HeliProz Adds Value & Fun While Striving to Capture Market
In an out-of-the-way location near the Yellowstone River, along a very quiet street at the edge of Lockwood, there’s a remote control (RC) helicopter company serving hobbyists all over the world.
The company manufactures, designs and markets electronic helicopter kits, as well as providing one-stop-shopping for all the parts and supplies for enthusiasts everywhere. The company’s goal is to be the biggest and the best in the industry, capable of providing everything their customers could possibly need or want.
The challenge for HeliProz Inc., one of six companies under the umbrella of FlyCo, is not an easy one, because the competition is stiff. The only way to keep ahead of the game, according to owner Chris Nelson, is to be constantly innovating and improving on both their products and their service. And, that they do, even though they have a crew of only 18 people.
If the name Chris Nelson sounds familiar, it should. Although now living in Bozeman, Nelson is a Billings native and owner of Zoot Enterprises, an international company located in Bozeman, providing financial institutions with credit and loan technology services. He is also co-owner, with his brother Mike, of the Northern Hotel, in Billings, which they are in the process of remodeling to open in March.
Through his assembly of the six enterprises under FlyCo, “We want to sell everything a hobbyist would need, to fly remote control helicopters,” said Nelson. The company succeeds because, “We have amazing after-the-sale service,” said Nelson. Having an enthusiastic staff contributes greatly to that level of service, as well as the quality of everything they do. Everyone who works for the company flies remote control helicopters.
Nelson explains his surprising adjunct into the remote control helicopter business, saying, “I wanted to fly helicopters since I was a little kid.”
While Nelson did eventually realize his dream of flying helicopters (real ones), he first tried his hand at remote controlled helicopters at about the age of 15. He was quickly introduced to the many problems associated with the hobby – no central supplier for parts, no training, little support services.
“I was doing my hobby in a vacuum,” said Nelson, “I couldn’t get any help.” He eventually hung up his RC helicopter, as an “expensive” room decoration.
Later in life, Nelson again took up the pursuit of his passion, visiting a small shop in Billings called HeliProz. He was so excited at what he found and what he learned, that as he left the shop, he told founder Eric Hawkinson that if he ever wanted to sell his business to give him a call. In 2006, he got that call, and Nelson decided to “spread his wings,” so to speak.
After acquiring HeliProz, Nelson spent the next three to four years acquiring other companies or developing them from the ground-up to be the kind of holistic company he believed to be necessary to dominate the RC aircraft business. In 2009, on 20 acres along the Yellowstone River, Nelson built a new 20,000 square foot retail, warehouse and manufacturing plant, overseeing the construction himself. Future plans at the site include the building of a clubhouse and picnic area and the development of a helicopter airfield.
The other companies which operate under FlyCo are:
—Ron’s HeliProz South located in Corpus Christi — this business was acquired from Ron Lund, who was the second largest in the business. Lund continues to manage the business and serves the same customers with the same staff.
—Rocky Mountain Hobbiez near Belgrade, full service hobby shop. “Every community should have a hobby store,” said Nelson. The 7000 square foot facility has an additional 4000 square-foot indoor dirt RC car race track. Outside the store is Montana’s largest RC dirt race track, equipped with a state-of-the -art tracking system.
— HeliWholeSaler is based in Billings and managed by Josh Wilson. They distribute product to manufacturers and hobby stores around the world, operating completely independent of the other entities under the FlyCo umbrella. They stock some 10,000 parts.
—Miniature Aircraft USA, also in Billings, which makes and markets small RC aircraft of all kinds.
—Big Sky CNC, makes all the parts for miniatures, and also offers a wide array of customizable manufacturing opportunities. Its staff includes experienced inventors, engineers, and machinist at the Lockwood facility. They can “mold an idea into an engineered, mapped, tested, and produced product.”
As one listens to talk among RC helicopter enthusiasts, it becomes quickly apparent why there is such a need for readily available supplies and repair parts. Most of the conversations are tales about their most spectacular crashes. Learning to fly a remote control helicopter is, apparently, no easy achievement and crashing at some point is inevitable, even for veteran fliers.
Nelson describes his most spectacular crash: “While showing off for my brother, I executed a beautiful stall turn, went straight into another death defying stall turn and didn’t pull up in time. My Raptor plowed into the ground at about 50 mph. Only the motor, main fuel tank and electronics survived. My brother was very impressed.”
Because of the incident level of crashes, building (and re-building) and flying RC helicopters tends to be an expensive hobby; and, participants need training, advice, help and parts. HeliProz is focused upon providing all of those things.
Heliproz sells mostly on-line directly to customers all over the world. It was, in fact, one of the first on-line hobby websites, and remains as one of the technological leaders, in a business that is largely shaped by technology. RC helicopters are actually more technologically advanced than are their real counterparts, and they are increasingly serving a wider range of very practical purposes, for the business world, from agriculture to sports reporting to law enforcement.
The attachment of other kinds of technology to a RC helicopter or airplane adds to their uses. As digital cameras improve and get smaller, they can be attached to the aircraft and manipulated by remote controls. Farmers with sprawling ranches find that it is just as effective, and cheaper, to monitor their operations with remote controlled air craft than real aircraft.
Attaching cameras to flying aircraft enhances video shots of all kinds of sports, and it allows law enforcement and other types of emergency service providers to access difficult or dangerous situations with less risk to personnel. Nelson’s company is called upon frequently to help develop customized products for such clients. As technology continues to advance, undoubtedly, so will the demand for such services and products.
Nelson’s company was among the first on-line hobby sites and they were among the first to offer free shipping on sales over $100, and they promise same-day shipping. They, also, helped pioneer the electronic tracking of shipments for customers. It’s that kind of innovative marketing and strategies that keeps them ahead of the competition.
There are a lot of on-line shops, and “they copy us,” said Kurt Kreiger, general manager for HeliProz, Inc. The Chinese have no qualms about stealing innovations. Any new design component invented by HeliProz will show up in competing lines within three months, he said.
There’s not much the company can do about that. “It would cost hundreds of millions to fight it,” said Nelson. So while they copyright their products, they don’t patent any inventions – there just isn’t any point in it – but it’s a situation that keeps them innovating and improving.
The toughest competition they face comes from foreign manufacturers, which can manufacture at significantly lower costs. The cost for HeliProz, of just the raw materials—which would comprise a relatively small stack of metal and plastics—is about $300. That is equal to the retail price for which a Chinese company sells their finished product.
“We are three times more expensive,” lamented Nelson — but, HeliProz is also higher quality.
Kreiger brags that there are Heliproz products made 30 years ago that are still flying – that’s something one won’t find with the foreign competition.
The problems faced by HeliProz, in dealing with foreign competition, are not unique to them; they impact most small manufacturers in the US. “That’s why we should have import duties,” said Nelson.
Trying to manufacture in Montana also has other challenges. They have to send their metal pieces out of state for anodizing – an electrochemical process that gives the pieces an attractive, smooth finish. It is equally as hard to get quality hardening or grinding services, necessary for precision mechanical components. “It’s as much an art as a science,” explains Nelson. The demand in Montana for such services he believes is great enough that anyone starting such a business would do well.
HeliProz celebrated its 13th anniversary last November.
In order to generate more enthusiasm and interest in flying RC helicopters, with the opening of their new facility in Lockwood, they launched an annual flying competition. The event sponsored by Billings Blade Benders, held the second week in July, in a huge field adjacent to the plant, draws competitors from around the world.