That eureka! Moment
That eureka! Moment
Look down in John F. Hollenbach’s Ericson 28 Plus, Pelican, and reflected in the deep, honey-thick varnish coating the cabin sole you see the love he has for this sailboat.
The 57-year-old contractor also loves gardening and often brings his favorite cut flowers — orange day lilies — on board. “I’d put them in Tupperware. Eventually, the day lilies would fall over, and the water and pollen would go over the cabin sole,” he says. This he did not love.
“I had installed a tile hearth and Dickerson wood-burning stove,” he says. “Around the stove I had put a Weems & Plath clock and barometer, an oil lamp on a gimbal, and then I had a bunch of their other products around the boat. One day, I’m sitting there cleaning up the [spilled lily] mess and I look up at the oil lamp and say, ‘There’s a solution!’ ”
Innovation continues to drive all facets of the marine industry, everything from the design and construction of boats to new products and accessories. In these stories you will meet four very different companies that embody this creative, entrepreneurial spirit. Think big. Check out these other stories about innovators. Innovation – Harken Innovation – Mystic River Foundry Innovation – Robie Pierce
Hollenbach’s invention is now available in the Weems & Plath catalog as the Yacht Vase, a simple brass cylinder with a flared top that fits in the company’s oil lamp gimbal. For every vase sold, Hollenbach gets a royalty payment. He is but one of the more recent inventors in the storied history of this Annapolis, Md., business (www.weems-plath.com ). Capt. Philip Van Horn Weems, who founded the company in 1928, was an inventor and innovator of navigational instruments. The current owners say they have chosen to continue that tradition.
“I guess we decided about seven or eight years ago that we really needed to build a portfolio of new products and intellectual property” that fit in the company’s niche, says Peter Trogdon, 51, Weems & Plath president. “We also found that if we opened our minds up to other people’s ideas, with their ideas and our market understanding and our manufacturing and organizational skills, we could put out some neat products.”
Trogdon says his company’s niche is the “manufacture of fine nautical instruments.” One company catalog starts with heavy brass “eight-day wind ship’s bell clocks” and ends with leather log book covers. The pages in between offer sextants and plastic plotters, dividers and parallel rules, brass bells, lanterns, chart weights, compasses, binoculars, barometers and the curious “Stormglass Weather Forecaster.” Many of these products were standard items when Trogdon and his wife, Cathie, bought the company in 1997 from Litton Industries. (Trogdon had been hired two years earlier to manage the company.)
“When I arrived here, there was a file of inventors that we were paying royalties to,” Trogdon recalls. “One gentleman passed away. We had been paying him royalties 20 years, and in his will he asked that Weems & Plath stop paying royalties. Nobody here had ever met him.” Weems, the company founder, had invented products but also had bought the inventions of others and put their names on them, Trogdon says.
Now there is, within Weems & Plath, a “new products committee” responsible for assuring that the company is offering its customers a stream of new items. It is this committee that decides whether an inventor’s idea fits the niche.
Trogdon says he is looking for products that are fairly simple and don’t require a lot of training. “The buyer can look at it and figure out what it does,” he says. “The price range is $15 to $300. It’s important that they fit into a cardboard box; can live on a hot, cold, humid boat; that they won’t break so there won’t be a lot of returns; and that it fits the company’s category of products so [salespeople] can always go to the same buyers and know they will be well-received.”
Such was the case with the Light Rule, the brainchild of a British inventor living in France. Guy Milan and his Ohio-born wife, Megan, took a sailing course in Gibraltar. “As part of this, obviously you need to sit down and know the lights and shapes” for identifying vessels at sea, Milan says. “This information doesn’t stick. The brain doesn’t process a number of different colors in different patterns. From that, I identified there was need for a device to act as a memoir … so people can be able to identify lights and shapes and have something on board when they need it.”
Milan’s solution is a 15-inch-long black plastic slide rule with a magnifying bar at one end, through which can be read descriptions of specific arrangements of vessel lights. The depiction of those lights appears through slots in two drawings, one of a vessel profile and the other of an approaching vessel.
