Former Minister Turns Bedtime Stories Into the Jay Jay Franchise

David Michel has been a minister, a salesman, creator of the popular kids’ series Jay Jay the Jet Plane, and founder of WinningHabits.

In 1991, david michel, about to become a father, left his position as a pastor at a Methodist church, having grown weary of the week-to-week sameness of the ministry. He walked into a physician recruiting firm with an odd proposition.

“Let me come to work for you for a month, and if I have not earned my keep, you don’t owe me a dime,” Michel told Ruth Merritt, wife of the founder of Merritt, Hawkins & Associates, a Dallas-based recruiting firm (now called MHA Group) with a staff of more than 700. Merritt paused to consider this articulate, dark-haired man seated across the table from her. The offer came across as contagious enthusiasm rather than off-putting desperation, and she thought this persuasiveness might work well for the company.

Michel got his tryout, and in two years he was vice president of marketing at Merritt, Hawkins. His position coaxing hospitals across Kansas and Missouri into using Merritt, Hawkins to recruit doctors to their area meant lots of goodbyes to his wife and young son at DFW Airport. He was gone every other week, leaving early on Monday morning and returning late on Friday. But this was work he was good at. He had the energy, the work ethic. And the man could schmooze.

Two years after volunteering to work for free, the company honored Michel at its year-end meeting for becoming its Marketer of the Year. Co-workers applauded as he was presented with a gleaming steel-and-gold Rolex Submariner. Soon after, Michel decided to quit. He’d reached the pinnacle of success at Merritt, Hawkins, and it had left him with an empty feeling.
So David Michel, former preacher, former salesman, decided the best way to enrich his life—perhaps the only way—was to fight the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

Michel, now 45, has always been an entrepreneur. in seventh grade, he sat at the kitchen table with his father, Donald, calculating some disheartening numbers on the family’s upstart kitty litter business. The company eventually prospered, capturing 10 percent of the U.S. grocery store market, and his father sold the business when Michel was in college. That’s when he told his dad he wasn’t interested in taking over. 

“The entrepreneurial blood runs thick in our family,” Michel says. “I was able to see the risk that comes with it at an early age. But I also saw the reward.” In high school, while his buddies were out having fun on Saturday nights, Michel worked the 6-to-midnight shift at radio station WRAJ in tiny Anna, Illinois. For kicks, he bought an intercom, stuck it to the building’s exterior, and told his friends to drive by and request songs. “I had the only drive-through request line in the country,” he says.

Faith, however, played as large a role in Michel’s life as enterprise. His was a churchgoing family (his sister is Jane McGarry, the NBC Channel 5 news anchor). After graduating from SMU, Michel earned a master of divinity from the university’s Perkins School of Theology in 1989. But after two appointments at churches in Krum and Ponder, Michel went looking elsewhere for the “purpose and passion” he sought.

Two years later, when he left Merritt, Hawkins, things were different. This time there was a plan.

On weeks when he wasn’t traveling, he would put his 2-year-old son to bed. Lying there with the sandy-haired boy, looking at the stars on the dark blue wallpaper in the boy’s room, Michel would tell his son stories about his plane trips. The boy would ask for more airplane stories the next night, and Michel would embellish. Over time, a thought kept repeating itself: why not merge his son’s interest in flight with his own interest in serving mankind?

Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, a TV show about a team of leotard-wearing teenagers who fight kung fu battles with intergalactic bad guys, was the hottest thing in entertainment for young children. Michel thought such shows aimed at preschoolers were too violent. “The research suggests a person’s personality is set by 5,” he says. “I thought maybe I could do something to affect that with a positive, nonviolent experience for preschoolers.”

In June 1994, his idea formalized, Michel hired Austin writer David Horwitz to produce four short scripts about an animatronic jet and a family of flying friends, including small “young” planes and larger “adult” planes. Next he needed model planes and a set. He found a guy who lived in a little cottage near White Rock Lake who was a model builder. Michel hired Joseph Melancon to create seven wooden models with humanlike faces and movable eyes. He hired Gary Rush, a sign painter in Lewisville, to build the original sets. He asked his father to help him find fine tungsten wire, which the crew would use to move the animatronic characters in front of a blue screen. The night before the first video was to be filmed, however, Michel didn’t like the color of the airplanes’ faces. He wanted warm flesh tones, not cartoonish otherworldliness. So he and Melancon stayed up all night repainting the faces.

