Company Spotlight ...
An Interview with Tony Castronovo, President of Warehouse Hobbies.
Who in the R/C boat world hasn't heard of Warehouse Hobbies? I think it would be safe to say not many! If you're new to the hobby and don't know Warehouse Hobbies, well you probably should, so read on! They are producers of the famous Enforcer line of sport/performance boats, the perfect entry into the hobby.
For this issue of MGB we have a great interview with owner and President of WHH, Mr. Tony Castronovo. With over 25 years experience in the business, Tony had a lot to say when I ran the questions by him. In fact he offered that I condense his answers if needed, but I really enjoyed reading what he sent me and I figured a lot of our readers would also, so it's all in here, untouched! Take the time to read it all, it's interesting to see how this company started and became what it is today, a definite leader in the model boat world! Enjoy!
MGB: Tony, I think everyone knows that Warehouse Hobbies is a full-blown fulltime business supplying the R/C GAS boat market with just about everything from hulls to engines to hardware. That being said, can you maybe give us some background on Warehouse Hobbies and how it came to be what it is today?
Tony: It's a long story but I will try to make it as short as possible. In 1981 I started a small 1000 sq' hobby shop in Fort Lauderdale Florida. I was limited in capital so I had a concept to make the inside of the building look very rustic and named the business appropriately "Warehouse Hobbies". It was very cost effective to just paint the open metal beams. I used warehouse type shelving and even hung used factory lights, the kind that were common in machine shops in the day. The concept and finished store was pretty cool, and the business took off at a steady pace. I had a bit of everything, R/C aircraft, planes, cars, trains, plastics and supplies, but I personally ran and raced nitro boats so leaned heavily to that market. I was blessed with hundreds of customers and most became close friends.
I used to have a list on the counter so that people who were interested in model boats could sign-up and I would take the group to a local lake on Saturday and let them run a model boat. I used 3.5 K&B powered outboards on Octura's "Tom's Cat". This worked great and would almost always result in a 2-3 boat weekly sale. We even started rigging them before the term RTR existed. As a matter of fact I'm pretty sure that the first RTR boat(s) conceived came out of our shop. I never thought anything about it and continued to produce these little tunnel hulls until one day that I took a customer to the lake to test and show him how to run his newly purchased RTR tunnel. He had a heck of a time and we parted. First thing Monday morning he was at the door of the shop with boat and all the support gear in hand. I'll never forget his words, “It ran great on Sunday and I went to adjust the carburetor a bit, and now it won't even start". I simply ran the needle back in about 20 turns, (it seamed that way) and started it up, he was amazed and left happy again. One week later on Monday he was back again. This time the boat was a little scuffed up because it went for an on-shore excursion. He was a bit bummed but after I showed him that he had run the receiver batteries dead and that caused the radio failure he was completely understandable. I sold him a pack of batteries and he put them in at the shop, turned the radio on and said, "see it still doesn't work". I went over checked things out and turned one of the batteries in the holder the right direction, and Walla the radio worked perfect. It was at that time that I was sure this guy just wasn't cut out for mechanical maintenance. I offered to trade him for anything in the store for what he paid for the boat, even trains, but he wanted to run model boats since he lived on the water. I kept the boat to make repairs and told him I'd call him when it was fixed.
I would love to take credit for making the first gasoline powered model boat but that would be unfair to the man who is truly responsible. That man is none other than Tom Perzentka owner of Octura Models who built the first gas boat in 1962, I was two years old then and not up to the task. I did have a great idea though. I remembered a Popular Science book I acquired that showed Tom's Gas boat "The White Heat" and when I got home that night I dug for it and sourced the information. I thought how great it would be to build my customer one of these gas boats that he would have no problem operating, because if I didn't do something to get him successful we would probably have to get married. One thing that has never changed over all of these years is that I still strive to make sure that customers are having fun. Once frustration occurs in a hobby you can bet that you will loose him for life. A hobbyist goes in cycles and relies on the store owner for good advice and in most cases will try everything hobby related, and years down the road will get back into something he did years earlier.
