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Northern Exposure: Ambition is key to entrepreneur’s success

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Wendy Taylor, Alkan Air

Wendy Tayler knew by the time she was 11 years old she wanted to be her own boss. Now, a few decades later, she’s an owner of not one, but two growing businesses in the Yukon.

Besides running a chartered airline and a car dealership, Tayler also finds time to run marathons, raise her three daughters and even earn her private pilot licence.

“I always felt a need to be independent and control my financial reality,” she says. “Only later did I realize that the business owns you more than you own the business.”

Tayler has a majority stake in Alkan Air Ltd., a Whitehorse company that specializes in ferrying mining workers and prospectors to remote sites in northern Canada and Alaska. It also provides air ambulance services.

She’s also majority owner of Yukon’s only Ford dealership. The two companies are supported by BDC.

Develop strong partnerships—the key to success

How does she manage all the responsibility? Strong partnerships, developed over time, are the key to her success, she says. “I spend almost all my time at the aviation company, she says. “I have an excellent partner at the dealership. We speak three to five times a day, but she is running that business autonomously.”

Entrepreneurs have to know themselves and accept their weaknesses in order to succeed, Tayler says. “I am strong in finance and accounting, planning, processes and strategy. But I need to make sure I surround myself with good technical people.”

Working her way up

She started working at age 16 for an accounting company and quit at 20, when she had her first daughter. With one child at home and still studying at night to become a Certified Management Accountant, Tayler joined Alkan Air’s accounting department. She eventually moved up to helping run the operation with President Hugh Kitchen.

“I worked there for seven years. I wanted to take an ownership interest in the company, but there wasn’t an opportunity at that time.”

After leaving Alkan, she joined another company before becoming a business owner for the first time in 2004. She bought 18% of the car dealership, Whitehorse Motors Ltd. She now owns 51% of the company.

In 2007, Kitchen came to her with an offer. “One of his Alkan’s partners was retiring and selling his shares,” Tayler says. “He knew that aviation had always been in my blood and asked me to step in.”

She admits that the aviation company isn’t an easy job. “We are a 24/7 business. We always have someone on call for the ambulance services.”

Handling the highs and the lows

At the same time, the company has benefited from a gold rush in Yukon. About 65% of its business comes from the mining industry. It hit a peak in 2011 when an exploration boom led to a 50% increase in flying hours. “The entire Yukon was staked. I believe that spike was a one-off.”

It hasn’t always been easy at Alkan, especially when the recession hit in 2008-2009. One morning soon after she became a partner, Tayler got an email telling her that one of the company’s biggest clients had just filed for bankruptcy. “It was a big hit for our cash-flow. We were just finishing building a $2.5 million hangar for our fleet.”

That incident helped Tayler learn that flexibility is the key to handling the highs and lows of a cyclical business such as mining. “You have to be able to pull the trigger at any time to downsize the crews or sell or buy aircraft.”

Becoming a better manager

At Alkan, the emphasis is on customer service. “It’s expensive to go up there and dig for gold. The season is extremely short, so the most important thing for our customers is to get it done efficiently and on time.”

Since receiving her pilot’s licence, Tayler has an even deeper appreciation for her employees’ work in Yukon’s harsh climate. “I know what it’s like to fuel the airplane at minus-40 and also how it feels to be stranded for an hour on the airstrip with a flat tire, waiting to be rescued.”

She says her first-hand experience has helped her become a better manager. “I got a feel of some of the challenges the guys in the field get frustrated about,” Tayler says. “I had to go out there and see for myself.”

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