There’s a thrill in taking flight.
The lion-like rumble of the engine opening to a raging roar. The blurred and buzzing spin of the propellor. The heavy crawl into runway position before sling-shotting into a burst of speed – and then launching into a weightless soar.
And you’re off.
Metaphorically, taking flight is something entrepreneurs like Mark and Maureen Halston know well – there’s a business idea, careful planning, getting your supports in place, and then the excitement of liftoff as you release your offering out to the world.
Speaking literally, flight is what brought the B.C. couple to the Okanagan. They started their relationship with aviation in Vancouver nearly 40 years ago. In 1985, they got the opportunity to move to Kelowna and serve a major Canadian airline at the Kelowna International Airport – Mark supporting the airport’s ground handling operations and Maureen in customer service before later joining her husband’s company, Ironman Group, when she retired.
“Way back when you think about aviation, it was romantic, it pulls on your heart strings – and there’s adventure in that,” says Maureen. “There’s also the whole experience aspect, the concept of customer service. Throughout our lifetime in aviation, for Mark and I, service has always been our niche. It doesn’t matter where or what you’re servicing, your job is to create confidence and trust with your customer.”
This love affair with customer service prompted the business couple to partner with Canadian Western Bank in 2020 after encountering turbulence with one of the big banks. They were looking to finance the build of a location to expand their business at the airport, including a new foray into automotive service thanks to an opportunity that had come up with OK Tire.
A high-flying location propels new opportunities
“Our ground handling operations business had grown to a point where we needed more space and there was nowhere at the airport’s terminal building where we could expand – so we knew we needed to build and we knew it needed to be on airport grounds,” says Mark. “One day, a former aviation colleague I’d known for years came into our office. I was looking at some drawings for the new space and I told him what we were looking to do. He said he had a contact we should speak with. Turns out that contact was a sales manager at OK Tire, and she was looking for someone to open a new location in the area.”
This suggested contact with OK Tire resulted in doubling the proposed footprint for our building project from 6,000 square feet to 12,000. As an OK Tire location, it would allow them to diversify their business by branching out into automotive service while continuing to support the airport’s ground operations.
While the size and service possibilities were exciting, Mark says the most unique aspect on the automotive side was the location.
“Being right on the highway as well as on airport property meant the ability to service not only customers in our catchment area, but also customers that operate at the airport – these companies all have vehicles, and they have employees who have vehicles,” he says.
A bittersweet big bank departure lands a better destination
As prime as the airport location was, it also came with some significant headwinds that eventually grounded the project in early 2020. It had already taken seven years to secure government approvals for the build and confirm their financing – and just when they thought they were finally entering clear skies, the start of the pandemic slammed on the brakes.
“Our former bank pulled the funding two weeks after we began construction because we were at an airport and things were shut down due to COVID. There was no telling how long the shutdown would last and they didn’t want to take the risk on our business,” says Mark. “By that time, we’d already used an awful lot of our own money so we couldn’t just sit on it. We had to go back out and find alternative financing. That’s when Chris came along and saved the day.”
Mark’s referring to Chris Greenway, Senior Commercial Relationship Manager at CWB’s Kelowna Banking Centre. For Chris, the decision to help the Halston’s wasn’t difficult. The couple had already funded about two-thirds of the project with their own money and had a long, proven track record as smart entrepreneurs.
“They’ve been business owners for decades and have been through this stuff before – they know how to survive. Not to mention, they only needed about 30 to 35 percent in financing to complete the building,” says Chris. “So, we looked at it and thought, ok this is a strong entity, their historic cash flows are good. Yes, this is their first time running an OK Tire, but they have the experience and breadth to do this. And so, taking this all into account, we were comfortable knowing that while the pandemic was impacting the airline industry, it wouldn’t last forever.”
The Halstons weren’t only declined by their long-time bank. Another big bank turned them down too before they found Chris. He says CWB’s long-view approach was a stark contrast to the other two’s short-term focus.
“We were able to make things happen for the Halstons because we saw the big picture. We looked at the strength of the business and the people behind the business. From a customer perspective, their catchment area is massive – it’s around the university, there’s not a lot of competition in the direct area, and of course it’s tied to the airport where Mark and Maureen already have so many connections. It just made too much sense not to try to do this.”
Banking on a different experience
The Halston’s mortgage broker in Vancouver referred the couple to CWB. After meeting with Chris, they worked towards a new financing plan, and were eventually able to resume construction about a year later. Today, in addition to the construction loan, they have a full suite of CWB business accounts, products, and services for their day-to-day banking and cash management needs.
Mark and Maureen say switching their banking to CWB was a huge step – they’d been loyal to their previous bank for over 30 years. And so they needed to be sure they were transitioning their loyalty to the right organization.
“We chose CWB because it’s important for us to have a banking partner that sees our vision and knows we’re going to do everything in our power to serve our employees, our customers, and our relationships. We saw they had a similar mindset as us. Their model of supporting businesses really rang true,” says Maureen. “We knew going into this that changing banks would require time and effort – there’s going to be business plans, proposals, projections, fulfilling obligations and ensuring we’re all on the same page. That’s a given with any bank, and as business owners we understand they need to be comfortable with the risk. For us, the return on the effort to change banks is the relationships and service we’re gaining with CWB. That’s what we’ve always valued and that’s where we see the difference.”
Mark explains some standout aspects of the bank’s approach to clients include a willingness to listen and get involved, actively making efforts to understand their business, and being easy to get a hold of.
For example, CWB’s team-based approach not only gives the Halstons multiple points of contact, but a direct line to team members with specific expertise – such as Cash Management. And knowing it’s challenging to take time away from running a business, Chris and the team come to them.
“At our old bank we felt like we were just a number. Here we feel like we’re treated like humans, not just an account. Chris is more personal, he comes out to the building, and he’s quick to respond to our emails so we’re not waiting four or five days for a reply,” he says.
Maureen adds that when you’re in the business of transportation – whether that’s in the air or on the ground – speed and efficiency are imperative.
“Especially in aviation, they don’t give you a lot of time to take on a whole new customer and ramp up a new operation. Four to six weeks is about it. So having a bank that has the faith and confidence in us to be able to move quickly is important. It allows us to better serve and grow our customer base,” she says.
For Chris the CWB experience is driven by both a personal and organizational passion for seeing clients thrive.
“We’re the bank for business owners and we’re obsessed with their success. And right now I’m obsessed with the Halstons' success at this OK Tire location,” he says. “It was a gamble and a risk, but it was a risk we were willing to take because we saw through the weeds where other banks didn’t.”
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A new banking partnership takes off
An airport was the backdrop to the start of the Halstons' adventure together all those years ago. It remains so as they embark on this latest journey growing a location that’s now considered an OK Tire flagship.
They say they’re lucky they get to work together. They lean into each others’ strengths (Maureen has a head for accounting and employee management; Mark, a knack for operations and sales) and foundational to their success is a focus on nurturing relationships that are founded on trust – trust in each other, and trust placed in them by their employees and customers.
It's no surprise then that trust was absolutely table stakes when it came to choosing a new business banking partner.
“We wanted a bank that recognizes we’ve been in business for over 36 years and we’ve never faulted,” says Mark. “We’ve always found a way to meet challenges, even when we’ve had setbacks. We’ve always been able to meet the expectations and move forward. That’s why it’s refreshing to find a bank that recognizes that in us – one we can trust and that trusts us, too.”