dad invented it -- but Gary
has a better one for you Wednesday October 30, 2002
shows off his
Benchmark Retract-A-Bit screwdrivers at his
Duron Plastics factory in Waterloo.The popular six-in-one tool is sold exclusively by Home Hardware.
An invention by Gary Cluthe
of Waterloo, dubbed the Retract-A-Bit screwdriver, is one of the latest success stories in Canadian business.
When it was introduced Oct. 1, 2001, annual sales were projected at 20,000.A year later, the actual figure is in excess of a whopping 400,000 across the country. Cluthe
, the 46-year-old owner of Duron Plastics Ltd.
in Waterloo, said executives with the sole distributor, Home Hardware
, were "overwhelmed" at the public response to his
The screwdriver has a half-dozen steel bits that individually slide in and out of place from the sides, effectively making it six tools in one.
There are similar devices on the market, but they're more cumbersome, with the bits installed by the user into the tip of the driver."People got tired of losing all the bits, so we came up with this," says Cluthe
When the patent expired, a wave of "knock-offs" flooded the market, says Gary Cluthe
It took awhile for the next-generation driver to materialize.But it did some years after Cluthe
father's business, Duron Plastics
, in 1994.
The company, founded in 1967, is involved in plastic injection moulding.After his
dad retired, Cluthe
brought new vigour to the business and saw annual revenue grow from about $1 million to $5 million in the 2000-01 fiscal year. He
accomplished that by "just increasing production.We were running one shift.We run around the clock now and we're very aggressive in pursuing new customers."
While that side of the business has been successful, Cluthe
had this nagging aspiration to make his
own product.And the Retract-A-Bit
, which he
has patented, is "basically our first kick at the can."
It seems he
literally dreamed it up.
"I just kind of woke up and had the idea at about three o'clock in the morning. . . . I guess I was just wracking my brain trying to think of something, and that's what popped into my head." Cluthe
then began working on his
computer, using three-dimensional CAD-CAM software, to develop an aluminum prototype. He
developed a model made mostly of durable plastic."That's it, except for the bits, a spring and a few screws to hold it together.Everything else, we make in-house."
PIVOTING ACTION Cluthe
says the trickiest part was designing the "pivoting action of the bits to make it work properly."
That's because the bits, which are identified by small, imprinted icons on their sliders, have to move up at a slight angle before protruding straight in a locked position at the tip of the driver.
It's made with a durable, fibreglass-reinforced nylon plastic.The bits are brought in from an Ontario supplier, made of tough, heat-treated and nickel-plated steel.
While optional bits are available, Cluthe
installs the most common ones -- two sizes of square-head Robertson-style bits, two Phillips and two slots, or flatblades, used in a conventional screwdriver.
There's also a "mini" model, introduced in June, which has smaller bits and one slot in the cartridge for a retractable ballpoint pen.It's targeted at the "technical guys, the computer guys and more miniature stuff."
After developing the product, it was time to market it.
Early on, Cluthe
visited the folks at the head office of Home Hardware in St. Jacobs to gauge their interest. He
had no prior relations with the retail company, but says their office is "just five kilometres down the road from us, and it just made sense for us to go there first." Cluthe says Home Hardware's founder wasn't initially impressed.
"It was kind of funny when Walter Hachborn saw the product.He
hated it.That was in the early stages when we were still prototyping it.We ironed out the bugs and he
loves it now." Cluthe
then reached a significant deal with Home Hardware
, a dealer-owned company with 1,100 stores across Canada. Cluthe
agreed to give exclusive Canadian rights to the product to Home Hardware
, which mounted its first-ever advertising campaign that zeroed in on a single product.
The Benchmark Retract-A-Bit is prominently featured in Home Hardware flyers, and the sole product in radio and television commercials.
says earnings from sales of the product have resulted in an increase in annual revenue of 30 to 40 per cent.
GENTLEMEN'S AGREEMENT Home Hardware
initially obtained the exclusive rights for one year, but that was recently extended indefinitely.
While it may surprise some people in the business community, both Gabel and Cluthe
said the deal is not a binding legal contract.
"It's a gentlemen's agreement," Cluthe
says."The whole deal was done on a handshake.We have no contract.But if I'm not good to my word, I have nothing."
The Waterloo businessman says he
even turned down some expressions of interest to keep his
word.For instance, Canadian Tire approached him and asked: "How can we get the screwdriver?
At their invitation, Cluthe
also visited executives of Stanley Tools in Connecticut.He
wanted to talk about their interest in the product for the American and European markets, but they had other things in mind.
"They loved it, they thought it was perfect," he
says."But I turned them down because they wanted exclusivity for the world.They were going to take it away from Home Hardware and I said, 'No, I won't do that.' I told them they can't have Canada and they didn't like that.And I said, 'Sorry then.' "
agreement with Home Hardware changes, he
may sell the product to other Canadian retailers "down the road."
Gabel says Home Hardware
also provided Cluthe
with a number of leads to help him export the product.
...Cluthe, who started in the family business as an apprentice to his father after attending Bluevale Collegiate Institute in Waterloo, has had to expand his business to meet the demands in growth of both the Retract-A-Bit and work for other customers.
The latter includes consulting, decorating, assembly and plastic injection moulding to make parts for companies like Waterloo Furniture Components Ltd. and Addressograph Bartizan in Kitchener, one of the largest makers of manual and electric credit card imprinters.Another client is Terra Footwear based in Toronto, for which Duron
makes plastic components for its line of safety shoes and boots.
Last month, Duron
moved from an 18,000-square-foot building on Conestoga Road to a 43,000-square-foot facility at 640 Bridge St. in Waterloo.
The 4.6-acre site and custom-designed building cost about $2.5 million.
As for the Retract-A-Bit
says: "It's very simple, actually.We did it in such a way that it's economical ($14.97 retail) yet durable.It's just a general purpose, light-duty driver."
But its phenomenal success has stoked the entrepreneurial fire in his
belly."We've got a number of new products on the backburner.I can't tell you about those right now, but they are innovative and unique products."