Anyway I went to "Builder Square" the predecessor to Home Depot and purchased an ECHO 22cc string trimmer. I had a big Aeromarine boat in stock which I figured would do the trick. I went to work assembling my first and I felt last gas boat, purely to make this guy happy. I took him and this new boat to the lake, pulled the rope and let it go. (I did test it prior to bringing him). He was thrilled with a big smile, and I was also thrilled even though it was quite boring since I was used to running boats at twice the speed. But I noticed the speed didn't even enter the equation, he was just happy to be able to use it. I spent at least an hour waiting for it to run out of gas. Afterwards he filled the tank and ran it again. He thought the clutch was the coolest thing, and I did think that it was a good feature as well. I told him "Merry Christmas" shook his hand and went back to work. I didn't see him for a couple of weeks and that's a good thing sometimes in the hobby business. When he did come back he brought a friend and his buddy wanted me to build him the exact boat, and I did. Pretty soon more of his friends came in and ordered this new type of model boat. It didn't take me but three or four boats before I knew I hit on something. This is where allot of business people make mistakes, to assume that the customer wants what they want. Now for the twist, this man wasn't a hobbyist at all, he was a Doctor and so were his friends. They didn't have the time or the desire to put forth the effort to learn and wrench on the boats, they wanted to play around their limited schedules. I was the one more concerned with the slower speeds; they didn't have a clue or even cared. So as long as I didn't bring it up everyone was happy. Today speeds are almost that of nitro. If you told me back then that we would be reaching speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour someday on gasoline, I would have thought you were nuts. We were the first company to hit 40 MPH on gasoline in 1987 and I thought that's it we can't go any faster. Anyway that's another story.
In 1983 we set up a small production line and started building ENFORCER gas boats (named after the movie with Clint Eastwood). I needed a name most people knew and sounded tough that would fit a big model boat with a big engine. I attended all of the hobby shows, full size boat shows, car shows, etc. I found a whole new base of customers and we sold lots of boats. Since then we moved the company four times growing each move. Today I look back and am pretty amazed at what has happened in the model boating industry, and am very proud to have been a part in creating it. The funny thing is, since the conception of Enforcer Boats I have been involved with several businesses over the years with the intent to grow them all into something and some worked and some haven not . With the gas boats I wasn't even trying to create a business and ended up creating an industry...
MGB: Your Website (www.warehousehobbies.com) is loaded with information about your company, so I will try to get a little bit out that isn’t there! :) Before WHH, what was Tony Castronovo doing?
Tony: Pam and I met in the 10th grade and by our senior year I knew we would be together. I took advanced electronics classes in HS but after graduation factory repair work wasn't for me, so to make more money I became an electrician. I received my licenses just before starting WHH, just in case I screwed up, I could always go back at good pay. I also played (guitar and vocals) in a Heavy Metal band throughout the 80's and early 90's. We did very well in the Southeast, but some of the members went to NY to pursue their careers and I chose to stay in Florida, WHH was a bit more secure and by that time I had two young boys a wife and employees to be responsible to.
MGB: How many people do Warehouse Hobbies employ at the present time?
Tony: At present WHH employs 9 full time employees. We had as many as 18 employed at once. Today with the "new" world economy we are able to get some of our products from outsource manufacturers reducing the staff.
MGB: What is the range of experience of the WHH team and what are the specific areas of expertise of your team members?
Tony: All our employees are very competent. We used to have each person responsible for specific tasks, today we cross train everybody (fabricators not office personel) because of the smaller staff. John Starks our pattern maker and CNC programmer has a 30+ year history in the hobby industry. He is very noted for his pioneering skills in electric model boating during the 80's and early 90's. He has been with us for almost 10 years. Most employees that made it through our training period and are quality minded have stayed on for over 10 years. Many of them came to us semi-retired and are professionals such as engineers, etc and worked with us right to full retirement. Steve Arneson is my most promising younger employee; he may be the future owner of WHH.
MGB: Do you yourself participate in the assembly, tuning, preparation of boats on occasion?
Tony: Yes I am still involved and work along side of my employees daily. I take care of all of the office business between 6-9 am Monday - Friday. Afterwards I will either work on special projects, new product design, or even in the glass shop helping when they get behind. I personally check each boat over that leaves daily. Steve checks first and I double check. I am proud to say that we haven't had a return on a RTR boat in years.
MGB: Roughly, how many boat packages does WHH ship out on a yearly basis?
