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Deborah Tarrant
Business Journalist

Deborah Tarrant is a Sydney-based business writer who specialises in the nexus where people meet business

Deborah Tarrant
Business Journalist

Deborah Tarrant is a Sydney-based business writer who specialises in the nexus where people meet business

Highlights
  • Captain Jan Becker combines two professions —flying helicopters and midwifery. Along with her nursing work, she teaches midwives in Tanzania. 
  • She has been the CEO for Becker Helicopters, a pilot training company with husband Mike on the Sunshine Coast, for almost 14 years.
  • From a humble beginning in a tin shed, Jan runs a staff of 70 and 19 helicopters at Becker Helicopters, which is a $20 million global business.
  • She believes in continually learning and is doing a PhD in neonatal resuscitation to become an instructor.

She has a career as a nurse educator and runs a leading helicopter pilot training company, but Queensland’s Captain Jan Becker can still find the time to learn even more.

Captain Jan Becker is flying high. The group of companies in helicopter pilot training that she launched with pilot husband Mike in a tin shed on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast almost 20 years ago is now a $20 million global business.

 

Captain Jan Becker flying a helicopter

It’s an outstanding success and is in no small part due to Jan’s ability to spot innovative opportunities, steer strategy and reach targets.

She has given Becker Helicopters some very clear points of difference. She has not only made it a truly international organisation in training people from the US, Asia, South Africa and the Middle East, as well as Australia, but also uniquely as a civilian organisation training military clients from across the world to fly in hours of darkness using night vision goggles. “We’re the only company in Australia doing this,” she says proudly.

"Harvard taught me that women can multi-task in a very different way"

- Captain Jan Becker

While Mike focused on the company’s vision, flying and technical side, Jan set a determined course to move beyond training pilots in ones and twos, to landing bigger international contracts. In her earlier years, Jan’s father had been involved in establishing a helicopter business for the oil industry in Singapore and Jan could see global potential with Becker Helicopters.

It would take the couple several years of presenting and explaining their approach. Mike was involved in writing training manuals, creating DVDs and teaching theory. Then in 2007, they won a $30 million contract with the Saudi Arabian National Guard.

It was Jan’s research for a master’s degree in Aviation Management at Queensland’s Griffith University that would deliver Becker Helicopters’ next big commercial differentiator — to train military and civilian clients from around the world in the use of night vision goggles.

The goggles cost $35,000 each. “You need two of those in the cockpit plus a specially modified helicopter, so it was a big investment,” Jan explains. “We would never have known about these things without my research … it was just gold.”

Today the company has many clients, including the Allied Military Forces.

The quest for self-development goes on. More recently, Jan attended an International Women’s Leadership forum at Harvard University in the US. “I wanted to refocus the strategy in my career and in the company. My thinking was that there may be a time when Becker Helicopters no longer needed me as CEO, I had outgrown the role or we needed to bring in another team,” Jan says. “We had a young daughter with ovarian cancer, so I needed to focus on how we’d move forward.”

Now her daughter has been given the all clear, Jan’s Harvard experience is boosting her already bold approach to business. One of her key lessons concerns business goals. “What might seem unachievable can become achievable with the right research, although it may have a different outcome to the one expected,” she says.

It also taught her a lot about how women work and lead. “I’m very good at multi-tasking and Harvard taught me that women can multi-task in a very different way,” she adds. “Part of that comes from juggling a career with children and, for me, nursing has also given me that ability by managing a suite of patients.”

Jan’s not choosing between her careers because they’re complementary. “Disciplines from flying and nursing spill over in business,” she says, “among them, the need for safety, accuracy and precision mixed sometimes with the need to fly by the seat of your pants.”

She can top and tail a working day, starting a casual shift at a local hospital as a midwife at 6am and finishing the day with business emails back at home.

This month, she’s off to Tanzania again where she is a volunteer midwife in a labour ward and will be teaching local midwives a ‘Helping Babies Breathe’ program. It ties in with the PhD she has recently started in neo-natal resuscitation.

Jan’s leadership tips

  1. Think beyond money. It’s not enough to have money and success. Mike and I have always felt that there would have been no point if we lost each other on the journey.
  2. Take ‘em with you. You’ve got to be able to take people with you on the journey, either somewhere in their career, or in the way that they feel about themselves.
  3. Stand your ground. Sometimes people mistake my niceness for weakness. They think that, if you’re nice, then you’re a pushover and, if you take the hardline as a woman, you have to be a cow. You don’t.
  4. Don’t be precious. I make sure the toilets are clean and the dishwasher is empty. We have cleaners and lots of people who muck in. If I walk past and see rubbish, I’ll pick it up. I don’t live in a bubble.

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