CHAMPAIGN — Joe Ambrose was known for his vision, innovation and business acumen throughout the remote-control hobby industry.
Colleagues said they were equally impressed with the Horizon Hobby CEO’s warm, unassuming manner; his willingness to work in the trenches alongside them; and the way he treated everyone from employees to customers to RC enthusiasts.
“He was the kind of person who did not know a stranger,” said Andrew Ziegler, the company’s trade show and events manager.
At events, “if people didn’t know him, he would walk up and say, ‘Hi, my name is Joe. I work at Horizon,’ and he would try to get their thoughts and opinions on things. He would never introduce himself as the CEO or try to make himself seem more important than anyone else.”
And in the office, “he would walk down the hallway and engage with pretty much everyone,” Ziegler continued. “He knew most everybody by name.”
Mr. Ambrose, who lived in Mahomet, passed away unexpectedly on Friday. He was 61.
Born in 1957 in Peoria, Mr. Ambrose and his family moved to LeRoy in 1967, where he met his future wife, Julie. He earned a Bachelor of Science in finance from the University of Illinois and a law degree from Indiana University and worked as a corporate lawyer in Bloomington for 20 years.
Mr. Ambrose, who also had a master’s of business degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, joined Horizon Hobby in 2005 as vice president of distribution and was named CEO in 2008.
In 2014, he led the buyout of Horizon ESOP with partners from Armory Capital and Mill City Capital. And in 2018, he headed the acquisition of Hobbico’s RC assets, in the largest acquisition in industry history.
Mr. Ambrose was also a director of First Busey Corp. since 1993.
First Busey Chairman Greg Lykins, who also sits on the Horizon board, called Mr. Ambrose an “amazing human being and visionary leader.”
“Those of us who have been fortunate enough to know and work with Joe have lost a dear friend and inspiring mentor,” Lykins said.
Dustin Buescher got to know Mr. Ambrose when he became Horizon’s director of product development for the air and radio category nearly four years ago.
“What really surprised me about him was his involvement in all aspects of the business — everything from product development, which I’m involved in … to marketing to purchasing to operations. He was hands-on with the entire company,” he said.
“He just really had a vision for where the company needed to go at all times,” Buescher continued. “He was always looking for the next opportunity, and he had a way of identifying opportunities that would provide growth for the company, and that’s what you’re always striving for.”
Just one example Buescher pointed to: the patented SAFE (Sensor Assisted Flight Envelope) technology for remote control planes and AVC (Active Vehicle Control) technology for RC cars.
They “allow the products to be easier to fly or drive, which makes it easier for a beginner to get into the hobby,” he explained.
Ziegler said his boss remained ahead in other ways, as well.
“Over the last few years, a lot of things have changed within the industry,” he said. “Joe was always seeing these things and had the vision … to change how we were doing trade shows and events.
“Instead of just attending these, he thought we should be doing our own events and showing people what we were all about,” Ziegler said, adding that that led to the successful, family-geared Horizon RC Fest that drew nearly 5,000 people to the area and raised more than $10,000 for local charities last year.
“He was not only coming up with those ideas. He was at those events from sunup to sundown with his sleeves rolled up and getting dirty with the rest of us,” Ziegler said, adding that that’s rare for a CEO, but his boss loved being involved in them. “That shows what kind of guy he was.”
In addition to his work ethic, employees admired his humble attitude and willingness to listen to their ideas — and the customers — to improve their products.
“He loved the company and the employees,” Buescher said, adding Mr. Ambrose had an open-door policy. “If someone needed to talk to him, he was available … about work or otherwise.”
Ziegler also recalled that Mr. Ambrose was a motorcycle enthusiast, who enjoyed riding his Harley-Davidson.
When the company held its Ride Your Bike to Work Day, “he’d show up in chaps and his leather jacket,” Ziegler said with a laugh.
He also said his boss was a diehard Illini fan, particularly of the men’s basketball team, and had season tickets. If he couldn’t make a game, he was quick to send out a company-wide email and offer them up to the first person to respond.
According to his obituary, Mr. Ambrose and his wife traveled around the world, visiting 20 countries. He also enjoyed spending time with friends and family, including the couple’s four children and eight grandchildren.
Mr. Ambrose is survived by them and four siblings.
His funeral service will be at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Calvert-Belangee-Bruce Funeral Home in LeRoy. Visitation is from 5 to 8 p.m. today at the funeral home.