Tony: In 2005 we produced over 500 RTR boats (not counting fiberglass hull sales). That may seam like a lot but for years prior our shop manufactured over 800 boats annually. I chose to lessen our work load a couple of years ago by limiting some of our distribution. This is our 25th year and I think it's time to take it a bit easier. I like to still communicate with my customers on a personal level and for many years it got overwhelming.
Tony: I built the buildings we are in about 15 years ago specifically to produce our products. We have 4 buildings and a total of 12,000+ square feet. Our in-house production consists of: Fibreglass lamination, CNC machining/general machining, Thermal forming and pressure moulding, powder coating, anodizing, CNC pattern (router), sales/shipping, assembly, finished parts/inventory storage. We also offer engine modifications that I am personally involved in. Over the years we have made products for other manufacturers both in and out of the hobby industry. At one time we even manufactured and assembled one of our competitors’ boats.
MGB: Is everything from start to finish on a RTR Boat done “In House”? If not about what percentage is?
Tony: On a RTR boat with the exception of the Zenoah power head we make or have made to our designs 95% of the finished product.
MGB: What brought you to decide to concentrate on Gas Powered Boats only and not do like most other companies and do nitro and electric also?
Tony: That question was pretty much answered in my long winded story. Located in Fort Lauderdale I was fortunate to have met and hung with an affluent crowd. Generally I found that people with expendable income seemed to have much less free time, with their work ethics being their number one concern. They wanted to play but didn't want to be hobbyists. Gas was easy and seemed to be the answer. For years my former nitro buddies made jokes about my products and what I was doing, the irony is some of those same people who still own businesses in model boating are making a living in the gas business today. I think that it is great, and I am not an "I told you so" person. Now that the race community is involved it can only make the manufactures more competitive, including me thus making products even better. In a way I'm glad they waited 10+ years, it gave WHH a good head start.
MGB: You now offer “build it yourself” kits as opposed to all RTRs. Can you elaborate a little on these kits and their reason for being?
Tony: For a while I helped mess-up the hobby industry being the first RTR boat manufacturer, at least I thought that, following the direction of the booming RTR car and truck craze in the mid-80's. I always thought that the RTR's would appeal to a specific customer and the builders would continue to build. By the early 90's it seemed that no one wanted to build anymore. I tried making kits in the late 80's and early 90's but they didn't sell, boy I knew the hobby industry was changing and changing fast. It was the question of time and uncertainty about their hobby abilities that came up the most when asked why this "new" type of hobbyist didn't want to build. We now had a new crowd, one's that missed out on learning how things worked and went together, that's a double edge sword.
The average guy likes the satisfaction that he made his own toy whether it is full size or scaled down, so I figured maybe now the time is right, and if I took a boat off of the line after all of the hard things were done such as; (pre-drilled holes, shaft tube installed, etc.) and all the customer had to do is bolt it together with a good set of understandable directions and a direct phone line in to qualified help, maybe a few would bite.
I am happy to report that they have and these guys are really excited when they complete an Enforcer. You can't tell the difference form a factory RTR to a kit built. The kits are a good seller but RTR's continue to be the largest segment, it's just nice to see a new crowd of builders. Who knows, maybe in the future they will attempt a scratch build...some are already asking for us not to drill the holes, that's a start.
MGB: Any new products in the works that you can let us in on?
Tony: As a matter of fact yes, there is always something in the works here. Some don't even make it to market, mostly for reasons that I am not satisfied with the performance, or it just can't be made cost effective. Right now we are working on a complete line of competitive race products including two RTR race boats. We just finished the design and manufacturing of a new drive system called the RD-1 specific for race boats, light in weight and compact in size. We have a modified (clutchless) Zenoah available and what I think is the best aluminium dry tuned pipe system available. The best performing and most common pipe system I found was the BH Hanson. I just didn't like the mid-range or lack of so I re-designed a pipe to offer better mid-range with a bit more volume for the new 26cc Zenoah engines; it also works very well on the 28-30cc clones.
MGB: Your products seem to be targeting the sport boaters and new hobbyists more so than racers. Any plans for a pure race line-up of products in the future?
Tony: I like to call it Sport/Performance and yes that is our main market being that there are many more customers who just want to enjoy their boat at their own leisure. As far as racing goes we actually have many customers who race and do rather well with our 46" Team Enforcer hull. In the past I couldn't give racing the necessary time required, today with the help from some of my customers that have and continue to race we are developing a race program which is currently in the infant stages. This part of WHH will be simply known as "RACE SHOP" and has a dedicated place on our website.
