State’s entrepreneurs bring big ideas to life
Creators, thinkers, dreamers – they develop products and nurture ideas, often born out of a need unfilled. Alabama is home to a number of successful businessmen and women who have brought ideas to life – and made money in the process.
In this issue, Alabama Living highlights four businesses that got their starts in our state and that have continued to operate here, creating jobs and helping to fuel the economy. If you know of an Alabama innovator worthy of an Alabama Living story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keeping people warm and dry when nature won’t cooperate
By John N. Felsher
Living in one of the wettest, hottest parts of the country, some Alabama outdoorsmen wanted products that would beat the elements without forcing people to hide from nature. So in 1996, they gathered near Lake Guntersville, the largest lake in the state, to found Frogg Toggs.
“Our goal was to keep common folks comfortable outdoors,” says Will Fowler, Frogg Toggs marketing director. “The Frogg Toggs brand started with an idea to provide an affordable, breathable rainsuit to a market that was not being served by available products. We didn’t want to compete with an existing market presence, but go after dollars that had never been spent in the rainwear category before.”
In the past two decades, the company grew into one of the most recognizable all-weather apparel brands in the world today, producing lines of lightweight, breathable protective gear for working people. Now employing about 70 people, Frogg Toggs manufactures and distributes a full line of rainwear, waders and other footwear, personal cooling products and accessories made from various materials at prices most outdoorsmen can afford.
“We serve several industries including fresh and saltwater fishing, motorcycle riding, agriculture, hunting, outdoor sports, team sports, running and cycling and general fitness to name a few,” Fowler says. “To outdoorsmen and women, the name Frogg Toggs means trust, affordability and protection. Designed by outdoorsmen and made to take on Mother Nature, the company was founded on the promise of total customer satisfaction. To this day, we don’t introduce a product, make a change or commit a resource unless we know it will result in giving our customers even more reason to seek out and purchase the Frogg Toggs brand.”
As the business grew, the company relocated from Guntersville, Ala., to a facility atop Georgia Mountain between Guntersville and Arab. After a few years at this location, the company moved to a 225,000-square-foot warehouse and office facility just outside Arab.
“Being able to locate the Frogg Toggs headquarters in the town that we call home is a blessing to us,” Fowler explains. “Frogg Toggs owes a great deal of its success to its location. Arab, Ala., provides a great labor pool, easy access to major interstates, no traffic congestion, ample recreation opportunities and one of the best school systems in the state with a true small-town atmosphere.”
For more information, call 800-349-1835 or visit www.froggtoggs.com.
Chord Buddy’s national sales strike high note
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a story previously published in Alabama Living by Wiregrass Electric Cooperative.
Travis Perry came up with the name for his Chord Buddy guitar-teaching system when he was just 18 years old.
But it wasn’t until the Dothan entrepreneur and musician was trying to teach his daughter to play guitar decades later that he actually set the idea into motion.
Now, Perry has turned Chord Buddy into a multimillion-dollar company with a growing range of products and eight employees. Chord Buddy has appeared in sales spots on QVC, on the reality TV show “Shark Tank” and in another appearance on its companion show, “Beyond the Tank.”
Like training wheels, Chord Buddy uses a device with tabs, allowing students to play chords with just the touch of a tab button. But as the student gets more comfortable, the tabs can be removed, allowing them to learn the chords and strum at the same time.
The product went on the market in 2010, but didn’t become popular until Perry appeared on an episode “Shark Tank,” when he pitched the idea to a group of investors.
“Eighteen months prior to ‘Shark Tank,’ we had done $232,000 in sales, which I actually thought was pretty dang good,” he says. “Within 10 months of it airing, we had done $3 million in sales. Now we’re up to about $7 million. That’s what a difference being in front of 10 million people for about 15 minutes can make.”
The product does well in the fourth quarter each year, when people buy it as a gift. To buoy the business in the other three quarters, Perry has branched out into education.
“Ninety-two percent of music educators don’t know how to play guitar,” he says. So he designed a system that would allow music teachers to teach guitar through the Chord Buddy system.
Perry continues to invent products and create ideas. Sometime this year, two new products will come out: a guitar cable with a built-in volume control for an acoustic guitar, and the Beat Buddy, a Bluetooth device that allows the guitar to become a speaker and acts as a rhythm-training aid for learning the guitar.
