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Risk Takers: Yakima model airplane business succeeds

posted Jun 10, 2013, 11:00 PM by R. Scott Page

YAKIMA, Wash. — When Mike Hanratty had the chance to buy a hobby shop, he quit his job managing a restaurant and emptied his retirement savings into the business.A radio-controlled model aircraft enthusiast, he had long thought of opening a hobby shop part time in the evenings.

“I thought about it for five or six years,” Hanratty, 70, said. “Like anything, you don’t know if you should do it or not.”

Then he ran into Arlene Spence, whose husband, Bob, owned what was then called Model Aircraft Supply. She told him Bob was selling the business, and Hanratty jumped at the opportunity.

Hanratty’s wife, Patty, was somewhat apprehensive at first.

“She was a little hesitant when I took our retirement to buy the store, but that was about it,” he said. “She said, if that’s what you want to do, go for it. She’s always backed me.”

That was 15 years go.

Hanratty knew he was taking a risk. “Big time,” he said. “To be in management all those years and just go out and buy a business to see how it goes and let the chips fall where may?”

Housed in a small building that resembles an old bungalow on North 20th Avenue, his business — Mike’s Model Aircraft Supply & Hobby Center — is jammed with model aircraft, cars and parts such as gas and electric engines, hand-held radio controllers, batteries, wheels and propellers.

Balsawood plane kits fill shelves on one wall. A few rows of shelves are filled with boxes of model planes, helicopters and cars, and even more are stacked in the narrow aisles of the 700-square-foot store.

There’s even a 1940s-era model powered by a rubber band. The rubber band is fastened between a hook toward the rear of the plane and the propeller. Turning the propeller winds the rubber band. When it unwinds, the propeller turns and the plane flies.

Batteries, radio controllers and old engines are cluttered in a glass cabinet that doubles as a counter. A globe with antique engines attached to the countries they were made in is encased in a glass cabinet nearby.

“It wouldn’t matter if I had 2,000 square feet, I’d have it crammed,” he said. “This is the kind of hobby shop I grew up with.”

Business has its peaks and valleys, but he said he’s doing what he loves. “It’s not something you’re going to get rich at — it pays the bills,” he said.

His interest began when he was a kid in Cub Scouts building plastic models. “Ships, airplanes, that kind of thing,” he said from behind his counter.

And in 1972, he became a member of the Yakima Valley Aero Modelers Club, where his interest in radio-controlled aircraft flourished. Now, he’s vice president of the club, and still flies RC aircraft in addition to running his store six days a week.

“I’ll do it until I can’t do it anymore,” he said. “It’s something you can do from a wheelchair.”

But Hanratty is neither wheelchair-bound nor lacking in energy to operate his shop, where he also repairs model aircraft for customers. Sporting a white T-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers, he sprang from behind the counter and walked to the rear of his store where two RC airplanes needing repair sat on a table. Looking at one of them, he explained how new technology has allowed electric engines and batteries to be lighter with more power.

“Technology is constantly changing,” he said. “You’ll never learn it all. You’re constantly in a learning pattern.”

His nearest competitor is The Clover Leaf in Union Gap, a full-scale hobby shop that sells RC aircraft, boats, cars, trucks, trains as well as swimming pools and general crafts.

But the store doesn’t specialize in gas-powered aircraft like Hanratty.

“We get along,” Hanratty said of his competitor. “I send them business, they send me business. They do trains, I don’t.”

Most hobby shops over the years have had to diversify their inventory to stay in business, Clover Leaf co-owner Ben Green said, noting that his store sells swimming pools during the summer to improve sales.

“You can’t just focus on one thing,” he said. “You’ve got to be pretty well-rounded if you want to stay in business.”

But Hanratty has been able to remain specialized for simple reasons, Green said.

“I think he’s just good with his customers,” Green said. “He’s been in business a long time and he knows what he’s selling. I think he just knows what he’s doing.”

And customer service is what helps him compete with his largest competitor, the Internet.

People can buy parts, planes and other items cheaper, but they are usually knockoffs of lower quality, Hanratty said.

He said he keeps up on Internet prices to remain competitive. But if one of his customers has a problem with anything, they can bring it into the store for help. That beats having to mail something back that was bought on the Internet, he said.

Also, customers just breaking into the RC aircraft hobby need some guidance on what to buy and how to use it. If not, newbies buy high-price planes intended for experienced users.

“If they crash it, they’ll probably drop (the hobby) and won’t come back as a future customer,” Hanratty said.

A good entry-level plane costs about $200. Some RC planes cost thousands. His customers cover a wide range of demographics, from youth to adults.

“You’d be surprised who’s into this,” he said. “Professional people, you name it — it runs the gamut.”

Despite spending nine hours a day, six days a week at the store, Hanratty said he doesn’t see himself calling it quits anytime soon.

“As long as I can pay the bills, I’ll keep it going,” he said. “I don’t want to quit working. I’ve seen too many guys, as soon as they quit working, they went down the tubes quick.