World's biggest planemaker keeps sales gliding along at just 69 cents a throw

Sailing along on the gusts of spring and children's laughter, Paul K. Guillow Inc. has built more aircraft in the last five decades than any other manufacturer in the world. Last year the company sold more than 6 million airplanes, easily overwhelming the output of Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, and General Dynamics.

Jetfire is the key to profits for Guillow, the world's oldest and largest producer of hand-thrown balsa gliders, rubber-band-powered planes, and balsa-and-tissue kits.

Built from slices of soft Ecuadorean balsa wood, more than 3 million Jetfires were sold last year for 69 cents each. Jetfire brethren -- Super Ace, Strato Streak, and Starfire -- sold millions more.

Playtime for millions of children hasn't been the same since Paul Guillow sold his first flying balsa model here in Wakefield in 1934. Sales are so consistent that the company's management tends to believe its product is a staple, much the same as baseball bats, teddy bears, and toy cars.

As the winds of technological change have swept the country, Guillow stubbornly sticks to its old die-cutting machinery and a single basic product.

``Once you get a design that's a good flier, there's not much point in fooling around with it,'' says company president William Colwell. ``We've got a product that's proven itself over the years, and we're just going to stay with it.''

It's hard to argue with Guillow's track record. Sales last year were about $3 million. Through bad times and good, the privately held company has made a profit every year since its founding, Mr. Colwell says.

What's the secret to staying aloft in the multimillion-dollar toy-plane market? Simple. Stay away from fads.

``We don't take off on tangents, on fliers, on overnight sensational stuff -- Hula-Hoops and that type of thing. Fads. We don't get into fads,'' says Colwell as if it were the worst four-letter word around. ``The hot products are overnight sensations like a meteor -- up they go, they fizzle out, and they're gone.''

When video games were at their peak a few years ago, the company's sales sagged sharply. More recently, however, kids have stopped plunking their change into machines and begun again to slap it onto counters of 25,000 retail outlets around the world. Many of the roughly 8,000 7-Eleven stores nationwide have displays showing off the gliders.

Although children ultimately receive most of Guillow's products, they are perhaps the company's toughest critics.

``This looks pretty good, but when I fly it it turns back,'' says Kirk Desseau, a sixth-grade student at the Driscoll elementary school in Brookline, Mass. ``What it really does is backflip and land.

``I'd pick this if it were having a contest to see how much you can do loops. But to cruise I wouldn't pick this because it doesn't go straight at all.''

Hard-to-please kids and video games have not been Guillow's only challenge. In the mid-'50s the company's line of nonflying shelf models that sold for 25 cents was shot down by the introduction of plastic airplane models. Sales of nearly a million units were wiped out, Colwell says.

Hand glider sales were small at the time, but with the introduction of the Jetfire, the company rallied and made hand gliders the bulk of its business.

Guillow now sells roughly twice as many hand gliders as its nearest competitor, the Chicago-based Comet Industries. Imported gliders from Korea and Israel have also bid for air superiority.

Nevertheless, year after year the old stamping machines in the small wood-frame factory building, along with 60 to 70 employees, keep cranking out planes and profits. Though Guillow has been approached by larger companies, there is no prospect the company will be sold, Colwell says.

Despite the glider's physical fragility, there remains an enduring quality to Paul Guillow's product. It just may be that no matter how sophisticated children become, balsa gliders will always be popular, simply because they fly.

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