By Labor Day, Michel had a finished product: a 32-minute video featuring four Jay Jay the Jet Plane shorts, with simple lessons for preschoolers, like overcoming a fear of the dark, following rules, and the importance of self-confidence and determination. Michel spent the next two years struggling to find a market for the 10,000 copies he’d made. He spent $35,000 on a direct-response regional TV campaign that yielded just $300 in orders. He spent $42,000 on a direct-response print ad campaign in Parents magazine. He received just $3,000 in orders. Soon, he’d gone through his savings and was hitting up family and friends for money.

“I had trouble breathing at times,” says Michel’s wife, Deborah, the accountant for the fledgling business. “But we kept thinking success was going to be just around the corner.”

Michel tried retail. He contacted store after store. Finally, he got his first account, a children’s shop called Lil’ Things, in Arlington. “How many videos do you want?” he asked. “Twenty-five,” the buyer answered. That was $150 in sales.

So what did Michel do? He expanded. He borrowed more money from friends and family, and he produced two additional videos containing four stories each. He commissioned a Jay Jay coloring book, a Jay Jay backpack, and a Jay Jay plush toy. He turned Jay Jay into a franchise.

In the spring of 1996, he bought an ad on Nickelodeon. The 800 number that ran with it took 119 orders. “Holy cow, we broke even on the first ad,” Michel says. Soon, Toys “R” Us received calls wondering if it carried Jay Jay products. And around the same time, a copy of the original Jay Jay video made its way to Bruce Johnson, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based PorchLight Entertainment, a family-friendly television producer and distributor. Johnson thought Jay Jay had potential. For one, Johnson’s 3-year-old son loved it. In 1998 Michel signed an option agreement with PorchLight.

With Michel’s input, PorchLight took Jay Jay from a very low-tech video to performance animation, a computerized melding of live acting and animation that gives a humanlike quality to the characters. When an actor frowns, the plane frowns. When he smiles, it smiles. “I think that’s one of the reasons children respond so positively to these characters,” Johnson says.

The 26 original half-hour Jay Jay episodes appeared on The Learning Channel in 1999 and 2000. Later, PBS picked up the show and ordered 14 additional episodes, and it has continued to replay on PBS since then. Jay Jay airs in six languages and in more than 50 countries. A direct-to-video movie is in the works.

Michel and his wife still own the Jay Jay franchise. Michel says it has been more emotionally than financially rewarding. PorchLight Entertainment handles the day-to-day operations. “Basically, I worked myself out of a job,” Michel says. But all that work had changed Michel—and not for the better.

During the early Jay Jay years, putting in long hours, Michel gained weight. With the help of nutritionists and fitness experts at the Cooper Aerobics Center, he worked his way back to fit and trim. But even as he oversaw Jay Jay, he was thinking about how he could provide the nutritional knowledge he received through an online database. So in the summer of 1999, he set out to raise $3 million to start WinningHabits. The company provided a back-end database and tracking system that health clubs could offer their clients through their own websites. People could sign in, get personalized diet and exercise information, and track their progress. But WinningHabits wasn’t making enough to sustain itself. Michel expanded it to YMCAs. This still wasn’t enough. Eventually, Michel scaled back the staff from 38 employees to 12—and still had to float money from his personal account to make WinningHabits’ payroll.

Again, Michel didn’t give up. And in 2001, Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter turned to WinningHabits to improve employee health and reduce insurance costs. Employees could compete against each other to lose weight or lower cholesterol scores. They could win rewards, like days off. Employees liked the incentives; the company liked lower health-care costs. Other corporate clients signed on, and soon WinningHabits turned the corner.

In 2005, WinningHabits got three buyout offers. Michel recently completed an 18-month process of transferring his company to disease-management firm Matria Healthcare for $43 million, to be divided among the 50-plus investors, as well as employees. Michel is coy about how much he pocketed, but it’s safe to say he’s a multi­millionaire. Whatever the exact figure, it was enough to allow him as much time in the gym as he wants.

Six o’clock friday morning, and Michel is working out at the Cooper Aerobics Center. Five like-minded entrepreneurs sweat beside him. A sixth man joins the group, first giving Michel a man hug (shoulder to shoulder, two thumps on the back). The men call themselves the Atlas Forum—as in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. They are a subgroup of the Dallas-based Young Entrepreneurs Organization. “We’ve all done multiple businesses,” Michel says. “We’re all on business two, three, four.” A perfect group for Michel, except for one fact: his “business” is that he’s their personal trainer. This won’t do.

“I’m excited about what’s next,” Michel says, breathing heavily. “I just don’t know what that next is.”

Cathy Frisinger ([email protected]) is an Arlington freelance writer and a frequent contributor to D Magazine.

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