It's not uncommon for Cliff Whitney to find some of his employees playing around in the parking lot on company time. But at AtlantaHobby.com headquarters, playing is part of the job.
Based in Cumming, AtlantaHobby.com is one of the nation's largest distributors of remote-controlled, or RC, aviation models and accessories, offering more than 60,000 products.
"There's a high-performance plane called an Addiction. Its name is very appropriate for it because it's very addicting to fly," said Whitney, company founder. "We fly them all the time. We fly them a lot here in the parking lot in front of the shop."
The business is focused on RC aviators and accessories. But in addition to planes and helicopters, AtlantaHobby.com also offers cars and even an RC tarantula.
To appeal to a younger generation, Whitney started Zing Wings about six years ago as a separate business under the AtlantaHobby.com umbrella. The company focuses on children's starter toys, because "most moms and dads aren't going to buy their kids $200 planes."
"I've loved aviation since I was a small kid, so I've always been a promoter of that," he said. "It's pointed me in the right direction, so I've always wanted to help kids get into aviation, because I think it's going to stay with them their whole life ... it is a powerful tool and it should be shared with all the kids out there."
Mercury Adhesives, which Whitney said is the only company manufacturing superglue in the United States, also falls under the AtlantaHobby.com umbrella, as does Sierra Ridge, the company's wholesale division.
Whitney went into the aviation business as a high school student in 1978, the same year he earned his pilot license. The company began as Whitney's Glider Supply, and has changed names, locations and products multiple times over the years.
His aviation business had been only a part-time job until 2001. After nearly 30 years working for Wolf Camera, the company went into bankruptcy and was bought out. It was then Whitney decided to venture out on his own.
He was able to open his business in Forsyth County using a credit card with a one-year, interest-free loan promotion. He sold enough products to fully pay off the debt in less than 12 months. The company now ships hundreds of packages per day.
"It's been kind of nice not to be in the corporate world anymore," he said. "I haven't head a headache in a long time."
When he started AtlantaHobby.com, Whitney had no idea that one of the largest aviation clubs in the state was based just a few miles away.
The Georgia Model Aviators Club, off Hwy. 369 and Old Federal Highway, boasts more than 300 members. With hundreds of acres over which to fly, the club's site is a hot spot for local, national and international aviation events.
As both a board member of the club and operations manager for AtlantaHobby.com, Greg Ledford couldn't be happier.
"I'm definitely connected with not only the hobby but the market side of the hobby as well," he said. "I get to see all the new stuff that comes out, I get to show all my buddies and I get to brag because I got one first.
"I get paid in airplanes basically."
Ledford, who has grown his personal collection to more than 30 models, still keeps up with the newest products. Coming to work, he said, makes him feel like a kid in a candy store. And being on the front end of the latest designs and technology helps him be a better pilot.
"I'm definitely one of the go-to guys at the field to get things figured out if you're having a problem," Ledford said. "It's just the dream you have when you're a little kid ... you never really grow out of that, you just kind of grow up and become able to afford it."
Whitney said products are as affordable as $2 and as expensive as $5,000. He offers everything from models that come fully assembled and ready to fly, to model kits that are partially built and "kits you have to build from just sticks."
"You can spend hundreds of hours doing the assembly on them," he said.
A first-time buyer can expect to pay about $150 for an RC aviator, and all products are electric powered, Whitney said.
"It's very clean and it's very quiet," he said. "Electric is the way the whole hobby has been moving in the past few years, and we've really been driving that, pushing the technology in the marketplace.
"I think there's always something new to learn. I'm the kind of guy who watches the Discovery Channel on TV. I like that stuff and, as a business owner, I love industries that are in change."
Though Whitney's 9- and 11-year-old children love operating model planes and cars, his wife of 27 years, Gail, "could care less."
"She was a flight attendant with Delta for 14 years, so she's got more flying hours than I've got," he said.
Watching his own children and kids of all ages interact with the aviators makes Whitney happy he left the corporate world to pursue his passion.
"They get to learn about aviation, about weather and the wind and what makes a plane fly," he said. "It's really fun to get their interest and see the spark in their eyes and watch them learn more and more."