Nfld. & Labrador

Helicopter magnate Dobbin hailed as 'patriot, visionary'

Craig Dobbin, a St. John's entrepreneur who went from a modest childhood to build one of the world's largest helicopter conglomerates and befriend world leaders, died on the weekend.

Built empire from sole chopper

Craig Dobbin, a St. John's entrepreneur who went from a modest childhood to build one of the world's largest helicopter conglomerates and befriend world leaders, was remembered for his "immeasurable" contributions after dying on the weekend.

Although Dobbin had reportedly been in ill health for some time, he only stepped down on Fridayas executive chairman of CHC Helicopter Corp. He passed away Saturday at age 71 at his oceanfront home in Beachy Cove, a few kilometres outside St. John's.

Dobbin enjoyed a high profile in Newfoundland circles for decades, including friendships with onetime Newfoundland premier Frank Moores, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney and even George H.W. Bush, the former U.S. president.

A bon vivant with ready wit and a habit of donating generously to charities, he had also been a recipient of the Order of Canada.

Dobbin's range of business interests was vast— from apartment buildings to airlines to offshore oil engineering— but his great love was building what is now CHC Helicopters, which operates in more than 30 countries.

"Craig embodied the spirit and passion of a Newfoundlander and Labradorian like no one else, and he worked tirelessly to promote our province on the world stage," Premier Danny Williams said Sunday in a statement.

"He was a patriot, a visionary and a proud supporter of the province he loved.His contributions were immeasurable."

Health problems changed outlook

Dobbin had serious health problems in the past. In 1997,he underwent a lung transplant while he fought a type of pulmonary fibrosis.

The experience changed him profoundly.

"I've come to grips with the finality of life," Dobbin told the CBC in 1999.

"I'm 64, and I feel 19. I'm very grateful for every day I have.… If I felt any better, you'd have to tie me down."

Friends included Moores, Mulroney

Dobbin visibly enjoyed schmoozing with politicians. Frank Moores, who broke the grip that Joey Smallwood's Liberals had on Newfoundland politics in 1972, was a fishing buddy and lifelong friend.

Dobbin also enjoyed a friendship with former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, for whom he campaigned publicly to defend the Meech Lake constitutional accord when then-premier Clyde Wells withdrew the province's support.

He also entertained former U.S. president George H.W. Bush at his exclusive Labrador hunting lodge.

His support of politicians, though, was not limited to conservatives. In the 1990s, he became close to former Liberal premier Brian Tobin, winning his backing for a Gander-based subsidiary, and emerging as a presumed backer of Tobin's aspirations at the time to lead the Liberal Party of Canada.

Dobbin's zeal for a deal— he had his fingers in many pies, from real estate to a stake in the St. John's Fog Devils hockey team— earned him a reputation as a shark in a suit, a description that he despised.

"I don't like the term shark, because it's kind of demeaning," Dobbin once said. "I consider myself an entrepreneur, and I think I'm a credible, honest entrepreneur."

Humble origins

Dobbin grew up in a tightly knit St. John's family, the third child of 11 in a bustling home on historic Signal Hill. He worked for his father's firm— P. J. Dobbin Lumber and Building Supplies— and later branched out into his own, with a trucking business and an underwater salvage concern.

Still in his 20s, Dobbin founded a real estate business that eventually flourished as Omega Investments. While building blocks of apartment buildings, Dobbin branched out with construction interests in Ontario, Quebec and the United States.

A turning point came in 1976, when Dobbin founded Sealand Helicopters. He bought his first helicopter in part so he could more easily reach a favoured fishing spot in Labrador.

Soon enough, though, he saw a giant business opportunity on the rigs then searching for oil off Newfoundland's coast.

Supplying offshore rigs and platforms became the company's bread and butter, and proved the template for its expansion in the North Sea and elsewhere.

Dobbin launched Canadian Helicopter Corp. in 1987 as a publicly traded company. Known for taking risks in his business deals, Dobbin continually bought up his competition, using debt and leveraged buyouts to do so.

"I tell you, if I compared my bank balance with you, you'd win," he once told a reporter.

"What I do with money, I use it to lever up to a bigger pie. I take all my money and lever it up. [I've] been doing that since high school."

In time, though, he turned the company into a global powerhouse, with 3,400 employees and a fleet of about250 helicopters.

When CHC acquired its archrival, Norway's Helikopter Services Group, in 1999, Dobbin found the deal sweet indeed.

"That was a monumental buzz. We took 'em all by surprise— especially the Norwegians."

In 2002, he rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, to celebrate CHC's listing there.

Ultimately, though, Dobbin lost control of the company's direction. Though he remained executive chairman, the board transferred the company's headquarters from St. John's to Vancouver in 2004. Dobbin maintained a small office in St. John's.

On Friday, the company announced that Dobbin had stepped down as executive chairman on an interim basis. He was replaced by his son Mark.

Dobbin invested in a various other business through the years, including launching the now-defunct regional carrier Air Atlantic in the 1980s. His various interests over the years including commercial printing, engineering and even a nascent interest in cod aquaculture.

Supported cultural, arts causes

In his later years, Dobbin emerged as a serious philanthropist. He endowed a chair in Canadian studies at University College Dublin, in Ireland.

His interest in his Irish roots was deep, and he heavily promoted trade with Ireland. In return, he was named honorary Irish consul.

A recipient of the Order of Canada, Dobbin also gave generously to various health charities and arts groups, including the LSPU Hall, the tiny but influential theatre that helped launch the careers of stars like Rick Mercer and Mary Walsh.

A funeral mass will be held for Dobbin at the Roman Catholic Basilica of St. John the Baptist in downtown St. John's on Monday afternoon.

A private interment will follow the church service.