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Jan
09
2023

Executive Watch - Dale Neubauer, CEO, HeliLadder

Posted 30 days ago ago by Admin

Dale Neubauer, founder and CEO of Oregon-based HeliLadder is rare among mechanics. That’s too narrow a claim; in fact, he’s rare among people. He noticed a real need as a working mechanic: he and his fellow wrench turners were contorting themselves in risky, uncomfortable, and inefficient working conditions, dangling themselves from old-style ladders that hadn’t made a significant step-up in half a century. “I thought that it was just ridiculous that maintenance ladders had not improved,” he says. “Nothing had changed, except they were now made out of fiberglass, but it was still the same conventional design they’d used in World War II.”

Now the common man would have left it at that. He’d have griped about his working conditions until payday and then deposited his paycheck. That’s not Neubauer. He had an idea for a better, safer, maintenance platform that would allow helicopter mechanics to work more efficiently and safely. He talked about his idea around the maintenance shop, but he procrastinated. Until one day, when he got called out—literally. Neubauer was an Airbus tech rep. in the field, working in Boise, Idaho, supporting the Lakota (UH-72) program.  “One day I’m watching a (National) guardsman dangle off a conventional maintenance ladder. That guardsman then yelled, ‘Hey Neubauer, when you gonna make that new ladder you talk about!’ On my drive back from Boise, I decided it was time to get serious and launch my ladder. I didn’t want the rising generation of mechanics forced to work on the same old ladders my peers and I had.” That’s rare.

 That fateful decision led to HeliLadder, a stable ladder/platform that allows for safer and more efficient helicopter maintenance.  Neubauer says there are now some 1,400 HeliLadders out in the field, but it hasn’t been a straight climb to success for the entrepreneur mechanic and his invention. There’s a backstory…
 
Neubauer was born and raised in Iowa as the eighth child out of nine. “I had a great upbringing,” he says. He tried college for a year, but his grades were unimpressive. “I decided that wasn’t a good fit for me.” He then bought a vintage 1960 Harley Davidson Panhead motorcycle and that ride carried him to his career. “That old bike required regular maintenance and attention, which started me down the path of acquiring mechanical skills. In my mid-20s, I went to A&P school to refine those skills. So, an old motorcycle introduced me to the aviation industry.”

‘Some Good in the World’
Neubauer got his first mechanics job in 1986 with Era Helicopters in the Louisiana oil patch and in 1987 he moved to Texarkana, Texas, to maintain a Bell 222 for helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operator Air Methods. “That 222 was a knuckle-busting, back-breaking, demoralizing aircraft, but I absolutely loved it,” he colorfully comments. Neubauer spent approximately the next quarter century working in hospital aviation taking care of helicopter air ambulances, which was fulfilling work, says the mechanic, “It may have been a long, hard day, but I could say at the end of it, ‘Today, I did some good in the world.’ I’m pretty proud of the approximately 25 years I spent supporting hospital aviation as a mechanic.” During that career period, Neubauer was a primary contributor for hospital aviation maintenance standards to the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems (CAMTS). Eventually, he transitioned away from hospitals to be an Airbus field service representative supporting UH-72 Medevacs. That’s when he was challenged to act on his ladder idea by that young, dangling Guardsman.

Neubauer’s initial decision to act set him on a challenging path. “It set me on the path of learning how to become a businessman, which I’d never intended to be,” he says. “I was an aircraft mechanic who wanted to build a better ladder. Learning how to build and manage a business has been challenging, but interesting. I realized very quickly what I didn’t know.”

His first step on that path took him to Home Depot. “I bought a cheap ladder there and hacksawed it into pieces that I rearranged,” he says. “As my concept progressed, I hired engineers to help, including specialty engineers who certify that our ladders meet the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) book of standards.” This process all began in 2011 and it wasn’t until after three years of sweating and spending that Neubauer began a small production run of only 12 HeliLadders. “Just to see if we could sell them,” he says. “I was terrified back then because we had sunk an incredible amount of money into design and certification over the years without producing anything to sell, but we believed in the concept and that there would be a market for better ladders,” he says.

