How You Can Hit the Heights While Plunging to the Depths

How You Can Hit the Heights While Plunging to the Depths

When James A. Fulton graduated from Villanova University in 1980 with a degree in accounting, everyone expected him to make his career with the family firm, a restaurant-equipment distributor in the Philadelphia area. Instead, he struck out on his own, determined to build a business on a product that was then no more than a friend's bright idea.

That product, which has revolutionized underwater diving, is a compact, submersible computer that gauges the body's intake and elimination of nitrogen. A diver wearing one of these instruments knows how long and how deep he can descend, and how quickly he can return to the surface without serious physical complications. Fulton's company, Orca Industries, was the first to develop a commercially successful dive computer; it is still the  only U.S. company that makes such computers, although some foreign manufacturers' dive computers are now distributed here.

Craig Barshinger, a boyhood friend of Fulton's, came up with the idea for a dive computer while working as a scuba instructor in the Virgin Islands. He sent a rough proposal to several diveequipment manufacturers and was flatly rejected.

"Craig had this great idea that would have fallen to pieces if we hadn't decided to make a business out of it," explains Fulton, 32, an avid sports diver. "I was just out of college and thought, 'This is a neat thing, I'm young, I have no responsibilities, I should be an entrepreneur instead of regretting it later.' "

Fulton and Barshinger used a $100,000 loan, which Fulton raised by mortgaging real estate, to establish Orca Industries in 1982, and they hired a team of five free-lance engineers to develop a prototype. Less than a year later, they were on a flight headed for the annual Diving Equipment Manufacturers Association show in Las Vegas, making the final adjustments in their computer.

That first computer, which they called the Edge, was a 1 Ma-pound, 9-volt, battery-powered rectangular box with a display screen; it retailed for $675.

Fulton had to virtually create a market for the Edge. Targeting professionals and serious sports divers, he placed full-page, four-color ads in the largest, most prestigious diving magazine in the country, reasoning that "if you start out with little black-and-white amateur  ads, people really suspect the quality of the company." A cover story in the same magazine touting the Edge, along with direct mailings to professional divers and marine scientists, boosted first-year sales to $70,000.

"It took several years to get the groundswell of support" from professional divers, says Fulton, "but after everyone saw that the photographers, instructors, and commercial divers were using it, they started to emulate these people, and it trickled down." The company now manufactures three models, ranging in price from $390 to $715. Sales have doubled almost every year, and Fulton projects revenues this year of $6 million.

Although Orca remains a small company, with around 50 employees—mostly technicians who design, assemble, and test computers—it has a reputation that most large firms would envy. Earlier this year, Orca's backlog of orders for its latest model grew to six months—but customers waited. "They won't buy anything else," Fulton says.

In 1985, Barshinger left Orca to return to the Virgin Islands, opening the door for Fulton to forge a new partnership with a company that knew Orca through one of its suppliers. Fulton became chairman and serves as sales and marketing director. At the same time, Orca moved from near Philadelphia to a 50-acre farmsite in Toughkenamon, Pa., in the Delaware Valley, where it occupies 20,000 square feet.

As Fulton surveys the undulating cornfields outside his office window, he sees nothing but a bright future for his company. The number of sports divers in the U.S. is close to 3 million and growing by more than 300,000 a year; new international markets are waiting to be tapped. Fulton believes there is no limit to growth "as long as you keep the momentum and maintain superior standards and products that are technically advanced. You have to, if you're going to stay ahead."

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