Sales: $20 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 339932 Game, Toy, and Children’s Vehicle Manufacturing
Centuri Corporation is known for Estes model rockets and Cox model aircraft. Though flights are short, Estes’ model rocketry business has proved long-lived, outlasting numerous toy and hobby fads over the years. Cox has an even longer history, dating back to 1945. These miniature aircraft, traditionally sold through mail-order catalogs and hobby stores, are now also found in national department stores and toy stores.
Space Race Origins
It was the beginning of the Space Age. The Russians put Sputnik into orbit. Scientists from around the world were using rockets to explore the stratosphere as part of the International Geophysical Year.
A new hobby, model rocketry, developed in tandem with the space program. Serious safety issues connected with this hobby arose in the 1950s and 1960s, however. According to American Rocket Society statistics quoted by Air & Space magazine, one in six amateur rocket experiments of the era resulted in serious injury or death. Botched rockets bore a striking similarity to pipe bombs.
Orville Carlisle, a Nebraska shoe store owner and amateur inventor, developed a rocket with solid propellant engines. This made the dangerous pastime of mixing rocket fuels unnecessary. Carlisle’s Rock-A-Chute rocket was carried into the air by a small engine, which ejected a parachute at altitude via a small explosive charge. Carlisle teamed up with science fiction writer G. Harry Stine and launched Model Missiles, Incorporated, in Denver in 1957.
The firm’s products were explosively popular, and the new company soon ran into a problem finding a vendor who could make enough reliable engines. Carlisle and Stine consulted the Estes family, proprietors of a local fireworks business, who referred the pair to their son, Vern, a Denver building contractor.
At the request of a model rocket hobbyist, Estes had developed a machine, dubbed “Mabel,” that could make ten engines a minute. This was more than enough capacity even for Model Missiles’ booming business. Estes began selling the extra engines through ads in magazines such as Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Science.
Model Missiles suddenly went out of business, and Estes began selling model rocket kits as well as engines. The first was called the Astron Scout. Another had the lofty title of Astron Orbital Transport. It sold for $2.50. Most used parachutes to return to earth, but the Astron Space Plane was designed to return as a glider.
Annual revenues soon reached the millions. In 1961, the Estes plant was relocated from Denver to Penrose, Colorado, for safety reasons. The remote site was chosen for its access to U.S. Highway 50. Appropriately, Colorado Springs, home of the U.S. Air Force Academy, lay 30 miles to the north.
Acquisition by Damon in 1970
Damon Corp., a NYSE-listed medical products manufacturer based in Needham Heights, Massachusetts, bought the company in 1969. Vern Estes remained a consultant. Damon expanded the Penrose facility in 1970.
Kits were getting more complex, incorporating multiple stages similar to the Saturn V, which became the basis for one of the company’s best-selling kits. Once the moon was reached, however, interest in the space program waned, along with model rocket sales.
Estes countered by licensing rights to build craft based on Star Trek and Star Wars. In fact, in 1977 Estes was one of the original licensees for the Star Wars franchise. Still, growth was slow for the next few years, though the company remained profitable.
By this time, Damon also had bought Centuri Engineering Co., Inc., a model rocket producer located, appropriately enough, in Phoenix. Centuri had been founded in 1961 in the garage of Lee Piester. The company had grown large enough to acquire two other rocketry firms, Enerjet, Inc. and Coaster.
New Lines for the 1980s
By the early 1980s, Centuri’s marketing and product development were totally subsumed by that of Estes. Centuri Corporation, incorporated on March 10, 1994, would be the surviving legal entity, however. Piester and other Centuri employees, including Bill Stine, went on to found Enertech (the basis for AeroTech, Inc.) and Quest Model Rocketry. In 1981, Damon relocated its Hi-Flier Manufacturing Co. unit, maker of kites, from Decatur, Illinois, to the Estes site in Penrose.
By the end of 1982, there had been an estimated 200 million successful model rocket launches. Once considered the province of “basement bombers,” model rocketry had become, in something of a calculated overstatement, “the world’s safest hobby.” Estes’ portion of the business amounted to $8 million a year.
A 1984 marketing effort resulted in record sales and profits, reported the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph. Part of the push involved placing Estes’ products in national stores such as Wal-Mart and Toys ‘R’ Us, adding to its network of 250 independent hobby store distributors.
The space shuttle program helped rekindle interest in rocketry and provided a basis for a line of miniature clones. Advanced military weapons were also fodder for designers at Estes and other toymakers. Estes produced models of the high-flying SR-71 Blackbird spyplane, the French Exocet missile, and the Titan II ICBM. One unique model from Estes was the Astrocam 110, which snapped a single Kodak 110 format photograph at the height of its trajectory.
