I was in my first year in mechanical engineering at Oregon State University when my cousin, professional snowboarder Rob Morrow, asked me to help him start a company to build snowboards. I said I'd think about it. The next summer, in 1989, we started the business, and, at the age of 19, I was building snowboards. I transferred to Willamette University in my hometown of Salem, where the company was, and continued taking classes full time. Eventually I got a degree in business economics.
Our dads gave each of us $10,000 to start the business. [Note: Neil's dad, Ray Morrow, is an established avionics pioneer who had earlier created several successful companies: Morrow Electronics, II Morrow, American Blimp Corp., and Beachcraft Boats.] Three years into it, my dad, who had been with UPS in strategic planning, came to work for us full time as CEO. Rob was president and I was vice president for engineering and R&D. In 1995 we went public as Morrow Snowboards. The company, which employed 400 people, made 450 hand-laminated composite snowboards a day and earned $30 million a year. For six years we were the No. 3 snowboard brand in the country. In 1999, we sold the company to K2 Inc.
In 1997, my dad and I went to the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual air show in Oshkosh, Wis., because we wanted to build a plane for small aircraft transportation.
We asked Burt Rutan, the best custom-aircraft designer in the world, what kind of plane we should have. He came up with a design for a piston propeller-driven, twin-engine airplane that flies 300 knots and carries six people. With more than three passengers in that plane we could match a Boeing 737's fares.
We studied the model to see whether we should sell the planes or operate them ourselves, and we decided we could make more money operating them. My dad founded the Morrow Aircraft Corp. for the purpose of developing SkyTaxi, a national, on-demand air service for business travelers that is fast, safe, convenient, and competitive with airline full-coach fares. I'm the CEO and my dad is the chairman.
We're going to sell regional franchises, starting with the Northwest. We'll fly you point-to-point on trips of up to 1,500 nautical miles: for example, Portland to Denver, Seattle to Phoenix, and shorter hops.
We're now building the prototype of our plane, the MB-300. We're confident it will meet our requirements, because a slightly smaller five-seater that already exists does. Our plane's key advantage will be its low operating cost. The engine sips gas, its design gives it a low drag, and it can handle variable altitudes efficiently.
In the meantime, we have our financing and we're buying 20 existing Cessna 414s to start SkyTaxi. We're setting up owner-operators for the Northwest: Oregon, Washington, Northern California, and Idaho. When the MB-300s come off the assembly line, they'll replace the Cessnas.
Having grown up in an entrepreneurial environment, I don't have a separation between work and the dinner table. In my family, the discussions about business at dinner often even included us kids. I was used to thinking about coming up with creative solutions for a customer's problem. I think of work as something I did with my dad on weekends with a napkin and a pencil. I saw my dad's business ideas form. I saw the phases, the timing, the work with engineers and other people. I feel confident starting a business because I've seen it done up close several times already. My sister and I absorbed a positive family environment at work that invigorated us. We've always believed in treating our employees fairly and creating a fun environment. But, while business has a social side, it's also about development and solving problems.
In my education and career, I've ended up doing things in reverse order. Originally, I planned to get an engineering degree, then an MBA, but I was sidetracked by the snowboard business and eventually got a degree in business economics. Now I'm about to graduate from Embry-Riddle's Prescott, Ariz., campus with a degree in aerospace engineering.
The reason I picked Embry-Riddle was the curriculum. Most other aeronautical schools don't get into the details of design as much as Embry-Riddle does. Before I went there, I'd already taken all the courses in statistics, physics, and dynamics, and I'd done a preliminary design. I wanted to know everything about aviation, from training and hiring pilots to communicating with designers. Embry-Riddle helped me learn a new language, of aeronautical and aerospace engineering.
At Prescott, I had a model built of Burt Rutan's airplane design for our company. For a course in aircraft structures I also designed and built a passenger seat for the plane.
But I've been learning off campus, too. I've been learning the pilot, mechanic, and FAA sides of aviation. During the summers I've been working in aircraft maintenance at a small shop in Prescott and at Salem Air Center, where I worked on Cessnas. I got my CFII rating last year, and I've been flight instructing people I know. My marketing guy at Morrow Aircraft is getting his instrument rating from me now.
My future plans? A year from now, I plan to be test-flying our first plane. In five years, I plan to be able to manage the manufacturing and maintenance functions of the company. I'll also be flying with my wife and two kids to Jackson Hole to go snowboarding.
Neil Morrow will graduate from Embry-Riddle's Prescott, Ariz., campus in December 2001 with a bachelor of science in aerospace engineering.
After getting my aircraft maintenance technology degree at Embry-Riddle in 1979, I went to work for Braniff, Air Florida, and Eastern Airlines, leaving each one after it went bankrupt. Shortly after joining FedEx, I started an auto-repair business. I also had been interested in aquariums since I was 20, and noticed that there weren't any high-end, customized aquariums as well constructed as I would have liked, so I went after that market with SeaVisions of South Florida. I created, and eventually patented, sophisticated filtration systems for aquariums. To my surprise, I sold my first five units at a home show in Coconut Grove, Fla. After that success, I decided to focus on SeaVisions, so I closed the auto business and left FedEx in 1987. It was just too difficult doing it all - I had been working 3 a.m.-to-noon shifts at FedEx.
I was horrified by what happened Sept. 11, and I watched as the first anthrax scare turned the whole American Media Inc. facility into a ghost town. I felt there had to be a way to offer protection against what was going on in our country. It was so evident what was needed, and I had the resources to make it happen.
BioSafe Mail was an idea that grew out of the work I do on a daily basis - containing chemicals in airtight or watertight boxes for marine life. If the mailroom employee at American Media had opened that letter with the BioSafe Mail unit, he probably would have been okay and the building could have remained open. We developed this product to address an immediate need among those who may be targets or likely recipients of contaminated mail and do not believe the general public should be in fear.
BioSafe Mail is an airtight, polycarbonate box with industrial-grade gloves that provides a barrier between mail and the person opening it. Made of unbreakable plastic, BioSafe Mail is modeled after laboratory boxes created for handling hazardous material. It creates a seal once the mail has been placed inside. The mail is opened with an automatic letter opener via chemical-resistant gloves attached from the outside. The contents can be examined before removing them. If anything is suspicious, it remains sealed inside the box until proper authorities are notified for its removal.
We're selling BioSafe Mail all over the world, but we're also looking for ways to improve and upgrade it. We'll also build different sizes, depending on the application, and we're developing ways to provide detailed measurements of its effectiveness. It can be customized for individual home use or for major mailrooms with multiple gloves and openers and adequate space for medium-sized packages. The simplicity of the design is matched by its effectiveness. The price is approximately one-tenth the price of a laboratory model, but the results are the same.
You'd be amazed by the variety of our customers - courthouses, government buildings, hospitals, embassies, and Immigration and Naturalization Service buildings. We recently sold 2,000 units to an Israeli security firm, and you know how security-conscious Israel is.
Embry-Riddle gave me a solid foundation in engineering. It helped me develop my talents, especially in thought and theory. I've worked with many other mechanics in the airline industry who know how to fix something but don't know why it works. Because of my training at Riddle, I understand the "why" of much of what I do, and that's invaluable. It could save your life.
Gerry Calabrese, AMT'79, is a resident of Cooper City, Fla., and owns SeaVisions of South Florida, a designer of custom aquariums located in nearby Weston.
NOTE: Would you like to recommend an Embry-Riddle innovator for a future issue of The Leader? Please contact editor Robert Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org or 386-226-6198.
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