MGB: You obviously like R/C boats, otherwise WHH wouldn’t exist, but how involved in the hobby are you outside of business? How often do you actually head out to the lake to play with boats?
Tony: This is a tough one to answer because at one time I used to live to race and run model boats. At present I don't run for fun anymore. I am involved in testing at the lake, but I think when you make your hobby your business eventually it is no longer a hobby. Don't get me wrong, I still get excited when we test something and it works great, but my model boating excitement is now through the many positive emails and letters I get from my customers. It's funny, today our hobby (Pam and I) is building custom motorcycles, and when I want to ride and talk about custom motorcycles with the shop owners that make and sell parts, they want to go out and run their Enforcer boats! Remember the saying, be careful what you wish for, you just may get it! All joking aside I don't take a day for granted being able to make my hobby a business.
MGB: WHH seem to be involved quite a bit with organisations helping children in need. Care to elaborate on this?
Tony: There are so many great stories due to WHH and they all mostly are created by my customers and the personal relationships I have developed with some of them. That is the case with the charities we do. Over the years we got involved with some great charity events to raise money for different foundations. Just recently with HGTV/DIY television for a great cause, "Big Brothers and Big Sisters". The format is also a pioneering venture first ever involving the TV and internet interaction. (it can be accessed off of our home page) or go to www.diynet.net These kids never experienced anything like running a model boat and they got a chance to do something they may have never experienced. You never know, it may have changed a few lives. Another great cause we were involved with is hosted by the Petty family of NASCAR racing, "Victory Junction Gang Camp". This is a founded and funded camp by the Petty's and donations only, that offer kids with life threatening illnesses to experience the camp atmosphere that most of us take for granted.WHH donates multiple boats and our time to attend these events to help raise money for the charities. There are so many people I need to thank, I may as well write a book. People from all walks of life use our boats; it's amazing how many we sell to celebrities, race car drivers, famous sports figures, rock stars, and so on. I started doing charity because I was asked a few years ago by someone who knew me from magazine ads and was embarrassed to ask me. Pam put him through and it was funny, he stuttered and said. “I know you don't know me but I am doing this charity, I wanted an Enforcer since I was a kid ...I would like to know if you could sell me a boat for cost?" I asked him all of the questions and he gave me all of the right answers, and I told him to re-call our office and tell Pam to send him one for free. I thought he was going to cry. Not knowing who he was or what he did for a living was not important and unknown until a year later. Because of this man my very talented 19 year old son Mike now lives in Mooresville NC and works for a championship Busch/Cup driver/team. I can't thank the NASCAR drivers and the people involved enough for their participation at these events. I personally know many of them and they have become friends. Let me tell you these are the people that don't have time, and when they do get a break they will gladly donate it for a cause. You don't have to have a lot of money to be involved with charities, a lot of indirect and good things can be the byproduct, just like in business you have to invest to receive.
MGB: If you had to choose, what would you say is your personal favourite boat in your line-up, and for what reasons?
Tony: My favourite boat is probably the Team Enforcer. There is allot of history to that boat. It is the first boat we designed in-house in 1987 and when it hit the market the sales were fantastic. The hull was very scale like and it covered the large engine. This is the same hull the Gator, now Super G, is made from. That idea stemmed from my sons when they were young. It has gone through 3 deck changes to keep up with the times, and it means allot to me. I have the newest limited edition number 1 of 50 available "Joe Nemechek 01 ARMY" boat on display in my home next to a 1987 Team Enforcer model. The hull is very fast and runs good in calm to small chop conditions.
MGB: What is your biggest selling package and why do you think?
Tony: All the boats in the line-up sell well, but the best seller is the Super G. I'm sure the reason is the bang for the buck. Heck for $800.00 you get a quality Enforcer that runs over 40 miles per hour out of the box! It's also a big favourite to the hobby shop owners. During the holiday season around here you would think it's July!
MGB: It's been a few years already since you replaced the string trimmer based engines with the more popular Zenoah brand engines. What prompted this decision?
