The history of Catalan aerostatic balloon manufacturer Ultramagic reads almost like a fairytale. The company sprung up from a personal adventure along the lines of Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg undertaken by its founders. One of them, Josep Maria Lladó, recalls that in 1979 he and two friends decided to make a trip across Africa in a balloon they would design and equip themselves. A year later they embarked on a journey from Tanzania to what was then Zaire which took 11 months. Thereafter, the orders for balloons started to pour in.
Their factory in Igualada in the province of Barcelona has been hard at it ever since. Two years ago they set up a small subsidiary in Mexico in order to be closer to the United States and Canada where their biggest customers are based.
"We sell about a 100 balloons a year out of a total of about of 600 made worldwide," explains Lladó in the basket of a balloon 200 meters in the air. Every July, the company takes part in the European Balloon Festival, which celebrated its 17th edition this year, with some 50 teams attending from across the globe.
The sky with Mount Montserrat in the background is bestrewn with the colors of some 30 balloons. "Many of the balloons you see we made ourselves," Lladó, an aeronautical engineer says proudly.
Ultramagic's factory covers 3,300 meters and employees 35 people. It has an annual turnover of five million euros. "We export 80 percent of what we make," Lladó says. Outside North America, Britain, France and Japan are the company's other major markets, with the firm looking to make more inroads in Asia in the next few years. Lladó's brother, Carles, is the company's marketing manager and the Mexican plant is run by the son of one of the firm's partners.
Ultramagic aims to make inroads in the Asian market over the next few years
Balloons are built to order, with prices ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 euros. The propane burners for the balloons are also made by Ultramagic and these are kept in stock. Balloons can hold up to 20 people and the baskets are built according to the capacity indicated by the customer.
"Despite all the technology behind it, the work in building a balloon remains largely manual," Lladó explains. The textile used in making the balloon is imported from Switzerland and Germany. The material used is nylon reinforced with polyurethane resin and normally lasts for 300 hours of flight time. The shape can be anything from traditionally round, bottle-shaped or even the M of the brand of a well-known telecoms operator. The corporate sector of the market is the one that has been hardest hit by the economic crisis.
Ultramagic also makes competition balloons which tend to be more stylized as well as cold-air balloons. The tourist boom in places such as Cappadocia in Turkey, where sight-seeing from balloons has become increasingly popular in the past few years, has also helped boost the Catalan company's sales.
The company also invests in research and development, and is looking, for example, to come up with a more efficient propane burner. Last year, Ultramagic launched a competition on ideas on how to improve aerostatic balloon production, with prize money of 52,000 euros. Ultramagic also offers maintenance services and lessons on flying balloons.