By Rita Duckworth
What could an aircraft company and a pipe organ company possibly have in common? While one could argue that pipe organs send music soaring to the heavens and airplanes soar through those same heavens, that’s a bit of a stretch. But according to Scott Wick, two local companies overlap in numerous ways, and neither would probably be in existence without the other.
Jewelers and watchmakers by trade, Scott Wick’s grandfather John and his brother Louis owned a shop on Highland’s town square in the early 1900s. When their church needed a new organ, they decided to build one themselves, enlisting the help of their brother Adolph who was a cabinet maker. The pipe organ known as Opus 1 was a success, and as a testament to their superb craftsmanship, it is still playable to this day. Word spread to churches throughout the region that organs were being built locally, and the brothers started receiving orders. They realized they had found a successful niche, and the business was incorporated by 1908.
For the next several decades, Wicks Organ Company was profitable, providing pipe organs to churches and homes throughout the Midwest and beyond. Some of their largest creations are in the First Baptist church in Memphis, and at Morehouse College in Atlanta. They have also worked with the restoration committee to rebuild the organ in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., as well as the refurbishing and enlarging the one in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.
John’s son Martin joined the business after attending college and receiving a JD degree. He pursued an education in the areas that would allow him to successfully run and grow the business as the 20th century progressed. Years later, in the same way that the original Wick brothers adapted their Swiss/German craftsmanship from watches and cabinets to organs, Martin Wick took the tools and talents of the organ company into an entirely new and unexpected direction – airplanes.
SOARING TO NEW HEIGHTS
By the 1950s, Martin had turned his hobby of flying into a way to conduct business for the organ company. Before the advent of superhighways, it was not unheard of for companies in rural areas to use small planes as sales tools if they wanted to do business outside their immediate area. Having a company plane was an economical and efficient way to get around the countryside quickly. It gave Martin the freedom to fly to meet with customers, take them out to see an organ several counties away or in another state, and make service calls. Unlike flying commercially, he could set his own schedule, staying an extra day if necessary, or leaving as soon as his business was finished.
Martin became good friends with his mechanic George Gibbons, who was himself a pilot and flight instructor. In the early 1970s, the two, along with Dick Haase, a shop supervisor at the organ company, decided to build a small plane called a KR2 from a kit. Haase had previously built a Bowers Fly Baby aircraft by himself, so with all of the tools and talent from the organ company at their disposal, the three hobbyists tackled the project with enthusiasm.
The team proudly flew the completed airplane to an annual gathering of aviation enthusiasts in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1974. Their KR2 garnered a lot of attention at the air show, as it looked even better than the designer’s prototype. The fact that they completed what would have been about a two year project for one person in less than three months, was a story in itself.
A NEW BUSINESS TAKES OFF
The lessons learned while building the KR2 were not all technical and mechanical. While the organ company had all of the tools and most of the materials necessary, they had problems finding parts that they could buy in small quantities. The foam and fiberglass could only be bought by the truckload and the appropriate nuts and bolts by the thousand. There were no resources to buy items on a smaller scale for the average hobbyist. Martin Wick realized that he could become that resource, a realization that would provide a business opportunity and ultimately shape his future.
Working with the designer of the KR2, Wick, Gibbons and Haase formed Wicks Aircraft Supply and began producing kits for homemade airplanes. Because of the organ company, they could obtain the raw materials and had somewhere to keep the inventory; because of their expertise in building their own aircraft, they were able to assist customers with their questions and problems. Aircraft hobbyists were enthusiastic and the company sold about 100 kits in the first two years. They quickly added to their product line, offering several different kits.
It was remarkable how many items from the organ business could be used in the aircraft supply business. Working with foam and fiberglass was new for them, but virtually everything else was already available. They carried special lightweight, strong wood such as Sitka spruce and mahogany and many other parts and supplies that couldn’t be found in the local hardware store. The kits sold by Wicks are primarily “scratch-built,” meaning that the customer purchases the raw materials and does all of the shaping, cutting and fitting of the parts. Other companies sell “pre-fab” kits instead, with the parts already shaped, holes punched, and everything cut to size.
Whether an airplane was built from scratch or pre-fab, once completed, parts for maintenance and upkeep were needed. Wicks Aircraft Supply quickly became known as an efficient, organized company that kept anything an at-home builder needed in stock. In the early days Wicks had little, if any, competition. In more recent years, competing companies have sprung up, but Wicks is still a highly respected contender.
AROUND THE WORLD WITH WICKS
Throughout Wicks Aircraft Supply’s history Martin Wick formed relationships with many people in the aviation world that led to not just interesting, but sometimes incredible opportunities. One of the most notable friendships was with aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and his brother, pilot Dick Rutan. In 1986, the Voyager aircraft, designed by Burt and flown by Dick along with Jeana Yeager, became famous as the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling. Wicks Aircraft supplied parts for Voyager, and as Scott Wick proudly notes, “if you go to the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, where it’s on display, you can see a Wicks Aircraft Supply decal on the plane.”
A NEW PILOT AT THE CONTROLS
Growing up amidst not one, but two successful businesses, it wasn’t surprising that Martin’s son Scott Wick would become involved. With an eye on someday joining the family business, Scott received an Associate’s degree in electronics from Belleville Area College (now Southwestern Illinois College) and a Bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University – Carbondale. At SIUC, he was able to tailor his curriculum to accommodate the unique needs of the family’s companies. His courses included technical studies, business courses and accounting, but he was also able to receive credit for both organ lessons and flying lessons. He went to work for his dad immediately after graduation.
