“Don’t forget until too late that the business of life is not business, but living.” – Bertie Charles Forbes, founder of Forbes Magazine
Recognize the names Arthur “Spud” Melin and Richard “Rich” Knerr? Neither did I. Or, at least not until I did some research and discovered just how much fun they had in co-founding and building one of the most successful toy and novelty companies in the world: Wham-O Mfg. Company.
The two boyhood chums, unhappy with their employment opportunities in 1948, began making slingshots soon after graduating from the University of Southern California. They started in the Knerr family garage in South Pasadena. Melin cut the wood and Kerr sanded. They named the product Wham-O, reportedly for the sensation the product created in hitting a target.
The slingshot caught on and the partners expanded their company to a nearby failed grocery store building. Eventually they found dealers willing to sell them. Before long their slingshots were being sold nationwide. As sales grew they moved into a manufacturing factory in San Gabriel, Calif., where they also began turning out pellet guns, throwing knives, boomerangs and other products.
The partners never claimed to invent many of the toys that most of us of the pre-Playstation generation would recognize in an instant. These include the Superball, the Slip ‘N Slide, the Water Wiggle and Silly String, to name a few. In most cases they merely adopted, improved and branded them. Then they marketed them like crazy.
The same goes for two of their biggest hits, toys that would become worldwide phenomena: the Frisbee and the Hula Hoop. That’s where I come into the story.
Several weeks ago I bought a Hula Hoop at a neighbor’s yard sale.
“Why in the world did you buy that?” questioned my wife, eyeing my new treasure disapprovingly. Obviously, she remembered the long discussions we’ve been having about downsizing now that the kids are gone.
“I always wanted to learn how to hula hoop,” I responded probably a bit too defensively. “It just cost a dime, and I’ve never owned one,” I added sheepishly.
My hangdog response seemed to mollify my wife of more than 40 years. Warming to the sight of my new pink, green and purple plastic hoop, she warmly related how her father, returning home from his job at the Apex washing machine factory one day, surprised her and her younger twin sisters, all of them grade-schoolers at the time, with new Hula Hoops.
“We loved them; we hula-hooped for hours,” she said, her smile widening at the remembrance.
What does my yard sale find have to do with the business of landscaping or lawn servicing? Plenty, it seems to me anyway.
How many of you have started your companies as youngsters with little more than a desire to do what you love to do out of your families’ garages? My guess is more than a few of you.
How many of you are in the landscaping or lawn servicing business not because it was the only career choice you had, but because you loved doing it? Again, my guess is more than a few of you.
Has it been all fun and games for you? What a silly question to pose. Of course, you’ve had tough times and failures. The same went for Rich and Spud, who, according to everything I’ve read about them, were genuinely fun and upbeat guys.
It turns out that the U.S. hula hoop craze that was the rage in the summer of 1958 faded almost as quickly as it had exploded, leaving the partners with millions of unsold hoops and mounting losses.
What did they do? They marketed them abroad, first in Europe and then everywhere. The Hula Hoop became a worldwide phenomenon.
Melin and Knerr sold Wham-O in 1982 for $12 million dollars to the Kransco Group. Mattel, Inc. bought Wham-O in 1994 and resold it to a group of investors in 1997. Melin, 77, died in 2002 and Knerr passed away in 2008 at the age of 82.
It’s my sincerest wish that you have as much fun with your landscape and lawn service companies (and are as successful) as Melin and Knerr were with Wham-O. Meanwhile, I’ll keep working with this Hula Hoop until I can do it.
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