To get to the point that his invention was actually ready for sale, Milan had to complete several steps. “You need to design the thing,” says Milan, who makes his living as an inventor. “You have to take as much risk out of the product as possible. You have to show them this can absolutely work. With Light Rule, this was easy. You have to know what the product will be made of, how it will be made,” as well as “where it’s going to sell, to whom, and what numbers will sell.”
With all those questions answered, Milan determined that Weems & Plath was a likely customer for his invention, so he traveled from the south of France to Amsterdam, where Trogdon was attending a trade show. The negotiations began there.
“Peter was trying to convince me he would do me a favor by taking it off my hands for nothing. I don’t hold that against him,” says Milan. “I convinced him of the error of his ways. I went through the numbers with him, and he changed his tune very quickly.”
Today, Trogdon and Milan are both pleased with the deal they struck. The Light Rule was a “big hit from the start,” Trogdon says. And Milan says dealing with Weems & Plath “has been quite a breath of fresh air.”
When dealing with large corporations, “you’re dealing with a room full of egos,” says Milan. “You’ve got to get someone to be your supporter who has an issue with another guy.” At Weems & Plath, he says, “their egos are not the first thing that come bounding out of them when they come into a meeting. Their foundation is on trying to sell good products that work. That’s very, very encouraging to someone like me, because it’s easier to work with them.”
Trogdon’s stable of idea people includes another British sailor, David Young, who calls himself a “freelance inventor concentrating in chemical engineering mainly.”
“But you can’t very easily restrict one’s inventive capabilities to one’s designated field,” Young says. “You have lots of ideas.”
One of Young’s brainstorms came as a result of his single-handed cruising aboard a 27-foot pilothouse sloop he built in his back yard. He saw a need for a device to transfer longitude and latitude coordinates from a GPS to a chart and the reverse. “I wanted something that can literally be operated by one hand. It really had to be very accurate, as well,” Young says. “I felt there was a bit of a gap in the market, as it were. I created a series of prototypes and tested them on a number of offshore trips to France across the English Channel.”
Young then showed his invention to sailing friends. “In refining it, I had bumped into people involved in maritime markets,” he says. “One company kept cropping up, Weems & Plath. Everybody spoke of the reliability of the company.”
Near the completion of its development, Young’s ParaLock Plotter is now “quick, easy, simple.” And it’s intuitive, Young says. “Such devices may be all very well if you’ve just read the instructions, but if you’re cold and wet and being thrown around, it has to be absolutely obvious,” he says. That the ParaLock Plotter is these things, he says, results from his working relationship with Trogdon.
“Many of my previous inventions, I’ve had quite a lot of difficulty keeping any hands-on feedback,” Young says. “Peter has been very open to the idea of exchanging hard, physical products backward and forward. To be able to actually handle and think and put it on a real chart and skim it across and play with it … I would be absolutely delighted to work with him again.”
Indeed, Young and Trogdon are collaborating on an improvement Young saw for a product Weems & Plath already had in development. “To show you my respect for him, I haven’t even felt it necessary to create any sort of formal agreement with him,” says Young. “I will rely on Peter to reimburse me if he feels it is going to turn into a new product.”
Hollenbach, the Ericson 28 sailor, brought a bouquet of flowers to Annapolis on the September day in 2000 that he first met Trogdon. “I had made a little prototype holder for the gimbal,” he says. “We went in and sat down at the [table], six or seven of us. I pulled out the unit. I dropped the vase in. I asked … for the flowers, dropped them in. Peter said, ‘Do you know how many of these gimbals we sell a year?’
“Peter and his staff took care of the integration of the product to their manufacturing in Taiwan. They launched it about two years ago, and it’s been fairly successful. I’ll never get rich on it,” says Hollenbach, “but it’s a nice legacy, and it pays for sailing in the Caribbean every year.”