in terms of technology and service provision.

Money is also being invested in new development. Breeze Eastern is close to developing a new DC rescue hoist, which will be the first in a new line of digital hoists. Harlan called it “a new ‘smart hoist’ family for better availability and cost.”

Future business includes the development of a cargo winch for Sikorsky’s CH-53K, and away from rotorcraft Breeze has completed development of a cargo winch for the C-27J JCA with in-house production. Harlan also mentioned a prototype weapons handling system for the Predator-C program. Existing programs include hoists for the USMC and Air Force Bell Boeing V-22 Ospreys.

User Group Conference

Senior vice president of customer connection, Gary Olsen, helped to bring together a collection of hoist and winch operators for both closed-door discussions and the two-day open user conference.

The main conference was introduced by keynote speaker John Piasecki of Piasecki Aircraft Corp., who discussed the drive that his company had inherited from his father, Frank Piasecki, one of the pioneers of the global helicopter industry and designer of the H-21 tandem rotor helicopter (flying banana), the forerunner of the CH-47.

The operator community was represented by members from numerous hoist/winch including: the U.S. Coast Guard, the 160th Regiment (SOAR), Erickson Air-Crane, the Israeli Air Force and the New York State Police, although numerous other international operators were present who did not make presentations.

While operator perspectives proved interesting, the main line of the conference was to give Breeze management the opportunity to get their collective ‘we’ve changed’ message out.

In detailing more on Breeze Eastern programs, Andy Midkiff, vice president of production engineering and program management said that the new CH-53K cargo winch would take a 4,000-lb load, and would feature 90 feet of cable. The flight test of the hardware was scheduled for the third quarter of CY2012 with production hopefully beginning in the fourth quart of 2015. The Alenia C27J cargo winch system would be capable of a 2,200-lb load and would have 98 feet of cable.

Roger Hahneman, senior vice president of operations, stated that the company had previously gotten into a ‘backlog hole’ and that it got caught out and left wanting when there was a surge of product being returned for maintenance issues: “[We have] 15-20 units coming in that we aren’t expecting.” He said communication was being improved internally and externally to identify: a) when is a unit coming in, b) what condition is it in, and c), what materials will it need. He added that the company had invested in more inventory ($357,000 now on hand) as well as new cell layouts for each type of unit.

There was also a drive to increase test capacity for hoists by up to 50 percent and introduce a barcode scanning system. The main ambition was to generate faster turn-around times. The current target is 60 days although the eventual aim is to reduce that figure to 45 days for every customer by April 1, 2012—a significant reduction on the 100 days or longer that customers had experienced.

Delegates received a tour of the Whippany facility on the last day of the conference to see how the company is putting its plans into action.

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