Drain Blaster's fertile brain Blast: When he dropped out of Towson State, Tim Wilson had no idea he would get rich inventing powerful water sprayers that unclog drains and clean industrial smokestacks.

July 22, 1996|By Abbe Gluck | Abbe Gluck,SUN STAFF

Tim Wilson says he's "having a blast."

As a 19-year-old college dropout, Wilson founded Jet Blast Inc., a company that uses water power to do everything from cleaning industrial waste to washing cars. Today, the 36-year-old Baltimorean is seeing annual revenue of $6 million -- and aiming for much more.

Starting with a water blaster and a used van, Wilson has created a $3 million industrial cleaning company with 300 customers in Maryland, including Baltimore Gas and Electric and Bethlehem Steel. "Any stack you see in Baltimore, we're usually in it," said Wilson, a Pasadena native.

But he's looking to the consumer market to propel future growth -- the result of a 1987 decision to venture into retail where, using the concept of water blasting, he's developed a $3 million product line.

Today, with products on home shopping networks in the United States, Canada and Europe, a self-produced commercial and deals with such stores as Home Depot and Hechinger's, Wilson says his company has the potential to be a $300 million enterprise.

A self-described "tinkerer" and the kind of boss who thinks it's "a shame" not to eat lunch with employees on his boat if weather permits, Wilson says he's "got five other projects on the burner" and plans to keep diversifying.

Jet Blast's nine products are all variations of two concepts: using water power to free clogs and generating a stream powerful enough to clean surfaces such as those of a car.

Those concepts won Wilson a National Hardware Show Retailers' Choice Award in 1993 for the "Drain Blaster" and another in 1995 for "Pro Jet 2000."

Last year, Jet Blast sold 400,000 Drain Blasters and 250,000 Pro Jets.

The Drain Blaster, which sells for about $9, is a tube with a nozzle that turns tap water into a high-velocity jet. What makes the nozzle different is that it has three jets, one on the head and two on the side that spin water outward.

Pro Jet's nozzle has only one hole, but Wilson's patent again involves spinning water outward as its nozzle rotates in one direction and the nozzle hole in another. Pro Jet retails for $19.95.

"It has marvelous potential because of its simplicity," said Darron Grey, a buyer for QVC in London, which broadcasts to the United Kingdom, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg.

"Pro Jet sold out on QVC the first day," Grey said. In June, the network bought 1,300 units for the product's first run and recently bought another 2,500 for August.

Home Shopping Network and the Canadian Shopping Channel also sell Pro Jet, typically advertised as a car-washing device.

Immediately after hitting the Home Shopping Network in July 1995, Pro Jet became the network's second-best-selling product for five months. Using the network, Wilson says he can sell 20,000 Pro Jets on a weekend.

"It took us five years to really get into retail, but retail compared to TV is nothing."

So, although Wilson has attended hundreds of trade shows since 1990 to put Drain Blaster on the shelves of Home Depot, Lowe's and Hechinger's, now he's focusing on television.

In May, he produced a commercial for Pro Jet, which airs on five channels. Wilson estimates that for the $10,000 it costs to run the commercial weekly, he sells about $20,000 in Pro Jets.

Selling $20,000 of anything was the farthest thing from Wilson's mind in 1979.

Having flirted unsuccessfully with Towson State College, at 19, Wilson landed a job with Baltimore contractor C. H. Heist, where he operated an industrial water jet for the first time.

Recognizing the power of water blasting, he "got a Master Card and bought a $3,000 cleaner," founding Jet Blast Inc. in Baltimore.

After receiving a $20,000 loan from his father -- who second- mortgaged the house to do it -- Wilson applied on a long shot for a Small Business Administration loan. A few months later, he had $250,000 and five water trucks.

By 1981, Jet Blast's annual revenue reached $1 million. By 1984, Wilson had cleaning operations in Hopewell, Va., and Philadelphia.

But by 1987, he felt trapped.

"The service end of the business is limited in terms of building lTC major corporation without thousands of employees," he said. "On the retail side, numbers and dollars are unlimited."

As a result, he licensed out his Philadelphia and Hopewell offices and separated his industrial service from his new retail business, which he initiated by inventing the Drain Blaster in 1989.

Today, he retains 50 employees at Jet Blast's Fort Smallwood headquarters who manage the retail business as well as the industrial cleaning business, which Wilson still operates in Maryland.

And in Europe, Drain Blaster "is selling like gangbusters," said Pete O'Neill, international trade specialist at the Maryland Office of International Business.

Last year, Drain Blaster's European sales accounted for 10 percent of total revenue, and Wilson estimates those sales will rise by 300 percent in 1996.

O'Neill said he has high hopes for Jet Blast in Europe because Wilson has the right mentality to sell internationally. "He packaged Drain Blaster in three languages before he even took it abroad."

Calling Drain Blaster "a non-chemical solution to clogged drains," O'Neill predicted its success, since "Western Europe has some very stringent environmental laws."

Meanwhile, Wilson is seeking new applications for his water jets.

He's working on "The Gutterbuster," which he created after consumers told him they used Pro-Jet to clean their gutters.

And he's marketing Pro Jet at garden shows, telling people to put plant food in the container designed for soap.

Pro Jet has even been used at the National Aquarium on porpoises, which received the spray as a training reward.

And now, Wilson is trying to adapt it into a powerful shower head. "The problem is, it's so powerful, it almost blew me through the shower," said Dan Frantz, a Jet Blast spokesman.

Pub Date: 7/22/96

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