In 2002, Martin Wick passed away suddenly. Various family members worked to keep both companies running until eventually Scott Wick ended up at the helm. As both sides of the business experienced ups and downs, his education and lifelong on-the-job experience were important assets as he was faced with the task of moving them forward.
TOP FLIGHT CUSTOMER SERVICE
Scott notes that as time passed, they were selling fewer kits, and more parts, and catalogs were their primary method of selling. Thousands were mailed or handed out at trade shows, and could be found on hobbyists’ workbenches throughout the country. One of the first things Scott did when he took the reins was to launch a website. “It didn’t really increase our sales” says Scott “but it changed our method of doing business.”
While the website has been a success, Scott cautions that “you have to know what your customers want; know what they value. Messing with something they feel comfortable with can be dangerous. We offer the website, but some people still want to make the call to ask advice and talk about their project.” For that reason, orders can still be phoned in, and there are no plans to eliminate the catalog.
Because of shipping charges, a mail order business like Wicks Aircraft Supply is usually regional in nature, with most of its customers within a five state area. The website gives them a much further reach. They have shipped parts to buyers in places as far away as Canada, Italy, the Czech Republic, Australia, New Zealand and Russia.
Location isn’t the only thing that can be wide-ranging. People searching on the internet for special products have led to some unexpected uses for Wicks’ materials. Certain types of tubing can be used by gunsmiths for the barrels of firearms; Spruce wood is sometimes purchased to make guitars or other handcrafted musical instruments; and foam and fiberglass have been used to make movie props. Wicks Aircraft Supply is also frequently used by motorsports enthusiasts. The strong but lightweight materials translate well to race cars for things such as roll cages. Of particular importance in this area are the safety standards kept for aircraft parts. The aviation industry still adheres to standards set by the military during World War II, such as the required strength of a bolt or its threads per inch. Certification papers required by commercial companies who purchase Wicks’ products ensure the highest quality control. “Knowing we keep to these standards makes motor sports customers even more confident in purchasing from us” points out Scott.
NAVIGATING THROUGH TURBULENCE
Aside from the website, Scott Wick didn’t feel the need to make too many changes to either the aircraft supply or the organ company. Instead, a changing world forced them to adapt. The aircraft company’s sales were greatly impacted by increased fuel prices and the declining economy in 2008.
As with the aircraft company, organ sales have also declined in the past several years. As times have changed and tastes modernized, pipe organs were no longer considered essential to many churches.
Scott is anxious to set the record straight, however, that Wicks Organ Company is still in operation. They did go through a downsizing in recent years, and that, coupled with some newspaper articles and several videos on the internet, gave the impression that they were closing.
Wicks service and refurbishing business remains strong. “We’ve built so many instruments over the years, we are always getting calls for repairs and refurbishing.” Organs continue to be built and need to be maintained.
SAME TUNE, DIFFERENT KEY
Wicks Organ’s workforce was reduced to about a dozen people, but it did not lose its craftsmen. Several of the former employees went into business for themselves, buying much of their equipment from the company. “One of our employees who worked for us building pipes for 25 or 30 years set up a shop of his own and still builds pipes for our instruments. Others build consoles or do installation, wiring, or engraving as independent contractors.” As Scott explains, everyone is doing essentially the same work. “The cost of employing people full-time had gotten so high” says Scott “especially for craftsman-type work, which by its nature can’t be rushed.” This arrangement seems to be working very well for Wicks, as well as for the independent contractors who are now paid per project, but are also free to pursue other work. Wicks Organ Company is still producing some of the finest organs in the country.
FINDING THE RIGHT CO-PILOT
Helping Scott Wick navigate the challenges of running two such diverse companies through their transformations was Ken Diel and the staff of Diel & Forguson. The Wicks companies had been using the same accountants for nearly 30 years when Scott thought it might be time for a second opinion. He met Ken in 2006 through The Alternative Board®, a group they both belonged to that provides peer advisory boards and coaching services to business owners.
“Ken helped us do some things that were long overdue” says Scott. His first suggestion was to separate the businesses, which up until that point, had operated financially as one entity. Having the two companies intertwined as they were wasn’t an ideal situation. “It was a smart move. If the organ company was on shaky ground, there was always the fear that it could devalue Aircraft too, and vice versa.” Ken also recommended putting the building that held Wicks Aircraft Supply into an LLC (Limited Liability Company). “There were multiple reasons why it was good for both of the companies to be separate.”
In addition to that initial management consulting, Diel & Forguson began to handle many other financial tasks including tax returns, tax planning, business compilations and reviews. Brian Loose, CPA visits Wicks every month to do on-site accounting services and their financial statements. “Diel & Forguson has good, professional people who have been very helpful to us” says Scott.
FLIGHT PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
As Wicks Organ Company begins its second century, and Wicks Aircraft Supply its fifth decade, Scott Wick is optimistic about the future. Both companies continue to create products that make the Wick name synonymous with quality craftsmanship and excellent customer service. Scott has five children, and some may follow in his footsteps. Whatever their future holds, there are few people who have a family history that has filled the heavens with beautiful music… and airplanes.
Just The Facts
Wicks Aircraft Supply
- Founded in 1974
- 410 Pine Street, Highland, Illinois 62249
- Scott Wick, President
Wicks Organ Company
- Founded in 1908
- 1100 5th Street, Highland, Illinois 62249