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A Heathkit Story (Past & Present)
By Randy Kaeding, K8TMK
"One of the Hams (still) at Heathkit"

Sorry about the length of this, but I need to clear up some misconceptions.

First let me clear up an apparent misconception about the Heathkit Company. The Company never went out of business. It is true that they no longer make kits, but one of the long-time product groups still remains.

Perhaps its easier to think of Heath Company as the building in St. Joseph, Michigan itself. Heath Company encompassed several sub-companies known as the Heathkit Company (the kit line), Heathkit Educational Systems (the educational line, which started out as Heath Scientific Instruments), and Veritechnology (the retail store program). Eventually, the Heathkit Company developed a very popular home computer that was available as either a kit or assembled product. This was the product line that caught the eye of Zenith Radio Corporation (ZRC), which later bought the Heath Company. They were only interested in the computer products, but the rest of the company came along as part of the sale. ZRC later changed their name to Zenith Electronics Corporation (ZEC) to reflect its expansion into other Electronic marketing areas.

The computer products were sold under the Heath/Zenith and Zenith Data Systems (ZDS) names. Incidentally, Heathkit, Vertitechnolgy, and ZDS each had their own President which reported to ZEC in Chicago. This should clear up misconception number 1. Although ZDS employees wouldn't want to admit it, ZDS did not at any time own Heathkit or any of the other product groups. ZDS was a separate company that was housed in the Heath Company building, and shared several support groups with the other companies. Somewhere along the way, a new group was added to the Heath Company which made lighting and security products, and they did business under the Heath/Zenith and Reflex names.

Because all of the above-mentioned companies shared several support groups, problems began to appear. The computer products had priority over everything else, so the "sharing" became one-sided. I guess that made sense, because that's where the high profits were.

A decision was finally made to completely renovate a former K-mart building in downtown Benton Harbor, and move everything except ZDS into the "new" building. The idea was that ZDS would have their own support groups, and the groups moving into the new building would have their own shared support groups, which wouldn't have to take a back-seat to ZDS products. Early in 1991 the move took place.

Even before the move, the kit product sales began to dwindle. This could be attributed to several reasons, such as foreign wired-product competition, loss of interest in kit products (the public wanted "instant gratification"), and yes, probably to poor management.

Late in 1991, the kit line was discontinued, which in turn killed off Veritechnology. All that was left in the former K-mart building was Heathkit Educational Systems and the lighting and security group. Soon after, ZEC sold these groups, the K-mart building, and the Heath Company name to HIG out of Miami. ZEC retained ZDS and the old Heath Company building in St. Joseph (remember they were only really interested in the computer products). Then, a couple of years later, HIG sold the company to an independent corporation. The current owners were only interested in the educational product, so they soon sold the Heath Company name and the lighting and security group to DESA International of Bowling Green Kentucky. At the same time, the building was sold to Advantage Schools (and is called the Benton Harbor Charter School). Heathkit Educational Systems now rents about half of the building from Advantage Schools.

Eventually, the ZDS business failed, and was discontinued. The old Heath Company building in St. Joseph was sold and now houses several unrelated companies. I understand that DESA has since filed for bankruptcy.

Heathkit Educational Systems (HES) survived the ordeal and is quite profitable. They have a web site at www.heathkit.com and remain in the former K-mart building.

To clear up misconception number two: HES still owns all of the trademarks, manual copyrights, etc.

Misconception number three: Copyrights do not disappear when a company no longer sells the products to which they were associated. And, even if the company should go out of business, that does not cancel the copyrights. Copyrights prior to 1976 were for 25 years, renewable for another 50 years (total 75 years). Copyrights after 1976 are good for 75 years.

Incidentally, at least six employees who were originally part of the kit company are still employed by HES.

The information presented here was previously posted to the Heathkit Owners and Collectors List <HEATH@LISTSERV.TEMPE.GOV> by the author and has been reproduced with his permission and with the assistance of Van Lincoln, WD8AAM. Randy may be reached at rkaeding@HEATHKIT.COM and Van may be reached at vlincoln@earchlink.net.
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