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Firm Soars to Success With Sale of Gliders : Composites: Advanced Soaring Concepts Inc. is the only maker of sailplane kits in the U. S. Its employees also turn out fiberglass prototype cars.

October 19, 1993|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMARILLO — It may sound like boasting when a small company's unofficial motto is, "We can build anything you can write a check for." But as the old baseball adage goes, "It ain't bragging if you can do it."

Tor Jensen and Dewey Northcutt, experts in composite materials, have a tiny company, Norjen Engineering, that has built everything from a prototype body for a super-secret stealth attack helicopter for the U. S. military, to the size 14 tennis shoes--complete with 800 glowing fiber optics--worn by the archer who lit the Olympic flame at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

In between, Norjen's six employees have also built fiberglass concept cars for Volkswagen, Audi, Volvo, General Motors and the BMW electric prototype shown at the 1992 Los Angeles Auto Show.

Jensen, 35, and Northcutt, 50, founded Norjen five years ago in Northcutt's garage. Today their biggest sales come from their aircraft company, Advanced Soaring Concepts Inc., which sells kits for gliders, also known as sailplanes. It's "the only growing airplane company in the United States," said a proud Jensen, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

A sailplane is an engineless glider that is launched from a tow plane. The gliders now account for about half of the estimated $700,000 in annual revenues generated by the two companies owned by Jensen and Northcutt. They began selling gliders in 1991 and enjoyed immediate success.

Their aircraft have sold well because they cost less than half those sold by some European competitors. Jensen and Northcutt are able to sell their planes cheaper because they are sold in kits that are assembled by the buyer. Typically, European models are sold already assembled, accounting for the higher cost.

Advanced Soaring is the only U. S. glider manufacturer, and one of only six companies in the world that manufactures lightweight sailplanes. The other five are in Europe, including Schempp Hirth, Northcutt and Jensen's largest German competitor.

"Right now they're the only U. S. company selling glider kits," said Mark Kennedy, editor of Soaring & Motorgliding magazine. An article in his magazine said Advanced Soaring marks "America's return to the production end of the soaring industry" and gave the company's planes high marks for safety, simplicity, performance and the state-of-the-art composite technology used in construction.

Since its founding in 1991, the company has sold more than 40 planes for as much as $25,000 each to sailplane enthusiasts all over the world. According to Jensen, the company averages about four orders each month, and planes are typically delivered in six to eight weeks.

Northcutt and Jensen's employees wear two hats. Working out of the same industrial warehouse in Camarillo, the workers switch jobs with ease, from building cars for a Norjen contract to crafting gliders for Advanced Soaring.

Advanced Soaring offers two glider models, one for $18,000, while a racing version called the Falcon sells for about $25,000. Both models are single-seaters and are shipped in ready-to-assemble kits that include everything necessary for assembly, except the paint.

The company markets the planes by displaying them at various soaring events held throughout the West several times a year. "We take our planes to different sailplane airports and display them. I take them up a few times, let people see them. That's how we get many of our orders. But now we're beginning to get orders from people who know someone who flies one of our planes," said Jensen.

Recently Jensen and Northcutt reached an agreement with their first overseas distributor, an Australian airline pilot who wants to sell the American entrepreneurs' planes in Australia.

Somewhere along the way, both men stumbled into the composite materials business and met while working as industry consultants in Southern California. Before founding Norjen, Northcutt and Jensen worked as composite materials consultants to companies like Ford, Northrop, Lockheed and International Harvester.

When they started Norjen in 1988 with $1,000 capital, they worked part time on evenings and weekends out of Northcutt's garage. One year later they quit their consulting jobs and began working full time on their new company when they won a $200,000 subcontract to build the fiberglass structure for a military observation plane.

"We told the contractor that we had no employees and we didn't even have a shop. But we gave them a technical proposal and won the job," said Jensen. "There are some other military contracts that we've worked on since then, but I can't talk about them."

What prompted the two partners to build planes in addition to cars? The airplane business was Jensen's idea, said Northcutt. Jensen, who also pilots small jets, has been flying gliders since he was 14.

"Tor wanted to build airplanes. So, I said, 'Why not?' " said Northcutt.

Norjen is now building six futuristic cars that will eventually be outfitted with engines for an upcoming movie being filmed at MCA/Universal Studios

Northcutt and Jensen say they have never borrowed money to stay in business. In addition, the two business partners do not advertise. They rely on word-of-mouth referrals to attract new clients.

"We actually turn down work now. At the beginning, we used to accept jobs (that) we had to finish by a certain day or not get paid. We've actually built cars in three-and-a-half weeks. The client would bring us a clay model and we'd work from that," said Northcutt.

"We don't do that anymore. This year we told Volkswagen that we needed a minimum of six weeks to make a car for them, or we wouldn't do it. They agreed," he added.

So far the 80-hour weeks that both men put in when they began the two businesses have paid off handsomely.

"We're just kind of an odd little business. We haven't done too bad," said Northcutt with a wry grin.

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