Cablz Eyewear Retainers
Keeping eyeglasses in place with style
By John N. Felsher
In 2007, Ron Williams, a medical equipment supplier, began to exit a hospital parking deck when the strap on his sunglasses snagged something, flinging the glasses into his face. This nearly caused Williams to wreck. In frustration, he hurled his glasses away from him. They landed on a spool of surgical steel cable that doctors use to anchor bones in place when operating on complex fractures.
At that moment, the proverbial light bulb turned on in his head. “That was the ‘aha moment,’ when I held up the steel cable and thought, ‘I wonder how this would do,’” he recalled. He envisioned making a device that could hold glasses in place, but avoid snagging because the stiffness of the cable would keep it suspended off the back of a person’s head.
A year later, Ron and his wife Holly began marketing their patented coated stainless steel off-the-neck Cablz retainers to active sports enthusiasts such as anglers, cyclists, paddlers and others who spend considerable time outdoors. In 2009, the company won a best new product award at the ICAST show, the largest fishing industry trade show in the world. Now, the Birmingham-based business sells its products all over the world.
“We started in our garage in 2008 and moved to a 5,000-square-foot office/warehouse in Birmingham in September 2011,” Holly says. “This year, we’re moving to a 9,200-square-foot facility nine blocks from our current warehouse! Alabama is home for me. I grew up in Guntersville. Alabama is a great location to start a business because it’s centrally located in the Southeast.”
At first, all Cablz retainers came in one size and one color — silver steel cable with black rubber grommets. Introduced just this year, the company now also makes retainers out of fly fishing line and other products. Like the others, this product also comes equipped with patented ball bearing technology and universal ends that fit most eyeglass frames, but they come in adjustable lengths and varied colors.
“The main thing people like about Cablz is that it stays off the neck,” Holly explained. “It’s so light weight, low profile and just cool looking. With traditional cloth eyewear straps, anglers get fish juice, bait or sweat on the straps and they start to stink. With Cablz, people finally have an eyewear retainer that doesn’t get hot, sweaty or nasty.”
For more information, call 205-868-3662 or visit www.cablz.com.
Finding fish in the depths for more than four decades
By John N. Felsher
In 1971, several entrepreneurs met in Eufaula, Ala., on Lake Eufaula to develop a way to see what secrets the lake held in its depths. Calling themselves Fulton Electronics, they invented the first electronic fish-finding devices, marketed as Humminbird Depth Sounders.
Over the years, Fulton Electronics became Techsonic Industries. The Humminbird brand now falls under Johnson Outdoors, but the company continued to develop many innovative technologies to help anglers catch more fish over the years. Today, people can scarcely find a boat not equipped with some type of electronic depth sounding device. Current side-scanning technology displays almost look like a movie of the lake bottom.
“For more than 45 years, Humminbird has been blessed to be the leader in fish-finding technologies like patented Side Imaging, 360 Imaging and LakeMaster maps,” explains Jeff Kolodzinski, the Humminbird brand manager. “We have broken grounds in technology not thought possible and the angling community has approved. The vast majority of our input comes from people using our products. Nobody knows better than they do about what they want.”
Still based in Eufaula, the company expanded into making communication, navigation and other electronic devices. Today, the company sells more than $100 million worth of electronics annually in more than 100 nations.
“We stay in Alabama because we have a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Eufaula,” Kolodzinski says. “Over the years, we have put millions of dollars in technological upgrades into the facility. We have trained staff to perform very technical functions in a highly competitive field. Our roots run deep in the community and in the anglers we serve.”
Most recently, Humminbird won its fifth consecutive “Best of Electronics” award during the 2015 ICAST show, the largest fishing industry trade show in the world. Dealers and outdoors media attending the show voted its HELIX 7 depth sounder as the best new electronics product displayed at the show.
“Our goal was to combine our leading-edge technologies with solutions to the real-world problems anglers and boaters face each day on the water,” Kolodzinski says. “The result is a bigger, brighter, nearly glare-free screen with numerous proven, fish-catching features and innovations. For more than 40 years, anglers have relied on Humminbird technologies to enjoy their sport. We will remain focused on serving the angling community from our home community of Eufaula.”
For more information, call 1-800-633-1468 or visit www.humminbird.com.