- Headquarters: Victoria, BC, Canada
- Acquisition Date: September 2018
- Vertical Market: Marine
- Website: helmoperations.com
Helm was founded in 1999 to provide software for the log towing industry on Canada’s west coast. Today, it provides solutions to vessel operators around the globe that use any kind of boat, typically referred to as vessels in the industry, to provide towing or ferrying services. Whether they are assisting ships in or out of ports, pulling barges up or down rivers, or supplying goods and services to the offshore mineral and energy industry or ferrying passengers, Helm’s software solutions allow vessel operators to manage their business by providing modules for dispatch and billing, maintenance, compliance and personnel tracking.
Helm CEO Nolan Barclay was the company’s second employee and has been with the business for 24 years. “We started out on the West Coast of Canada building software for the log towing companies who were moving logs to the sawmills or to storage grounds for export," Barclay said.
After reaching the limits of serving western Canada’s unique log towing industry, Helm was faced with a drastic pivot. As the forestry industry started to decline, Helm diversified its focus on the marine industry and now operates in four different verticals:
- Inland barges that move commodities up and down waterways
- Tugboats that push ships against berths when they come in from the ocean
- Offshore supply vessels that assist wind farms or resupply and/or move oil rigs
- Passenger vessels that ferry passengers for transportation or tourism
Helm was acquired for the first time in 2014 by a Japanese ship classification society. The company was bought as a strategic acquisition due to its prominent standing in the U.S. barging market. Helm’s new parent company hoped to position itself to enter the U.S. market and provide compliance auditing services to the inland maritime fleets. At this time, the U.S. was changing legislation around inland vessel compliance and Helm was at the forefront for compliance software in that space.
The compliance product that launched in 2016, Helm CONNECT, is still on the market today. But not long after the launch, when some of the U.S. regulatory changes that the new owners were anticipating didn't come to pass, the ownership team decided to put Helm up for sale again.
Finding a Forever Home
Helm had been contacted by Volaris Group’s transit division many years before, and when the new owners decided to sell the business, the broker handling the transaction put the company in touch with Volaris again. The most important consideration for Helm’s ownership was finding an acquirer who wasn’t going to flip the company again. “They were actually looking for a purchaser that would buy and hold, and Volaris had that profile,” Barclay said.
The Volaris strategy of leaving each acquired business fully autonomous also resonated with the company’s leadership. Barclay said the decentralized management structure at Volaris puts the responsibility to run and grow the business where it belongs.
Providing the freedom and flexibility to the people who actually know the business is the best way to continue to operate. These are the core values of Volaris that really do strengthen its position.
-Nolan Barclay, CEO, Helm
Life at Helm Since Acquisition
After applying Volaris benchmarks to an analysis of the company’s current business, Helm found that reducing the company’s risk would be essential to the future profitability of the business. The company cut back on some of its exploratory R&D projects and slowed expansions into new geographies that had left the business overexposed, aiming to focus on the core business and determine where the next big investment in growing the company should go.
When the COVID pandemic overtook the world shortly after, Barclay said the company was well-positioned to weather the unexpected storm. “Like everyone, we were impacted, but we were better prepared given the work we had just done,” he said.
As Helm came out the other side of COVID, the company was able to increase its headcount the moment business picked back up. Hiring was a positive sign and signaled to the staff that Helm was open for business. Since then, the business has continued to grow, experiencing double-digit growth year over year since being acquired by Volaris.
Initiatives to Spark Future Growth
Given Helm’s strong position, company leaders decided to reinvest in to an initiative, developing a new module for the inland barging market. While the company’s legacy system featured those capabilities, the company hadn’t had the time or resources to build this component into its new SaaS product at the time. “It’s been the one thing that's been missing, and our initiative is about developing that piece that will help us further monetize our barging market and generate more growth in the future,” Barclay said.
Helm’s initiative is a three-year project that started in December 2021. Meetings take place every two weeks to show progress, and regular feedback from customers that developers are working with on the project ensures the Helm team’s process is responsive, allowing for new features to be added along and way to build a product that meets the needs of the people who will be using it.
One of the things that we're noticing is customers are buying our current products as a result of knowing that we are building our future products out. The initiative has helped us grow our current core business, which is really important.
- Nolan Barclay, CEO, Helm