This industrial city, home of several major defense contractors, has just seen the birth of a significant new military supplier: the nation's only minority-owned parachute maker.
Actually, Hel-Mar Inc. is only 52 percent minority owned, but that's enough to satisfy the Pentagon's minority business "set-aside" regulations. Those regulation, in fact, are the reason for Hel-Mar's existence.
The new corporation, which started operations late last year in a small house here and expects sales in excess of $100,000 this year, is a nice example of the way an established businessman can join with a minority partner to benefit from the rules requiring government contractors to direct a portion of their subcontracts to minority firms.
Hel-Mar is the brainchild of Vernon Gehron, a white Fort Wayne businessman who says he had had experience with military procurement both inside the government and out.
When Gehron was introduced last year to Demeke Tenklewold, an Ethiopian businessman who had fled to Fort Wayne in 1976 after the military coup in Addis Ababa, he immediately recognized the possibilities.
"I saw right away that Demie (Tenklewold) was an enormously impressive person," Gehron recalled recently. "And I had heard things about how the government was putting heavy emphasis on minority firms.
"So I invited Demie to lunch and laid this out for him, and suggested that we form some kind of business arrangement."
Tenklewold was receptive.
Tenklewold had been engaged in a variety of enterprises in Ethiopia and on the Arabian Peninsula, and as soon as he settled in Fort Wayne -- he came here at the invitation of a local resident whom he had met in Ethiopia -- he began looking for business opportunities.
"I had been interested in advice regarding export activities" Tenklewold said recently, in his clipped, fluent English. "But Mr. Gehron invited me to lunch and asked if I would be interested in a concern dealing in the (domestic) market. I said some kind of manufacturing operation would be one of the lines that would interest me."
Soon after their luncheon, the two men organized Hel-Mar (the name pays tribute to the founders' wives, Helen Gehron and Marta Tenklewold). Although Gehron, who had contacts with local banks, arranged for most of the financing, it was decided that Tenklewold would hold a 52 percent share of the firm.
"As you probably know," Gehron said recently, "the minority business enterprise regulations require that the minority partner hold the majority interest."
The next problem was to find a line of work.
Gehron had discussed the question with his friend, J. W. Schrey, the president of a Magnavox division here that produces much defense equipment, including submarine detection devices that are dropped into the sea by parachute.
"The government has constantly been pushing us to get some minority subcontractors," Schrey said. "And we thought one possible area was parachutes, because you don't need much capital for that, other than a few sewing machines. But I can tell you -- because we looked -- there wasn't a single minority-owned parachute firm in the country."
Schrey said he hopes to buy 30,000 of the small parachutes from Hel-Mar this year, at a unit price just over $3. In addition, Hel-Mar is scouting for related work it might perform for other defense prime contractors. One possibility is a contract for sewing the covers of Army mattresses, and Gehron says he has had numerous feelers from local firms.