Decorative covers for E-ZPasses are images of success

August 06, 2007|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Columnist

If you have any doubt this is a great country, consider the story of Owen Burns, who found a way to make a buck that is so ingenious, it makes me weep with envy.

It all began a few years ago when Burns, 42, was stuck in traffic on Interstate 95 in Connecticut, one of the most hellish stretches of highway in the country.

You know how it is when you're stuck in traffic. You curse. You fiddle with the radio. Maybe you pull out the cell phone if you're in a state that won't throw you in handcuffs for that.

Burns did none of these things. Instead, he started to notice all the cars with ugly white spots on their windshields.

The ugly white spots were those plastic toll-booth transponders, E-ZPass and the like, that you stick near your rearview mirror.

"I saw all those white spots and thought: `Why don't they dress them up?'" Burns recalled.

OK, you or I think of something like that, and 10 seconds later we've forgotten all about it.

Ten seconds later, our mind is a vast, empty cloud again. If we're thinking of anything at all, it's: Should I stop at the Dunkin' Donuts at the next exit?

But not Burns.

Because Burns is not as dumb as you and me. And Burns has the entrepreneurial spirit you need to take a crazy idea and turn it into cash, a skill that I, personally, would kill for.

So, in 2004, Burns left his job as a sales and marketing executive at Canon and started a new business, Highway Image, which makes - only in America - decorative covers for toll transponders.

Thanks to Burns, you can cover that ugly E-ZPass with an American flag logo, or the logo of your college, or your favorite sports team, or a national organization, or even a smiley face if you're stuck in the past.

"People are always amazed" at his story, Burns said from his office in Red Bank, N.J. "I came from corporate America, and this was a major shift in my comfort level and what I was used to.

"But people love to see entrepreneurial businesses succeed. And in the back of their minds, people are always thinking: `Boy, I'd like to do something like that!'"

Last year, Highway Image sold more than 10,000 covers, doubling its sales for the second year in a row.

Burns declines to discuss total revenue figures but indicates he's not exactly lighting stogies with $100 bills.

And, he says, "The business may seem nice and simple" but involves a lot of hard work, much of it spent huddling with lawyers to get approval from each state's transportation department to sell the covers and going over licensing agreements, patent and trademark issues, etc.

But business is booming. And people seem to love this new product, which, Burns feels, can also make things safer on the highway.

"People don't like the way their E-ZPass looks on the windshield, so they take it off and wave it when they're going through the toll lane," he said. "That can be dangerous at high speeds.

"So if you can give people a reason to leave [the transponder] on the windshield, it'll save lives."

Plus, they get to stick another doodad on the car to make it look cooler.

Anyway, Highway Image sells more than 300 different covers. All are made from material that can be penetrated by the transponder beam, so you won't get chased down the highway by an angry state trooper for running the toll.

The covers sell for $19.95 and can be ordered through the company's Web site (highway image.com) or bought at service stations, college bookstores and certain big box stores.

There's a University of Maryland cover - do we hit the local angle or what? - featuring a big red "M" and the state flag, and another with the Terrapin mascot in one of those 'roided up, "Fear the Turtle" poses.

There are also two U.S. Naval Academy covers, one showing the Navy "N" and the Bill the Goat mascot, who appears to be very agitated and ready to kick something.

Burns says he's in preliminary talks with the Orioles and Ravens about covers for those teams, but that's hush-hush right now.

In the meantime, Burns and his three full-time employees are enjoying the quiet buzz Highway Image is generating. The company was written about in the June issue of Entrepreneur magazine.

And his unusual line of work remains a surefire conversation-starter at cocktail parties.

"When I tell [people] what I do, the reaction is usually, `Really?'" he said. "They're kind of fascinated by it. And the next question is: `How does that work?'"

Which is why Burns usually attends these affairs with a few sample products, which he can pull out of his pockets while balancing his drink or plate.

For now, he says he's living the American dream of starting a business from scratch and watching it grow into something you never envisioned.

"That's what drives you and gets you out of bed in the morning," he says. "The sky's the limit for everyone."

Although it helps to see dollar signs in ugly white spots on windshields.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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