Canadian Helicopter sees growth opportunities at home with mining and Plan Nord

MONTREAL – Canadian Helicopters Group Inc. sees plenty of growth opportunities in Canada even as it eyes continued activities in Afghanistan and acquisition opportunities in Asia, South American and Africa.

“The continuing recovery in the general Canadian economy leads us to expect that 2012 will prove to be another strong year in terms of our top and bottom lines,” CEO Don Wall said at the company’s annual meeting, at which shareholders approved a new corporate name.

Following approval from the Toronto Stock Exchange, its moniker will change to HNZ Group (TSX:HNZ.A, TSX:HNZ.B). However, it will retain its operating identity as Canadian Helicopters and Nampa Valley Helicopters.

Both the mining and energy sectors should expand their work this year.

But the Montreal-based company is also beginning to focus on reaping benefits from the Quebec government’s $80-billion northern development called Plan Nord.

It operates some 40 aircraft in the province, but could relocate others if opportunities warrant a shift.

“We think there will be considerable upside there and we are building our business around that,” he said in response to a shareholder question.

Wall declined to disclose any revenue forecasts from potential Plan Nord contracts.

Most of the work will be focused on helping the mining and utilities sectors develop in remote areas with limited access except by helicopter.

“It is very much a focus towards helicopter support work so we think it will be very good for us over the next few years,” he said later in an interview.

The distinction between regular activities and Plan Nord is a little blurry. Canadian Helicopters already supports the railway sector in the province out of Sept Iles, but could add contracts if Canadian National Railway (TSX:CNR) pursues an expansion to remote mines.

Wall said the company has also had discussions with Ontario’s embattled emergency helicopter service Ornge, which was a client for 35 years before its contract ended last year.

The air ambulance service is under criminal investigation for “financial irregularities.”

The Ontario government cleaned house and took control of the organization after the provincial auditor general released a report in March describing a “real culture of fear and intimidation” among paramedics and other lower-level staff.

Ornge plans to continue providing the service internally, but Wall said there’s a possibility it could eventually become a customer again.

“Right now you have a situation where you have a new board, a new management team that are trying to decide what’s best to do and I think it will take some time to figure that out.”

Canadian Helicopters lost some Afghanistan business last fall, but expects that two remaining contracts will be extended this fall and may eventually be renewed through 2016.

After that, it hopes to be part of U.S.-led reconstruction efforts that have been solidified with President Barack Obama’s commitment to keep troops in the country until 2024.

“We think we will have a role,” Wall said, noting that companies like Fluor and Aegis are already looking at the country.

“They need helicopters there’s no doubt about that. Will the work be the same? I don’t know but certainly there’s good opportunities.”

Last year’s acquisition of HNZ could also be a springboard to acquisitions or winning contracts, especially in Asia’s oil and gas sector.

It has also spent time in South America and Africa but hasn’t found “appealing” opportunities.

Canadian Helicopters (TSX:CHL.A) said late Thursday that its first-quarter net income nearly doubled to $8.3 million as a pick up in the Southern Hemisphere helped to offset a seasonal slowdown in Canadian operations.

The provider of helicopter services for both civilian and military customers said profits amounted to 63 cents per share, up from $4.8 million, or 37 cents per share in the same quarter of 2011.

Revenues grew 33.3 per cent to $62.5 million from $46.9 million, driven by activity in its fire fighting and resource sector markets.

Benoit Poirier of Desjardins Capital Markets said he expects the company will use its “solid financial position” to make an international acquisition to diversify its revenue away from Afghanistan.

On the Toronto Stock Exchange, Canadian Helicopters shares closed at $33.99, up 89 cents or 2.69 per cent.