South Boston company makes inflatable aircraft and buildings
- December 29, 2011
When 7,000 athletes from more than 70 countries competed last year at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India, they began and ended their experience in the shadow of a giant, illuminated aircraft made in South Boston. The inflatable, stationary aircraft — known as an aerostat — was the largest of its kind in the world. It measured 260 feet long, 133 feet wide and 40 feet high.
Made especially for the opening and closing ceremonies at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Lindstrand USA Inc.’s tethered aerostat served as the visual backdrop for a changing array of lasers and images. “It had 250 large mirrors hanging from it and also a 100-foot Buddha,” says Angela Lewis, Lindstrand’s general manager.
Besides aerostats, Lindstrand USA manufactures hi-tech inflatable buildings, gas balloons and airships that are mostly sold to the U.S. military and large corporations.
Swedish-born aeronautical engineer Per Lindstrand opened the business in South Boston in 2004. He previously founded Lindstrand Technologies in England.
The South Boston firm was formed to handle U.S. military contracts. “The U.S. military has to buy U.S. products, made in the U.S.,” says Lewis. “Someone suggested we set up something in America. We came over and looked at various locations.”
The firm chose South Boston in Halifax County because of its skilled work force and location less than two hours by car from the Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina. “We wanted something near an international airport and Raleigh-Durham has flights to Heathrow Airport in England. We also wanted a place where we could find good workers,” says Lewis.
South Boston had a surplus of workers because of plant closings in the tobacco and textile industries. Of the 30 employees hired by Lindstrand USA, most had been out of work for at least two years.
Since its opening eight years ago, sales have climbed at the South Boston operation. From 2005 to 2010, sales grew 450 percent, Lewis says while declining to provide dollar figures.
That growth helped the company snag major awards. Lindstrand was among five companies selected for Resilience Awards this year by the Tayloe Murphy Center at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. The awards recognize businesses that have persevered despite setbacks and depressed local economies. Plus, the company earned two top industry awards of excellence from the Industrial Fabrics Association International. “We competed against 130 countries [for the IFAI awards],” Lewis says.
Oil companies in Alaska and Canada as well as the Swedish Air Force and the U.S. military use Lindstrand’s inflatable buildings for purposes ranging from helicopter and airplane hangars to hospitals. Large inflatable buildings also are used for command centers in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. “There is no metal so they go up quickly and can be taken down quickly,” says Lewis.
Lindstrand’s gas balloons attract sponsors such as Nestlé and DHL, because they can be used as visual marketing tools.
The company’s 40,000- square-foot facility in South Boston is in an old tobacco warehouse in the J. Aubrey Houghton Industrial Park. Lewis finds people and organizations in South Boston to be generous, hospitable and accommodating. “Longwood Small Business Development Center was very helpful in locating us here,” she says.
Lewis enjoys the art galleries in town and the Prizery, a renovated tobacco warehouse that is home to a performing arts theater, an art gallery and other attractions. “There is a lot going on,” she says. “People come here and think this is a sleepy town, but it really is amazing. All of our customers love it here. Many have to stay here two to three weeks while we are testing the aircraft they have purchased.”
International sales represent 100 percent of Lindstrand’s commercial business. “We deal with private companies outside of the United States,” explains Lewis. “Also, we work with the U.S. military all over the world.”
Lewis frequently consults with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership when she is dealing with foreign countries. “They have people all over the world that you can talk to or work with,” she says. Lindstrand sent several employees to New Delhi for the five-week installation of its aerostat. Companies around the world saw Lindstrand’s handiwork during the games. When Lewis attended an industry event recently, she had a “huge response from companies in India wanting high-flying aerostats for their amusement parks.”
She expects to see an increase in the company’s business dealings with India. “They have the fastest-growing economy in a democratic country in the world,” she notes, adding that U.S. firms need to be careful about who they are dealing with there. “We went through a third party with all of our dealings. If you are going to deal with people in India, you need somebody from there that knows what they are doing and what they are representing on your behalf. It is very difficult to get in there without having a representative looking out for you.”
The capital of India, New Delhi’s economy is boosted by a variety of service industries — ranging from information technology and telecommunications to tourism and banking. Other important industries include manufacturing, construction and retail. Companies based in New Delhi include Petronet LNG Limited, an energy company; RailTel Corp. of India Ltd, a telecom service provider; Bharti Airtel Ltd., a telecommunication company; Moser Baer, a manufacturer of CDs and CD-Rs; and the Unitech Group, a real estate investment firm.
Built under British rule, New Delhi is filled with English-inspired architecture and tree-lined streets. Tourist attractions include the National Museum, New Delhi, one of the largest in the country; Akshardham Temple, a large Hindu temple that now houses several attractions including an IMAX theater, and the ceremonial street called Rajpath, which ends at the residence of India’s president.
The town of South Boston, located in Halifax County, is home to the Industrial Development Authority of Halifax County and a branch of the Longwood Small Business Development Center. Although the textiles, furniture and tobacco industries have suffered closings and layoffs, manufacturing still represents 35 percent of the area’s employment. Large employers include ABB Inc., which makes small-power transformers; Aquatic Industries Inc., which makes fiberglass bath fixtures; a Dollar General distribution center and Halifax Regional Health System.
In addition to the Prizery, visitors to South Boston enjoy going to the South Boston Speedway and Virginia International Raceway as well as the Bob Cage Sculpture Farm. Cage, known as South Boston’s oldest living hippie, has created up to 80 metal sculptures. The area is also home to two well-known restaurants — Bistro 1888 and the Molasses Grill.
Where to stay: South Boston
Business travelers often stay at the new Fairfield Inn and Holiday Inn Express. The area is also home to Berry Hill Resort and Conference Center, a historic plantation located on 650 acres. Rooms offer high-speed Internet connections, verandas and Italian handcrafted beds. Visitors to Virginia International Raceway also stay at The Lodge at VIR.