Big Bang keeps on growing

Niche: From the sale of 1,000 ear warmers, the founders of Canton-based Big Bang Products have built a $40 million business by reinventing everyday products and selling them.

July 08, 2002|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

While most of their classmates at the Wharton School were preparing for careers with investment firms, Brian Le Gette and Ron Wilson were peddling ear warmers on campus.

Other students laughed at first, but when the pair sold 1,000 warmers in two years, their MBA classmates at the University of Pennsylvania's renowned business school began clamoring to get in on the venture.

Eighteen students invested a combined $100,000 initially, and 17 other students, family members and friends joined a year later, bringing the investment to $2 million. Today, they all own a share of Big Bang Products, a company based in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood that is expected to garner $40 million in revenue this year. The investors estimate that their original investments have grown 10-fold in some cases.

The company, which has been profitable since 1999, expects profit margins to grow in the double digits this year.

"They perform very well and consistently on a seasonal type of product," said Ron Palcko, a buyer for fitness, sporting goods and Nascar at QVC, a television shopping network that sells Big Bang merchandise. "They bring new technology that can't be found elsewhere."

As the rest of the retail industry fights for customers, the demand for Big Bang products continues to grow. The company has created a niche by reinventing everyday products, such as beach towels and sunglasses, to make them more functional and hip.

"People sometimes look at us and say that we make gadgets," Le Gette said. "Nothing that we do is gadgety. We try to reinvent the wheel on products that are already out there."

Le Gette and Wilson took the classic earmuff with the fluffy ears and the plastic band across the top of the head, and created a sleeker version. The fleece warmer wraps around the back of the head and is designed so that it doesn't mess up the hair or look bulky under hats.

Using engineering skills they learned in undergraduate school, the men invented temperature-regulating insulation for their creation that keeps the ears warmer than do traditional earmuffs. Three Supreme Court justices wore the muffs at George W. Bush's presidential inauguration.

But Le Gette, 36, and Wilson, 33, said success didn't come easily. It took several years of operating on slim budgets - once nearly going broke - to steer the company to where it is today.

It was in 1993 during talks over beer at the campus bar that Le Gette and Wilson began to discuss starting a business.

They sifted through many ideas, including selling cheese steaks in China, before settling on ear warmers, an idea Wilson had come up with several years before while walking through 2 feet of snow as an undergraduate at Virginia Polytechnic University. "The last thing you want is to not look cool on campus," Wilson said.

They took out cash advances on their credit cards to work on the initial prototype of the ear warmer. During the next two years, the men worked endless hours from a house they shared with four other people, updating and redesigning their creation before they began selling it from makeshift stands on campus.

By 1995, Le Gette and Wilson were ready to begin implementing the lessons they had learned in their entrepreneurial classes. They approached classmates, some of whom scraped up money to invest in the ear warmers. Big Bang Products was born.

Todd Rogers had student loans to pay but invested $3,000 in the venture.

"I thought it was a great investment because I knew these guys well," said Rogers, now a managing director for National City Bank in Cleveland. "I also really liked the prototype and their business plan. I had faith that they would do everything they could to make it successful."

With limited money for advertising, Le Gette and Wilson worked out a contract to sell their products on the QVC television shopping network.

During the debut, nobody called in for the first four minutes. But in the next 8 1/2 minutes, the company sold out the initial production run of 5,000 ear warmers.

The company began expanding its product line after the second set of investors joined, but struggled to make steady profit.

After graduating in 1995, Le Gette and Wilson moved Big Bang to Chicago, where they operated from the basement of their apartment.

They moved their offices to Baltimore in 1998 so Le Gette could be closer to his family, which is from the area. That same year the company was on the brink of failure. The company's plan focused mostly on product development and little on sales and marketing.

The products were sold on television and through catalogs. Sales were down, and Big Bang had only $1,000 in the bank. Le Gette and Wilson scrambled to turn things around. They begged their investors for more money. They hired sales and marketing people who could brand their product.

And, in what was probably the biggest change of all, they began a campaign to sell their products in department stores.

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