Kopter to base North American production and support of SH09 in Lafayette

Swiss manufacturer Kopter, creator of the upcoming light single SH09, has revealed Lafayette, Louisiana, will be the home of its U.S. subsidiary.

From left: Lousiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson, Kopter Group CEO Andreas Löwenstein, and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. Kopter Photo
From left: Lousiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson, Kopter Group CEO Andreas Löwenstein, and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. Kopter Photo
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The move, announced by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and Kopter Group CEO Andreas Löwenstein at Helicopter Association International Heli-Expo 2019, will see Kopter take up residence in the 84,700-square-foot production facility at Lafayette Regional Airport vacated by Bell in August 2018.

Löwenstein said the site was chosen “for several reasons,” including its proximity to well-established operators and supporting companies, easy access to a qualified workforce, and for the facility itself.

“We have here a turnkey solution,” the told media following the announcement. “We have to do some transformation — it’s quite limited — but it’s a facility which has been built to assemble and deliver helicopters. We have basically all the main features of the facility that are already in place, which makes us gain a lot of time for the industry setup.”

The company’s manufacturing headquarters in Mollis, Switzerland will produce SH09 subassemblies — particularly those relating to dynamic components, with the Lafayette facility serving as a final assembly and customization line for the aircraft. It will also be responsible for all North American deliveries and customer support.

“We are delighted that Kopter chose Louisiana and Lafayette for the assembly of a dynamic new aerospace product,” said Governor Edwards. “The SH09 helicopter will be highly competitive in the marketplace and provide outstanding performance, great passenger and cargo capacity, and superior engineering and design.”

Currently, Kopter has 25 orders from U.S. customers for the aircraft, which is set for certification in 2020, with first deliveries scheduled for later that year. Kopter believes the U.S. market will represent about 50 percent of SH09 sales for the first decade of production.

“We consider the U.S. market [as] being the core light [helicopter] market; it will be very important for us,” said Löwenstein. “This is the reason why we will set quite an important facility here.”

Kopter revealed the creation of a fully owned U.S. subsidiary, Kopter North America LLC, in July 2018. Christian Gras is the CEO of this subsidiary – in addition to his responsibilities as executive vice-president for Kopter Group – and Larry Roberts is the president of sales, marketing and customer support.

The manufacturer began its search for a location to base its U.S. subsidiary with a lengthy list of 38 possibilities, said Löwenstein, and this was aggressively refined. “Louisiana was by far the most attractive place,” he said. “All in all the attitude of the authorities, the facility, the localization, the access… In the equation, Louisiana was getting out the clear winner.”

Hiring and training of the facility’s workforce will begin this year, with the final assembly line set up to essentially mirror the one Kopter is creating in Mollis.

“There is a lot of upfront work to be done, and we will progressively gear up the personnel,” said Löwenstein. The first fully U.S.-assembled SH09 will be delivered from Lafayette in 2021.

Kopter said the facility will create at least 120 new jobs by 2025, when production should reach around 100 SH09s per year.

“The jobs are a center of our preoccupations I think for both sides,” said Löwenstein. “The [120] jobs we will create in the facility, probably many more, are the baseline for the whole arrangement we have taken.”

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As part of the agreement between Kopter and Louisiana Economic Development (LED), the state will be providing about $2.5 million of economic incentives to the manufacturer to help it establish its presence in Louisiana. The incentives will be split between funding to help Kopter renovate the Lafayette facility, and lease support for the building.

“We can take a portion of that financial burden off their shoulders, so they can establish quickly and efficiently towards manufacturing and assembly, which is where we want to see those jobs,” said LED secretary Don Pierson.

Regarding the building’s previous tenants, Pierson said the LED was “still in ongoing litigation” with Bell to resolve a dispute as to who owes what to whom following the closure of Bell’s facility in 2018.

At the time, Bell said it was closing the plant after LED announced it was cancelling its contract with the manufacturer to support the project, with the state accusing Bell of failing to meet its obligations to the state.

The $25.3-million facility was funded by the State of Louisiana, with Bell committing to creating 115 new jobs as it broke ground at the center — originally slated to hold the final assembly line for the new 505 Jet Ranger X — in August 2014.

The manufacturer moved in to the facility in 2015, but negotiated a change to the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement (CEA) it had signed with LED in 2017 to switch production to cabin subassembly for the 525 Relentless. It also reduced Bell’s commitment to creating 95 jobs. But Bell closed the facility just 12 months later.

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