Susie
That “we” includes Neubauer’s supportive wife, Susie, whom he consistently credits. “Moving HeliLadder forward from a pencil sketch to what I believe is the new industry standard involved the support, input, and assistance of a long list of people, with the unwavering support of my wife at the forefront,” he says. They met in the early 1980s and have been married 35 years. “So, we have a lot of history between us,” he says. That history now includes Susie as co-owner of HeliLadder. “Like me, she did not aspire to own a business. She was a high school biology teacher,” says Neubauer. “She supported my ladder concept from the start and we saw the business as a way I might transition out of aviation because I was getting a little tired of being out on the flight line with rain running down my neck and back. We naively didn’t realize how much it takes to start and run a business, but there’s no way I could have done it without her. Ideas are easy; implementation is difficult. The implementation wouldn’t have happened without her support and active engagement.”

Good, Long Days
That unwavering support and engagement is vital because the average entrepreneur’s day is long. By 7:00 a.m., Neubauer is in the home office with a cup of coffee in hand, where he works until late morning. Then it’s off to the ladder production shop where he works until it’s time to head home for dinner. Afterwards, he works in the home office until 9:00. “I try to slip an hour of light exercise into the day, but the work-life balance isn’t very balanced,” he confesses.  “It’s a good problem because we’ve been getting so many orders, including military contracts, which has forced us to increase our efficiency and professionalism.

It also increased their hiring. “Generally, I’m looking for a positive attitude and for someone who shows up ready for work. Beyond that, if they lack some specific skills that’s not a showstopper, provided they’re willing to learn,” Neubauer says, “We have a very specific way of building our products to maintain high quality standards, which are built by great employees, including four vets from all four U.S. military branches. They’ve been a stellar group.”

HeliLadder sales started slow. “We started off very small for two reasons: it was a product that nobody had ever seen before and two, it was the most expensive ladder on the market.” Gulp!   
Neubauer justifies HeliLadder’s higher price, “Customers began to understand that our ladders made their mechanics safer and more efficient, and thus their helicopters spent more time in the air generating revenue. For example, a hospital flight can generate $20,000 to $40,000 in revenue. If only one flight is missed because the mechanic was delayed in getting the aircraft into service, the operator loses a lot of money. Conversely, if you make one more flight because the mechanic worked safely and efficiently, the HeliLadder made the hospital up to $40,000 on that extra flight and provided patient care.” That sounds reasonable, but doesn’t having the highest price cause concern? “Fortunately, we’re now at a point where customers see the value of our ladders and price isn’t a primary factor,” he answers.

What has been and still is a factor, negatively for the helicopter industry writ large and perhaps positively for HeliLadder sales is the shortage of qualified mechanics. “This presents an opportunity for HeliLadder because we provide a product that significantly increases the productivity of that limited labor pool,” Neubauer says. “Furthermore, our stable platforms that support mechanics can make an employer more attractive to prospective employees who don’t want to spend their working days hanging off an old ladder. Also, the industry is paying more attention to safety, which makes our platforms more attractive to companies.”

Other Passions
All these factors combine to give Neubauer and his ladders a lift. That success  even allows him to pursue passions, from actively supporting the  military veteran charity, Central Oregon Veterans Ranch, to also being part of a team that has developed the new AdvenChair, which is an off-road wheelchair that enables, according to its website, “teams of two or more to tackle new challenges and boldly go where no chair has gone before.”

Still, Neubauer’s first focus is HeliLadder. “It’s been a kick to watch this product develop and go out into the industry. I genuinely smile every time I see a pallet of our goods shipping out into the field, not only because of the income it generates, but also because our platforms support working mechanics. That makes me really happy,” says the businessman-mechanic who continues to do “some good in the world.”  

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