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The hobby that ballooned into a successful business
Some of the happiest, most fulfilled people I know are those who have turned their hobbies into businesses. Doing what you like doing best is an enviable way of making a living and many of them have been happy to barter less pay for more job satisfaction.
There are some, however, whose dream businesses have become much more than a hobby with pay. A rare few have seen their businesses grow beyond all expectation. Such a man is David McCutcheon, one time Craven Herald advertisements manager turned hobby balloonist and now international corporate bonding expert.
Just turned 50 now, his career had already suffered major setbacks brought about by the demise of the Bradford textiles industry when he joined the Herald as a young man.
The son of a wool merchant, he had gone to textiles college in Bradford from Ermysted’s Grammar School just in time to watch the industry collapse around his ears.
And it was in the old Herald shop on Skipton High Street that benign fate came his way. One of the shop assistants had won a flight in a hot air balloon as a raffle prize and David went off with her to Thornton-in-Craven cricket pitch to take photographs.
“I was hooked immediately,” he said from the home in Rylstone where he lives with wife Libby and their daughter. “I wanted to be part of this strange new world so I offered my services free to the balloon pilot. It was a long time before I heard any more, but one day the phone rang and it was the start of a whole new life.”
He had an unlikely ally at the time: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was busy sweeping away what she considered to be “fuddy-duddy” old laws which were a hindrance to new business.
I doubt very much that even Maggie considered flying balloons to be a budding entrepreneur’s dream project, but among the thousands of legislative cobwebs which were brushed aside with her new broom were laws that prohibited balloonists from carrying passengers for a fee.
This was 1989. David had already become a qualified balloon pilot and that is no easy step: it involves both written and flying tests, first accompanied and then an observed solo, plus a very strict medical.
He had represented England at international balloon festivals as a member of the national team and, having carried lots of family and friends on trips, he felt there was a potential demand for commercial flights. Thus was born, at great risk, Airborne Adventures, taking commercial passengers in balloon flights over the challenging terrain of the Yorkshire Dales, where hills and wind can both come high and landing grounds few and far between: small fields surrounded by very hard dry-stone walls and, as often as not, a higher and harder stone barn just to add to the challenge.
He quit his job at the Herald, raised £30,000 to buy his first balloon and crossed his fingers. He is, he admits, a man who acts on instinct rather than long thought-through introspection – “I wasn’t academically bright at Ermysted’s” – but the risk paid off. Within a few years he had two balloons, a second pilot and was taking up to 12 passengers in the basket of a much larger, and much more expensive, balloon.
Then came foot and mouth, which stopped his business dead. But it also gave him time to think: “In some ways, the business had become too big. Sharing a basket on a balloon flight is a very intimate experience and those parties of 12 were getting too large. It meant that strangers were meeting up for the first time in unusual conditions and that could make the experience cold, even frosty.
“I was thinking about trimming back the flights to couples or four friends at the most. Then, one night, I went to dinner at the Angel at Hetton and got talking to this guy who happened to be the managing director of a very big company. He asked me what I did for a living and, when I told him, instead of laughing – as many people do – he nodded his head and said he might have a project to put to me.”
Once again, Lady Luck was dealing aces to David McCutcheon. This chance meeting led him into the international corporate bonding market, whereby senior managers in big companies are put together under competitive stress at pastimes like rock climbing or paint-balling in ways that are said to improve their teamwork back in the office.
For 26 weeks of the past year, David has taken a plane from Leeds-Bradford to Barcelona on Tuesdays for four-day ballooning courses off the Spanish beaches. The top executives on the course going ballooning before breakfast have planning meetings until lunch, then spend the afternoons sailing, canoeing or snorkelling.
So, Airborne Adventures has gone international and even with the credit crunch, they still have 15 firm bookings for Spain next year. Nice work if you can get it – and are prepared to take the risks to go for it. And it all started with a raffle ticket at the Craven Herald.