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New Heights

Entrepreneur Propels Aviation Business to New Heights

Medlink Air Helicopter

Whatever your mission, we'll get you ready!

That's the motto of a successful Janesville customization and repair business Helicopter Specialties Inc., recently named Aviation Business of the Year by the Wisconsin Aviation Trade Association. This award-winning business got its start in 1999 when entrepreneur Jim Freeman decided to turn his part-time business into a full-time operation.

Helicopter Specialties really took off after earning a contract to customize two Milwaukee Flight for Life helicopters. That resulted in ten months worth of work, said Freeman, a former employee of Omni Flight Helicopters, which moved from Janesville to Dallas Texas in 1993.

By 2000 Helicopter Specialties employed four. Today it employs 23 full-time and several part-time employees.

"Our primary business is with medical helicopters. We customize the cabin interiors and cockpits. If they have a specific piece, we customize the mounting system and get the FAA to approve it, so they can use it in flight," Freeman said.

In 2007 Helicopter Specialties took on a large project to customize a helicopter for Gundersen Lutheran, headquartered in La Crosse.

"That put us on the map for working on the next generation aircraft, with all the state-of-the-art technology," Freeman said. "That job resulted in over 4,000 man hours of work customizing. We did a custom incubator system for them as well."

Helicopter Specialties was recently awarded a similar project with two helicopters for Milwaukee Flight for Life. Those aircraft will arrive almost exactly eight years after the original Flight for Life projects that launched the business.

In addition to equipping and repairing medical aircraft, Helicopter Specialties also works with private, corporate, police, special use and firefighter aircraft. Its work with a growing number of customers nationwide earned it recognition as Emerging Business of the Year in 2007 from the Wisconsin Small Business Administration office. Helicopter Specialties was also recently awarded two Diamond awards by the FAA.

Before Freeman started his award-winning business, he turned to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Small Business Development Center for help in developing his business plan. Off to a good start, Freeman began to encounter issues that go along with growing a business.

"I was struggling," Freeman said. "There was no formal outlet out there for owners, entrepreneurs, CEO's and those types. You just don't go to CEO school."

That's when he discovered PeerSpecitves. The PeerSpectives program, implemented by Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Network partners at small business development centers throughout the state, brings together second-stage business owners and CEOs once a month for four hours to address challenges they experience as they grow their businesses.

Freeman's PeerSpectives group is one of eight currently active throughout the state. Each group consists of eight to 12 non-competing business owners. PeerSpectives participants must be the primary decision maker in a second-stage company, one that employs between 10 and 99 and reports revenue between $750,000 and $50 million. Much of the value these groups provide comes from the business experience of its members.

"I find it quite useful to go to those meetings. It's structured, but informal. It's confidential," Freeman said. "You share experiences and information. You find out you are not alone out there as an entrepreneur. It's a way to network with people who have similar situations."

The group has enabled Freeman to work through personnel and benefit issues and deal with the impact that business ownership can have on your personal life.

"You share those experiences too," added Freeman. "You find out you can get through it."

UW-Whitewater SBDC Director Bud Gayhart is also there to help Freeman get through the ups and downs of growing a business. Through Gayhart, Freeman has received assistance in developing a strategic plan and finding summer interns. Currently a group of students at UW-Whitewater is reviewing the Helicopter Specialties Web site.

"When they grade our Web site it will give us some ideas on how we can tweak it a bit," Freeman said.

With a growing customer base, Freeman hopes to stabilize his growth and staffing needs in 2008 while focusing on timely project completion.

Freeman added, "It has been a lot of hard work and frustration, there are no shortcuts. The finished product makes it all worth it."

For more information about Helicopter Specialties, visit http://www.helicopterspecialties.net.

To request SBDC assistance for your business, click here and complete the online Request for Assistance form or call 262-472-3217.