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Still flying after 50 years

In the time of ready-to-run and ready-to-fly radio control, Du-Bro remains the source of quality parts made in the USA
By Hal Miller
Published: April 14, 2009
A family affair: from left, Jim Broberg, Kathy Weiland, Terry Weiland, Dewey Broberg, Chris Weiland, Mary Lou Broberg, and Gayle Lundgren.
One of the most familiar names in radio control is celebrating a half-century of business this year.

The funny thing is, the company in the western Chicago suburbs doesn't make one rock crawler, touring car, helicopter or airplane. But if your customers have ever built (or broken) one of these things, chances are they are very familiar with the Du-Bro name.

And to think it all started in a bathroom - sort of.

In 1957, Dewey Broberg, a patternmaker and machinist, developed the Kwik-Klip - really a modified clothespin - for use by control-line and R/C flyers to start their glow engines. Broberg made the product after-hours in a workshop he'd set up in the restroom of a factory he and his business partner had rented.

The Kwik Klip found fast acceptance with flyers in his area, so he ran an ad for it in Model Airplane News. Demand took off.

Suddenly, retailers were after him to produce more. He kept about 10 retailers in the Chicago area stocked with them before deciding he couldn't keep making the apparently handy products at night and keep working his day job.

In 1959, he formed Du-Bro and went into the hobby business full-time. He produced different versions of the Kwik Klip for different applications.

Broberg hung around the flying fields, partly because he, too, was a hobbyist, and partly just to talk to the guys there and observe what they were doing and needed. His son, Jim, said, "He was big into U-control. As R/C evolved, he figured, 'If I'm in this business I better be good."'

The fields proved to be fertile places for product ideas. Brian Bychowski, Du-Bro's advertising and marketing director, said, "He'd literally come up with product ideas in his sleep. People would tell him, 'You should make a product to do this,' and for days he would think of nothing else."

Bychowski added, only half jokingly, Dewey Broberg "sleeps with a pad of paper and a pen by his bed" so he's ready if an idea should come to him in his sleep.

Essentially, "a product was basically a solution to a problem," Bychowski said.

Today, Dewey Broberg is retired and the company is in the capable hands of his son, Jim, and daughters Gayle and Kathy. Gayle joined the business in 1978, Jim in 1980 and Kathy in 1981; They've been running it, or as Jim says, "making the payments," since 1988.

Du-Bro offers more than 1,000 hobby products, and has also carved out a niche in the fishing and archery markets.

You would be hard-pressed to find a radio-control retailer that doesn't carry at least some of Du-Bro's product line.

"I've had many dealers tell me over the years that our line pays their rent every month. They can depend on it. It sells well, the margins are excellent and it doesn't need a lot of sales behind it," Jim Broberg says. Accessories and parts are where a shop makes money. "You can haul people in with the glamour stuff but it's the nuts-and-bolts kind of guys that are really paying it [rent] for them," Bychowski said.

With so many R/C-related products in their catalog, if a dealer can't find something a customer needs, chances are it has yet to be invented.

By 1986, when Du-Bro entered the R/C car market, the company had catalogued about 300 products. The rest have been developed since then at a rate of 10-12 per year. Many of them come in different sizes and are variants of other products.

How do they come up with products that are so useful? First of all, there has to be a universal nature to the product: it should work in planes or cars in general, not just in a specific model that might be gone in a few years. The other thing is just trusting gut instinct. "We're involved in the market, so we know what works. We're not scientific on that part of it," Broberg says.

People send them ideas for new products, too. Many think they'll get rich from it, having no idea how big the market is. "They have unrealistic expectations ... like we must sell millions of these. Ten thousand is a big number in this industry." If the idea gets accepted and Du-Bro produces it, "You could take your wife out to a few nice dinners a year," Broberg said.

Product isn't the only focus, though. Since Jim and his sisters have taken over, the company has gotten more into merchandising systems and marketing supplies to help dealers. It's challenging to think of innovative ways to help the dealer and keep the company's name in front of the customer.

Every product carrying the Du-Bro name is still produced in the USA at the company's Wauconda, Ill., facility, which it's occupied since 1967.

The company has about 45,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehousing space. All the injection molding and other manufacturing takes place in-house, as well as the printing and the packaging. Plus, the company produces its own ads, video and Web site, too. Jim Broberg say people are surprised about how much the company does there.

"We try to keep as much as possible under one roof, so that way, if we do get slow, we just tighten up a little … we're not committed to containers coming from China," he said.

The company works to make sure distributors and dealers are never out of their products. "We have a lot of inventory. We package three months [supply] and raw another six," Jim Broberg said, adding, "I've been told by our distributors we have the best fill rate in the industry."

"You know the old saying, 'You can't do business without your wagon,' so it's [product] always on hand. It can be built fast and packaged quickly. That's how we compete with China. It's really a stable environment; we can roll with the punches if we need to."

About 40 people keep everything humming. Each can do multiple jobs, which helps the company run lean and avoid drastic ups and downs. It also keeps it competitive with Asian manufacturers.
A straightforward mindset moves the company: "Lead the charge and do it ourselves. That's our mantra," Bychowski says.

He joined the company in 2001 with a television production background. That led to the development of the television show "Inside RC," which aired on the Outdoor Channel for 4½ years, or nine seasons. "It introduced R/C to millions," Broberg said.

Eventually, management at the Outdoor Channel changed and "Inside RC" ended its run. Broberg said, "We didn't make any money at it, except our own advertising. We did it to try to grow the hobby."

He adds, "It was a gamble, but it was one of those things where you had to believe in it."

His father believed in something bigger, too. Years ago, the elder Broberg, along with Chicago-area retailer Al Fuschen, Tony Frelo and a few others, came up with the idea of an R/C hobby industry organization and show that eventually became the Radio Control Hobby Trade Association or RCHTA. They also thought there should be an annual show in Chicago, the forerunner to today's iHobby Expo.

With the rise of almost ready-to-fly (ARF) models, how does a company like Du-Bro continue to exist?

Much of the work is put into the models, not on the components inside, Bychowski says. Sometimes, the plastic parts are brittle and break. "A lot of guys will strip the parts off, put our parts in." The other thing that keeps dealers selling parts: crashes.

Putting the durability factor aside, "We try to innovate products to where even if you've bought an ARF, you're still going to add on," Broberg said.
Du-Bro also does a lot of OEM work for the industry. The movie industry and NASA are customers.

Dewey Broberg, while retired, is still very active. During his trips between Wisconsin in the summer and Florida in the winter, he pops in to the offices in Wauconda. His mind is still very active: "He tells us we need to make this. It could be mini-blinds; it could be a pellet gun; you just never know," Bychowski says. "He still loves the design game," Jim Broberg adds.

Chances are, though, that all the products the company makes will center on one hobby or another. "Make what you know," Bychowski says. "Slow and steady wins the race."

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