atangen | Apr 29, 2014 |
By MIKE PATRICK NIBJ writer
HAUSER LAKE — James Neils is a mechanical engineer, a guy who, like his father, sees a challenge and wants to solve it.
James liked to park his Cessna 172 right square in the middle of the Ventry Solutions shop on the north side of Hauser Lake but conceded that it impeded production on the floor. So he did what any good mechanical engineer would do: He built a lift so that single-engine plane can be safely parked above while employees move around and work below.
James Neils and his dad, John, aren’t just airplane buffs. They’re fans of firefighting, and for the past quarter-century, they’ve been fans of fans. Firefighting fans.
“James understands aerodynamics, physics, propellers,” says his sister Joan Rodman, who handles communications and marketing for Ventry Solutions, Inc. “He knows how to move air.”
Boy does he.
Ventry — started by John in 1989 when he built the company’s first fan, thanks to inspiration from local firefighters Lynn Borders and Myron Richardson — produces gas- and electric-powered fans that blast smoke from fire scenes. As Joan explains, the better firefighters can see, the more effectively they can fight fires and save lives.
How It All Came Together
“If I put this fan on at my house it’ll completely refresh the area in less than 30 seconds,” Joan says as James fires up one of Ventry’s gas-powered fans and Joan steps into the pathway. The blast of sustained air from the fan is startling enough that Joan’s 2-year-old son, Reylen, immediately bursts into tears. Maybe he’s afraid Mommy’s about to take off, much like Uncle James does in his Cessna.
James noted that his sons, Walter and William, once grabbed sheets of cardboard and rushed a gas-powered fan.
“They couldn’t reach it,” he says with a grin. “It moves a whole lot of air using very little horsepower.”
While several companies sell firefighting fans, Joan says, Ventry’s are the best because of three unique features:
1. They all have patented, independently adjustable legs, allowing firefighters to point the units precisely where they’re needed. The legs also slide up so the units become even more compact and, therefore, are more easily transportable.
2. They all have a unique guard structure manufactured to the industry’s highest safety standards while allowing the maximum amount of air to be pulled in and, therefore, pushed out.
3. They all have patented propellers, 20- or 24-inch, made of a kevlar-fiberglass-wood composite.
To date, Ventry has sold just under 4,000 fans, with prices ranging from $1,800 to $3,700. Years ago John Neils started poking a pin into a map wherever one of his fans was sold, and now that map looks like a flat, rectangular pincushion.
While business is good, it’s also a vocation of intense passion. Not only is John a pilot and a veteran volunteer firefighter, but his son and daughter have followed his lead. James, Ventry’s CEO, is deputy chief at the Hauser Lake Fire Department, and Joan is the department’s secretary-treasurer.
Two of Ventry’s remaining three employees are also volunteer firefighters: Ken Birge and Doug Weniger. A company contractor, Myron Richardson (one of the men who ignited John Neils’ creativity to produce the first firefighting fan), has been a firefighter and EMT since 1976. The company’s other employee, Sara Hite, isn’t a firefighter, but she’s a former Idaho Special Olympics coordinator and a perpetual smiler.
The family affair goes even further. Joan’s and James’ grandfather, Jim Flesher, is still stuffing mailers for the company at age 92. “We estimated that he’s stuffed well over 300,000 mailers for us over the past 10 years,” Joan says.
Mail isn’t the only way Ventry is reaching out to current and prospective customers. The company operates a website, ventry.com, and with Joan’s help, has plunged into social media. The formula is working.
Exporting Has Tripled
“Our exporting has tripled because customers are asking for us after they find us on the Web,” says Joan, adding that she’s gotten valuable help from George Atchley and the export team at the Idaho Small Business Development Center in Post Falls.
The successful marketing formula also includes word of mouth — live and electronic. She said a customer in Spain introduced the product to interested parties in Portugal, Sweden, and Argentina. “Social media is growing exponentially because people talk,” she adds.
One of the foundations that Ventry has built upon was started by its founder, John Neils. “Dad would send a fan out to any fire department that asked for one, and he’d tell them to use it for two months, free,” Joan says. “That’s what it takes to understand it, to see what it can do. “Other companies, there’s a big difference between what they say their fans do and why they actually do. This practice of a free trial period has worked for 25 years.”
Contact Joan Rodman at Ventry Solutions by calling (888) 257-8967 toll-free; (208) 773-1194; or by visiting www.ventry.com