Sofia Ambler and her husband John, a former Cathay Pacific captain, bought helicopter business Heletranz in 2012. Ambler explains her role and how the business is bringing new experiences to the luxury tourism market.

A brief description of the business
Heletranz is all about the experience. We offer charter helicopter flights all over New Zealand covering both local flights to Waiheke, and also longer itineraries that could be 10-days over the whole of New Zealand. It's quite a diverse business starting from $199 gift vouchers to itineraries more like $200,000.

In the winter Heletranz could have one flight per day and in summer up to 20, so the number of daily flights we have is seasonal.

Why did you buy Heletranz in 2012?

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My husband John and I lived in Hong Kong for 12 years and Sweden for three, and whilst we were living in Stockholm this opportunity came up and we decided to combine John's love for flying and my interest and love for client service.

I've always been very keen on planning the ultimate holiday and that all came together with Heletranz - tailoring the best experience, which is not really hard having New Zealand as your playground.

We combine the best of world-class wine, food, nature and scenery. What attracts many people from overseas is that New Zealand is perceived to be a safe and clean country, where you can get out into nature without it being overcrowded.

Tell me a bit about yours and John's background?

John is a Kiwi and I'm Swedish. I moved here in 2013 and I'd never lived in New Zealand and I've definitely never worked in aviation so it was all very new. John was a captain on a 747 jumbo jet for Cathay Pacific, and on his holidays to New Zealand during his 20 years of doing the job, he learnt to fly helicopters and that was his next passion in life. He now flies helicopters and private jets.

We have three daughters and New Zealand is probably the best place for us to live and so we were looking for an opportunity to settle in New Zealand, where we could work together or both be involved. I have a background in stock broking and private banking so I thought I could do that, I didn't really think I would be this involved in the business, but as it turned out, when we brought Heletranz we needed to put quite a lot more money into it than what we originally thought so John had to stay in Hong Kong and keep working for Cathay so we could have a bit more of an income while I ran Heletranz. We bought the business whilst living in Sweden, and moved to Auckland three weeks later.

How big is your team and where are you based?

We have 12 regular staff members, including eight pilots, but this fluctuates slightly with the seasons. Our heli-port and office is based in Albany, North Shore.

Heletranz owners Sofia and John Ambler.
Heletranz owners Sofia and John Ambler.

We try to run the business as a small family so everyone feels part of the success. We've got a really good crew and several of the key people have been with us from the start, so it's definitely more of a family feel than a corporate feel.

How is Heletranz different now to what it was before?

The business has been going for 28 years, but we've transformed it. We've gone from having just two helicopters to a fleet of seven in four years.

We have focused on the twin engine helicopter market and instrument flight rules (IFR) and are now the only operator flying IFR commercially in New Zealand.

This has been crucial to secure and be able to look after the high-end tourism market. In the domestic market we're focused on growing long-term relationships with corporates and tailoring corporate incentives and events like heli-fishing followed by beer tasting or a Waiheke Vineyard heli tour or clay bird shooting at Kauri Bay Boomrock.

What experiences do you offer and which ones are most popular?

We offer extraordinary experiences all over New Zealand for individuals as well as companies. Heli-dining at a Waiheke Vineyard and heli-fishing at Great Barrier Island are really popular, these are often taken up by companies to offer as corporate incentives, client entertainment or end of the year rewards. For the high-end international tourism market, luxury lodges like Kauri Cliffs, Helena Bay, Cape Kidnappers, Huka Lodge and Wharekauhau are key for our business. We also tailor a lot of flights for proposals and remote hidden gems for a city escapes.

What are the long-term plans for Heletranz?

To grow the really high-end tourism market with a focus on multi-day charter throughout New Zealand. In the domestic market, we are concentrating on our loyal frequent flyers and to further enhance the service provided as well as expanding our tailored corporate event business. Brand collaboration is really important in the quieter months; we put more time, energy and money into working with other brands as opposed to advertising. The corporate market is really big from May through to December.

Part of the team: John Ambler, Julie Voskamp, Sofia Ambler, Holly Underwood and Peter Gibson.
Part of the team: John Ambler, Julie Voskamp, Sofia Ambler, Holly Underwood and Peter Gibson.

What's it like operating a business within the luxury tourism market?

Luxury tourism is a huge growing market in New Zealand. It's definitely competitive but I think our advantage is that we, as owners, are very involved in the business. We have the phone every night so we look after clients who may want to book something at nine at night, and I think that's quite rare.

It's such a thrill to work in a space and with a product that really gets people excited. That excitement goes through the office as well. Our team really enjoy what they do and I think that's one of the reasons why we have happy clients.

What advice do you give those thinking of starting a business?

If you're extremely passionate you will work so hard, but it won't feel like work.

I love working for myself, and I work way harder now than I ever have as an employee. Get a proper structure in place, as soon as possible, with processes and clearly assign roles which will make the work load easier to delegate.