This story is part of Forbes’ coverage of Malaysia’s Richest 2023. See the full list here.
Former Malaysian army officer turned entrepreneur Syed Azman Syed Ibrahim has ambitious expansion plans for his Weststar Aviation Services and its offshore choppers, whose customers already include oil giants like ExxonMobil and Shell.
Syed Azman Syed Ibrahim is firing on all cylinders. His privately held Weststar Group and its portfolio of interests in offshore helicopter services, car dealerships and F&B outlets, is staking out a multi-pronged strategy to expand its chopper fleet, make inroads into new markets and boost sales of sustainable vehicles.
The centerpiece of the plan is flagship Weststar Aviation Services, which has 34 helicopters (it agreed to buy five more in May), making it the second-largest offshore services operator in the Asia-Pacific region, according to India-based market research firm Imarc Group. Ibrahim, who founded and owns the Ampang, Malaysia-based Weststar Group, has lofty goals. “In ten years we want to be the largest helicopter operator in the world,” he says.
Weststar’s choppers are used to ferry executives, crew and supplies for the oil and gas industry, as well as for pipe- and power-line inspections, timber surveys and medical evacuation, often in locations that are inaccessible or difficult to reach by other forms of transportation. It has bases in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and clients include Malaysian state oil company Petronas and industry giants Shell and ExxonMobil. A separate unit, Weststar General Aviation, owns two jets and a helicopter for VIP transportation.
Ibrahim, 63, now owns 100% of Weststar Aviation Services after buying back a 21% stake from private equity giant KKR in March in a deal that he says valued the unit at 4 billion ringgit ($890 million). The entrepreneur, No. 24 on the list of Malaysia’s 50 Richest with an estimated net worth of $825 million, serves as group managing director of Weststar Group and chairman of Weststar Aviation Services.
The global market for offshore helicopter services is expected to expand to $3.1 billion by 2028 from $2.5 billion in 2022, according to a report from Dublin-based Research & Markets. Ibrahim’s plan includes investing $250 million to increase the number of helicopters he owns and leases by nearly 30% over the next two years. His fleet of mostly midsized choppers includes aircraft made by European aerospace giant Airbus and Italy’s Leonardo.
Ibrahim is also seeking new markets to reduce Weststar’s dependence on Malaysia. “We are looking for strategic investors who can help us grow overseas,” the former army officer says. “We have spoken to a few investors in the Middle East.”
Ibrahim’s plans for his auto businesses are similarly ambitious.
The company announced a strategic partnership in March with Helicopter & Cooperation SAS, a joint venture between French Avico Group and Namibia-based Westair Aviation, a deal that is meant to allow it to broaden its presence in the oil and gas industry in Europe and Africa. Ibrahim says the company is particularly interested in Namibia, Equatorial Guinea and Mauritania in Africa, as well as Guyana and Suriname on the north coast of South America, and Indonesia.
At the same time, Weststar Aviation Services is branching into chartering choppers to governments. Last year it leased four helicopters to the Royal Malaysian Air Force. It says four more will be delivered by early 2024, while a further three will be contracted to the Malaysian government. Under these agreements, the air force and government operate the aircraft but they are owned and maintained by Weststar Aviation Services.
The company is a “well-established and experienced player,” says Matthieu Guisolphe, sales director for Southeast Asia at Asian Sky Group, a Hong Kong-based aviation consultancy. “They are a proven and solid operator with a modern fleet.”
However, there are a few clouds in the bright outlook. “They are not the only ones trying to get into newer markets,” says Dennis Lau, Asian Sky Group’s consultancy services director. “The helicopter services market is very fragmented,” he says, “[and] very competitive, particularly when it comes to bidding for oil and gas contracts.” Finding the right partners will also be a challenge, he adds.
Ibrahim’s plans for his auto businesses, which he says have a consolidated revenue of 315 million ringgit, are similarly ambitious. He is the exclusive distributor for China’s Maxus vehicles in Malaysia through Weststar Maxus. Ibrahim plans to add more dealerships to boost distribution of Maxus electric and hybrid vehicles, which he expects will account for 20% of Maxus sales this year. His Weststar Auto is a dealer for Japan’s Honda, and Weststar Motors sells imported luxury cars.
On the F&B front, Ibrahim’s oldest son, Syed Muhammad Arif, manages nine Wolf & Turtle coffee outlets in Malaysia and plans to more than triple the number of stores by 2025 (three of Ibrahim’s seven children and one son-in-law are involved in his businesses). Ibrahim also has upscale Thai restaurants in shopping malls under the Absolute Thai brand that he operates with a partner. He declined to release financial data for most of his companies.
Ibrahim entered the business world in 1994 after serving as an officer for 13 years in the Royal Intelligence Corps of the Malaysian Armed Forces. He invested 200,000 ringgit to start importing used luxury cars from Europe to sell in Malaysia. In 2002 he became a distributor for Honda, and in 2011 Maxus came on board.
Ready for Takeoff?
Weststar Aviation Services, with a solid footing in the Asia-Pacific market for offshore helicopter services, now seeks to grow further afield.
His first brush with aviation was in 2002, when he bought one whirlybird for $1.5 million. That was largely for personal use, but Ibrahim says he also wanted to understand the operational costs and regulatory requirements needed to operate helicopters for commercial use.
He scaled up after realizing there was huge potential for helicopter services in the oil and gas sector (Malaysia is the second-largest oil and gas producer by output in Southeast Asia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration). By 2011 he had 11 choppers and two years later KKR became an investor.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim is downplaying reports last year that he’s considering an IPO for Weststar Aviation Services. “We are not in a hurry to pursue a public listing,” he says. “We will only do it when the timing is right.”
As for his goal of being the largest helicopter operator in the world, he faces stiff competition; some of the biggest global players have more than 200 aircraft. But Ibrahim is unfazed: “This business is not about who has the most choppers,” he says. “It is also about who has the best pilots, the best engineers, the best safety records and reasonable profits.”
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