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Inventor hopes 'Today' show mention is big break

Anchorage mechanic gains nationwide mention of invention

By SARANA SCHELL

Ron

Anchorage Daily News

Published: May 18th, 2005

Anchorage diesel mechanic Ron Stout said he has spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, from his inheritance and hocking his house, to promote an invention he's sure everyone would want if only they knew about it.

Stout is a step closer to finding out if that's true.

Tuesday morning, NBC's "Today" show mentioned his attachable handle for easier use of long-handled tools such as rakes, fishing poles and snow shovels.

He hopes that exposure will kick sales up far beyond the 100,000 units sold so far.

Stout said he and a former friend came up with the D-shaped handle to provide a grip perpendicular to the shaft of a halibut-fishing pole so tired charter clients could keep a better hold. A deckhand could also reach over their shoulders and grab the handle.

In 1999, they filed for the grip's first patent.

Stout said he then spent $26,000 on a mold to mass-produce the handle, and his partnership dissolved over disputes about ponying up funds for that and other costs.

An air-freighted load of handles showed up the day before the 1999 Alaska Sportsman's Show in Anchorage, Stout said. Anchorage sporting goods store B&J Commercial started carrying the handle for dipnets.

"It's a real simple design, but it works real well," said floor manager Lute Cunningham. He said the shop also sells D-handles for the end of a dipnet and many people use the two in combination. "It gives you a lot more control," he said.

Winter hit, and so did snow.

Stout realized the handles could go beyond fishing and work on snow shovels. And why not gardening and painting tools too?

Today, fishing poles; tomorrow, the world.

Well, not tomorrow. Maybe never.

"Anybody can come up with a good idea, go to a patent lawyer and buy a mold. But to get it in stores is the most incredible hair-pull you'll ever have in your life. It's one door shut in your face after another," said Stout, grinning. The trick, he said, is "never say 'die.' "

Stout, 50, has a wiry frame, sandy, ginger hair, and tape around the right arm of his gold-rimmed glasses. The diesel mechanic said he quit his last steady job two years ago. Taking out a mortgage on his house and odd jobs kept him going, but the time had come for more cash. He opened his own mechanic shop in February.

Stout stretched across the engine of a shiny pickup Monday, arm buried up to the shoulder, fiddling with a part. He hefted himself off and strode to a tiny front office to tell the story of getting the grip off the ground.

After pounding the pavement for years to get the invention a spot in Alaska stores, he got a lucky break when a friend of a friend put one in the hands of a national marketer in 2002.

That led to a national distributorship and a spot on shelves in Ace Hardware and other store chains around the country.

"I'm very proud of him for the way he persevered," said David Wilk, the California-based entrepreneur and marketer who looked at Stout's grip three years ago.

"I put it on my shovel," Wilk said. "I liked it so much I thought I might want to get involved."

Wilk showed it to a friend with a hardware distributorship, and they decided they'd like to sign on.

Wilk's list of professional accomplishments includes starting a professional beach volleyball tour sponsored by Jose Cuervo tequila and Miller beer. Now he said most of his energy goes into Stout's Backsaver Grip, which he touts at trade shows around the country.

"Nobody's really made any money on this yet," Wilk said. "So far it's been hard work and sacrifice and believing in the future."

Stout believes in the future enough to have coughed up $10,000 for patents in the European Union, South Korea and Australia, he said, though marketing there comes after gaining ground in the United States.

"We're in about 1,200 stores," Wilk said, including Fred Meyer. "There are about 28,000 stores overall that would be suitable."

While the handle is popular on dipnets and snow shovels in Alaska, Wilk said, in the Lower 48 it's popular for gardening. Conveniently, lawn and garden sales are big and growing.

Ace and another national hardware-store buyers' cooperative, Do it Best, have approved the grip, Wilk said, but individual stores don't have to stock the product.

Wilk's friend Robert Franklin owns MBS Inc. and is the sole distributor. Franklin said around 35,000 units sold last year, with a suggested retail price is $10.

But just because a store buys a case doesn't mean customers will buy the handles.

"It's never existed before," Wilk said. "People don't walk into a store and say, 'I want Stout's Backsaver Grip.' "

Which is why Wilk was excited when he saw "Savvy Senior" newspaper columnist Jim Miller's list of tools to take the strain out of gardening last spring on NBC's "Today" show."

"I said, 'Oh, I've got to get it to this guy,' " Wilk remembered. And by golly, Miller picked it up for his recommendations Tuesday.

"We were delighted," Wilk said, especially since the trio of Stout, Wilk and Franklin isn't spending like a big corporation can to get a new product out before the masses.

"We have to rely on word of mouth," Wilk said. "It takes a little longer, but it costs a lot less and there's nothing more effective."