To say Will Shrapnel is on a roll is an understatement. Named Outstanding Business Person of the Year at the Sunshine Coast Business Awards in November, his company HeliMods also won awards for Excellence in Innovation and Business of the Year, while HeliMods staffer Rohan Driver won Employee of the Year.
To top off an incredible year for this Caloundra helicopter modifications business, on November 28 came the announcement that HeliMods will receive a $1 million grant from the Federal Government to develop its life-saving stretcher loading technology.
Ask Mr Shrapnel about the secret of his success and his answer is simple: passion and hard work.
“From the start I’ve focused on building a business and a culture which is high performance and is passionate about what it does,” he says.
“So everyone that works here really believes in the work they do and the value they add to the broader community.
“LifeFlight’s rescue helicopters are familiar to people on the Coast and are a good example of our work.
“We receive their new aircraft empty from the factory and we transform them into air ambulances to rescue people or transfer the critically ill.
“That’s the sort of work our engineers do every day and they are very passionate and motivated people.”
Mr Shrapnel has had a number of motivations driving him since he launched HeliMods in 2002 at the age of 25.
Firstly, having grown up designing, building and flying model aircraft with his dad, he always knew he wanted to pursue a career in aviation.
“I was always passionate about aviation from a young age,” he says. “There was just always this fascination for flying.
“I used to not only build, but also design model aircraft from scratch. Dad and I would take them flying and crash them and have to re-build them again.”
His second motivation arose out of a desire to see growth in the aviation industry on the Sunshine Coast.
“There wasn’t any career opportunity here that was clear or obvious in aerospace when I was young,” he says.
“The challenge growing up here on the Coast was you’d logically have to move away to gain skills or experience or study at university.
“I’m quite proud of what’s been created through HeliMods. We now employ teams of engineers in aerospace design.
“When I grew up, there wouldn’t have been a single aerospace engineering job here.
“My parents were always supportive and realistic that there were limited prospects here on the Coast.
“There was no university here at that stage and there was a general acceptance that I would move to Brisbane or interstate to study and gain skills and it was almost accepted that I’d have to move internationally to work in the aerospace design field.”
Mr Shrapnel studied engineering and business at the University of Queensland at the same time as completing his trade exams in helicopter maintenance. He also trained to gain his fixed wing and helicopter pilot licences.
“I don’t do a whole lot of flying these days,” he says.
“In the earlier years, when I was doing a lot more trade work, I used to fly over the country fixing and servicing helicopters.
“We’d fly from Caloundra to any regional airport where helicopters were based. It was a pretty rich and diverse experience, where I could come to work one day and the following day be flying to South Australia or New South Wales or north Queensland.”
Another motivation for Mr Shrapnel to create HeliMods is knowing the work he and his team do makes a contribution towards saving lives, and while he always believed in his vision, he has experienced many moments of self-doubt along the way.
“During times of really high growth, high pressure and long working hours you often question why you’re in business,” he says.
“Why shouldn’t I just have a standard day job? Ultimately, there’s a lot of reward in delivering important and valuable work.
“It’s not dissimilar to what I experienced at uni. A lot of uni students question why they’re at uni right about exam times, but when it’s finished and you’ve got the results and are happy with them, everything falls back into place.”
Mr Shrapnel’s achievements in building a company of global scale in his home town of Caloundra are even more eye-opening when you consider how busy he’s been on the home front. He has six children under 11 with wife Robyn.
“We’ve had plenty of scenarios with newborns or young children that might be unsettled throughout the night,” he says.
“Often I’d be coming home from work late night or early morning and Robyn would be up. She’d be up numerous times during the night and we’d catch up and grab sleep where we could. It’s been pretty challenging at times but we always understood it for what it was.
“We chose to have a large family. We’ve never made a point of complaining about it; it’s an amazing thing to have that many kids. While it can be a lot of hard work at times, there are so many great benefits.
“Spending time with family during really busy projects has always been a bit of a challenge, but that’s where the Sunshine Coast is such an amazing place to work.
“You’re not up against long commute times. If you’re doing busy work or work that requires a significant amount of time or attention, you can still enjoy high-quality down time in short bursts.
“I’d still make the time to catch up with the kids at the beach, could still duck out and see a school concert or attend a school event because it’s literally only five minutes’ drive from my work.”
Mr Shrapnel says there are amazing plans on the horizon for HeliMods but won’t give his secrets away just yet.
“Suffice it to say, the HeliMods we see today is only the start of what’s to come. Having achieved so much so early in his career, Mr Shrapnel has some good advice to share with his children on achieving success and happiness in their own lives.
“I think first and foremost, to aim to do what you enjoy,” he says.
“That’s just key. Then be prepared to work hard to achieve whatever it is you are aiming for.
“Don’t expect instant success, but certainly be ambitious. It’s really important to aim high and back yourself to get there.
“My career hasn’t been without its challenges, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I want to see the continued growth of engineering and high-value technical work here on the Coast.
“I am really passionate about what opportunities we can offer new industries here on the Coast.
“I really want to do whatever I can to create more interesting and diverse work here to see the Coast’s economic diversity and complexity grow.
“As a leader of an organisation, I’ve aimed wherever possible to lead by example, to set high standards.
“I aim to inspire and empower people to reach their potential. I take a very positive and proactive approach to the problems we try to solve and the challenges we face.
“As the HeliMods meme says: keep calm and keep engineering. I’m a very calm person. With six kids and running this business, if I wasn’t a calm and considered and level-headed person, there’s no way I could be where I am today.”