The name Estes was virtually synonymous with model rocketry; the company claimed a 90 percent market share. In the 1980s, however, the company had a new competitor for kids’ astral imaginations: video games. In addition, busy parents were finding difficulty devoting the time needed to help assemble the kits.
New Owners in the 1990s
Damon sold Estes to Trust Corp. of the West Capital Partners in 1990. Estes had about 200 employees at the time and annual revenue of $15 million. Barry Tunick, who had marketed Cabbage Patch dolls at Hasbro, was named Estes president. Although he had not built model rockets as a boy, he was struck by their potential and enduring appeal. “Things that fly are magical,” he told the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph.
Consumer-oriented changes soon were made in the way the rockets were built and marketed. A number of models requiring little or no assembly were added to appeal to time-starved families. The company’s successful Star Wars line was promoted with the company’s first TV advertising. In spite of overtures to 4-H clubs and the Girl Scouts, model rocketry remained, in large part, the province of young men. Models of the Patriot missile became brisk sellers after the real versions were used in the Gulf War to take out Iraqi Scuds. (Estes had discontinued its model of the Russian-made Scud years earlier.)
The company had begun marketing its products as a teaching tool in middle school classrooms. The excitement of launches inspired some students to willingly try trigonometry to calculate altitude, said a company spokesperson.
In September 1997, Centuri Corporation sued New York based Toy Biz Inc., one of the largest toymakers in the United States, and Rhode Island’s New England Paper Tube Co. for allegedly stealing trade secrets related to Estes engines and ignitors. Toy Biz had acquired its Phoenix-based model rocket subsidiary, Quest Aerospace, in September 1996. New England Paper, a former Centuri supplier, dropped Centuri’s business a few months later.
Centuri’s revenues for 1997 were $35 million. In 1996, Centuri Corporation had acquired Cox, a 50-year-old manufacturer of radio-controlled airplanes.
Our Mission: Estes Industries was founded in 1958 in Denver, Colorado. Vern Estes developed a machine that massproduced solid propellant model rocket engines. This invention gave people a consistent and reliable way to launch model rockets. Later, the company branched out into the mass production of balsa nose cones and adapters for model rockets. Estes began selling model rockets by mail in 1960.
The company was moved in 1961 to a 77-acre tract of land on the outskirts of Penrose, Colorado. Rapid growth followed and soon Penrose became known as the “Model Rocket Capital of the World.” Estes Industries has grown to be the leading manufacturer of model rocket kits, engines and accessories in the world.
COX joined the Estes family of products in 1996. For over 50 years, COX has been the choice of millions of families getting started in model airplane flying. COX products are designed for first time users who want the best start to a flying adventure and for more advanced fliers. Experience the magic of flying with COX Free Flying, Control Line or Radio Control aircraft.
Industry leaders in their fields, Estes and COX will continue to turn kids and adults on to flight with innovative new products that will go FASTER, FURTHER AND HIGHER.
Estes closed the 1990s with 15 products from the long-awaited Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. In addition to model rockets, the Phantom Menace line included gliders and gasoline-powered planes. Only the gliders required assembly.
Trial by Fire in 1999
In March 1999, a controlled burn on neighboring property spread to the Estes plant, causing nearly $1 million worth of damage. A couple tons of chemicals, five tons of clay, and 542,000 rocket engines were lost. A total of 500 people were evacuated from the surrounding area to avoid possible exposure to hazardous chemicals. A dozen Estes employees refused to leave, fighting sparks and brush fires with shovels, reported the Pueblo Chieftain.
A 2001 foray into air-powered rockets for smaller children was not without mishap. Their foam tips could break off, leading to injuries in the event of misuse, and 140,000 were recalled.
Principal Operating Units
AeroTech, Inc.; Ace Hobby Distributors, Inc.; Holverson Designs, Inc.; Quest Aerospace.
- Estes Industries is founded.
- Lee Piester launches Centuri; Estes moves to Penrose.
- Damon Corp. buys Estes.
- Centuri is merged with Estes.
- Damon’s Hi-Flier kites unit is moved to Penrose.
- A big marketing push results in skyrocketing sales.
- Trust Corp. of the West buys the company from Damon Corp.
- Centuri Corporation becomes the company’s new name.
- A fire at the Estes plant causes nearly $1 million in damage.
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—Frederick C. Ingram