Aaron Onines works on an S-64 Air-Crane in the hangar bay of Erickson Air-Crane in Central Point on Tuesday. The manufacturing company is moving its headquarters to Portland, but the plant in Central Point will remain. - Jamie Lusch

Erickson shifts focus to Portland

CENTRAL POINT — Global heavy-lift helicopter operator Erickson Air-Crane is moving its headquarters to Portland and could have a new moniker as early as this spring.

Erickson Air-Crane announced its intentions at this week's Heli-Expo in Anaheim, Calif. The firm began rebuilding and maintaining mosquito-looking S-64 heavy-lift helicopters commonly known as air-cranes at its Willow Springs Road site, just west of Interstate 5, in the mid-1970s.

Erickson President and Chief Executive Officer Udo Rieder said the company is gearing up to market and produce a modernized air-crane in the coming months. The next-generation aircraft, he said, is a segue to a corporate name change.

"We haven't decided on a new name, moving us from Erickson Air-Crane to what we are today, but it will be something more related to aerospace," Rieder said. "We wanted to have it done for the helicopter show, but it's probably three to six months away."

Erickson has leased a 7,196-square-foot office at 5550 S.W. Macadam in Portland. The headquarters staff will number about 20, with about half coming from Central Point. Manufacturing and maintenance operations, employing about 500, will continue in Southern Oregon. Rieder said the move will take place in two weeks.

"As we work our way through this," Rieder said, "the (front-office) folks who are not going will be integrated into other parts of the company."

Rieder said Tuesday the reasons for moving north were three-fold.

"The guys joining our new leadership team were from bigger cities," Rieder said. "To attract guys like this, we've got to have a place they're willing to move to readily. Second, because we're expanding, there is going to be more travel, sales and marketing. It's a lot easier to get in and out of Portland. Finally, from a pure image standpoint, with our growth, moving to Portland supports our growth image."

He sees an opportunity to expand market share given the enormous cost to launch a competing firm.

"If someone else tried to build a next-generation aircraft, it would take a huge investment by someone without the background and experience our company has," Rieder said. "To match what we've got in Central Point would require a huge investment. In this economic environment, who would possibly invest in developing a new heavy-lift aircraft that could potentially run $50 million to $75 million per aircraft? We're talking about leveraging existing technology — we won't fix what ain't broke."

As a result, Erickson expects to sell its aircraft for roughly half that cost.

"The rebuild process is considerably more complicated than a new-build process," Rieder said. "We are ready to move into the new production process, and we think we can do that very competitively. I think we have a very good value, especially in the time that we're in now, to be very attractive to governments around the world."

He likened the modernization of the S-64 to what Boeing did with its 737, calling it 737NG.

"The existing 64 platform is a very strong, albeit old design, that still works today," Rieder said. "We want to quantify our share of the market and then begin figuring out a production schedule. How it's built and lifts is all good. What's not good is its components."

Look for the next-generation aircraft to have composite blades, changed tail rotor blades, updated cockpits and a health-monitoring system.

Medford Fabrication President Bill Thorndike, a Port of Portland commissioner, said he's sorry to see Erickson executives leave the area, but understands what is at stake for the helicopter company.

"It's a capital-intensive business and has to be responsive to opportunities on a global basis," Thorndike said.

Erickson's future has long been a topic of speculation.

"Considering the entire company could have been moved and their headquarters could have been moved to Portland, Chicago or New York, I'm pleased they're willing to stay in Oregon. Whatever it takes to be successful, I'm for that. The reality is they're closer to customers by basing their executives in Portland."

Thorndike said the large amount of capital necessary to finance projects likely requires dealing with bankers from out of the area, with the same holding true in other aspects of the business.

Thorndike points out Jack Erickson located the company here in the 1970s because of the demand for timber logging. It was later sold to a group led by Lewis W. Van Amerongen before an ownership change in 2007.

"Erickson was out of Tillamook," Thorndike said. "It was freak luck that he even put an operation down here when helicopter logging was highly prevalent. To a certain degree I would say Erickson Air-Crane has historically had an absentee-landlord management style."

Rieder, who took the reins of the company a year ago, has added several executives to his leadership team, including H.E. "Mac" McClaren, vice president of aerial services; Gary Eakins, vice president and general counsel; Charles Ryan, vice president and chief financial officer; and Scott Fitzgerald, vice president of global sales.

Eric Fraenkel, a 30-year Erickson veteran, has been named vice president of aircraft services and will continue to oversee day-to-day plant operations.

Despite laying off 29 employees earlier this month, Erickson Air-Crane representatives were busy recruiting new help at this week's Helicopter Association International's Heli-Expo Job Fair at the Anaheim Convention Center. Erickson was among the 30 companies on hand.

Shane Scribner, Erickson supervisor of rotor blade repair, told Aviation International News that Erickson is seeking mechanics, pilots, sales reps, contract managers and a computer programmer.

"We got a few resumes for the sales rep positions, a few people with contract experience and a lot of pilot and mechanic resumes," Scribner told AIN.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail

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