Janesville company serves worldwide need for helicopter parts
JANESVILLE — The unassuming building sits just north of the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.
Unless they made a wrong turn onto West Knilans Road, motorists wouldn't even know it's there.
Tradewind International, however, is well known in the helicopter world.
Established in 1991, Tradewind buys and sells parts in the worldwide helicopter industry.
The business is an extension of owner Peter Bales' affinity for aviation, something he can't really explain other than noting that eight of his nine siblings pursued aviation careers.
"It's just what we do, I guess," he said.
Bales' attraction to helicopters took off as a young man. He joined the Army in 1968 to fly helicopters, and a yearlong tour of Vietnam had him doing just that from 1970 to 1971.
"I got out and wanted to stay flying, so I joined Omniflight and worked part-time for a couple of years there," Bales said.
He went full-time in 1973 as a flight manager and eventually went to New Jersey to run an Omniflight business that ferried first-class Pan Am passengers by helicopter between Manhattan hotels and New York City airports.
Bales returned to Janesville in 1986 as director of operations for the company's flight business.
"Then things started to get interesting," he said. "(Company founder) Dan Parker died and we began buying other companies, and these companies had lots of extra stuff.
"I saw some opportunities there and suggested that we start a parts business. The reception to that wasn't very warm because it wasn't part of core businesses."
In 1989, Bales asked to cut his Omniflight responsibilities in half so he could start his own business with the inventories of excess helicopter parts.
Omniflight then moved from Janesville to Texas, a move that didn't interest Bales.
"I stayed here, sold the building and shut down the business," he said, adding that he was given the Omniflight parts inventory.
In a hangar at the airport, he started Tradewind International with two other employees. Outgrowing that space, he moved the business to the north side of the airport.
The company routinely buys excess parts from helicopter operators around the world. The parts become available because of changes in fleet type, company mergers and business slowdowns.
Those parts—in new, overhauled, serviceable and as-removed conditions—are shipped to Janesville, where they are categorized, inventoried and priced for sale around the world.
Sometimes larger pieces are broken down for sale as individual parts.
Other times individual parts are combined with others to create a larger piece that's worth more money.
The company has grown considerably in the past couple of years, both in terms of its inventory and the employees needed to catalog and sell it.
That, Bales said, is the result of business consolidations that create surpluses that new combines don't want or need.
Now with 13 employees, Tradewind has more than 60,000 different part numbers in stock, and, when multiples are factored in, its shelves are well organized and stocked to the building's ceiling.
"I've probably bought enough inventory in the last couple of years that I don't need to buy for another 10 years," Bales quipped.
Only about a dozen companies do what Tradewind does, and Bales said the business has matured from the days of phone calls and faxes. Most of the company's sales now are handled online, and Bales still travels to inspect inventories he buys.
"From some trusted sources, you know exactly what you're getting," he said. "From others, you don't.
"The availability of parts has fueled our growth," he said. "We used to buy 10 or 20 parts at a time, but now we may buy a lot of 1,000 from places around the world."