Tony: That was a big business decision, one that took a lot of thought and I started to make it in 2000 when Zenoah was showing heavier market penetration. In September of 2001, out of the blue, Homelite informed me that in 30 days they were going out of business, which made the decision a bit easier. We had several hundred Homelite engines in stock so it bought me the time to fly to Asia, negotiate a deal, and re-tool for a new power plant. I wanted to make sure that anyone making an engine change could do so easily with the Zenoah engine. It was a tough one with the clutch giving us the biggest fit. We built many prototypes from the ground up; it was probably the hardest project we ever endured. It’s amazing how much force is generated on parts spinning under friction. But by the time we had only a few Homelites left in stock we had the problems corrected and entered the market with our own Enforcer Prepared Zenoah. Looking back, it was the best thing that happened to us. Our performance came up and we were able to incorporate better features in the Zenoah engine such as: the on-board shaft/bearing lubricator and sealed drive tube; these things weren't possible with the Homelite engines.
MGB: Are the string trimmer based engines still available? Do you offer customers support and access to parts for these engines sold in the past?
Tony: Not from us any longer. We still sell Homelite replacement parts and do try to keep products in stock for the older engines. We still repair them and offer assistance to anybody who needs it. We still own a lot of the engine parts tooling and gasket dies and make small runs to keep an active inventory. It's been almost six years now and Zenoah has pretty much become the norm now when referring to Enforcer boats.
MGB: Can your products be purchased from anyone worldwide?
Tony: We used to have quite a few distributors around the world and in the US. We have few in Europe, one in Australia, customer basis. We encourage seeing your local dealer first and if they don't stock our products or are unwilling to do so, then please give us a call. We are careful when opening dealers and try to protect them as best as possible, but I also know that hobby shops are fewer and further between today. We try not to open dealers who sell only on the internet. It might be great for a seasoned modeller to save a few bucks but not so good for a beginner who needs the service or is not sure what he or she needs. When you purchase direct from us we welcome as many calls as it may take to educate the consumer. It makes customers feel more comfortable and we have no problem with that. We have a pretty big international market especially with today's Euro strength against the US dollar. Canada, and Asia, but we mainly sell to hobby shops and on a direct.
MGB: What is the usual turn around time for a RTR package from time of order to the time it ships out of your facilities? Is this turn around time the same for the “BIY” kits?
Tony: Usually... we can ship an RTR or Kit boat within 3-4 days, but sometimes we get behind and then it can be as much as 2-2 1/2 weeks in the rear. This usually happens when we get a large distributor order or in the mid summer months when all hell breaks loose. The glass shop is the culprit and it takes 6-8 hours to complete a fibreglass hull, twice the time it takes to completely rig one. We start to build an inventory in January and usually have between 40 and 50 boats in stock by March, by June we are playing catch-up. I won't compromise quality just to get boats out, and pushing the guys when performing tedious jobs creates problems. I encourage people to order their boats in February and March; you can have them shipped in early spring. As long as the order is processed you will be assured that you get your boat at the start of the new season.
MGB: What methods of shipping do you usually offer?
Tony: We only ship RTR boats and DIY kits UPS Insured. The boxes are too big for US Mail and FED EX will not offer us insurance, nothing personal it's their policy for toys. We ship; UPS, and US Mail for all parts orders with daily pick-ups, depending on the customer’s preference.
MGB: What are the warranty policies on WHH products in general?
Tony: We warranty our manufactured products against manufacture defects for 90 days excluding Zenoah engines and fibreglass hulls. Zenoah offers a direct warranty policy, but in the event there is a problem we have been known to help in the repair process. Fibreglass hulls are inspected before production and things like Gelcoat cracks from abusive operation, (Jumping waves) is a by-product of the design. We explain this very clearly in the directions and for the most part we never have a problem customer. We don't even need a complaint department. I can't remember the last time someone was not happy with us.
MGB: Anything you would like to ad? Some words to the potential customers out there maybe?
Tony: To all of you first time buyers, do your homework. Decide what and where you will use your boat for. Bigger boats are for rougher water and smaller boats work better in calmer conditions. "V" bottoms are the most user friendly, and I encourage starting with one. You may think that you will only own one model and can't decide on the type, but I can assure you if the bug bites, you will shortly have a fleet and maybe even a trailer to get them to the lake! Don't be afraid to ASK QUESTIONS! Be sure that the folks you are dealing with will be there for you when and if you need them. Deals are great but a half priced half built hull will cost you more in the long run. And last but not least, be sure to give us a call, let us help you make your decision in owning a genuine ENFORCER model boat!