In the mid-nineties, I took a psychological test that said I was an inventor and entrepreneur. I’d never really thought of myself as an inventor. I thought, what am I going to invent?
I was already in the cleaning industry as a jan/san distributor. My wife, Carlene, and I bought the business, Valley Janitor Supply, from her parents. As the chief salesman, the main thing I sold was supplies for the restroom. That was my first piece of market data: my customers spent the lion’s share of their budgets in the restroom.
What am I going to invent?
Unfortunately, restrooms were also the epicenter of headaches for my customers. Their restrooms were stinky, dirty, and expensive to maintain. Workers disliked cleaning them (swinging dirty mops and cleaning toilets by hand) and occupants disliked using them. That was another data point: restroom maintenance could be a lot better.
I was just a little distributor with a vacuum repair shop, but that gave me space to do some tinkering. I wanted to invent something to make restroom cleaning easier, less unpleasant. Something to help with odors and stubborn soils while keeping costs down.
What am I going to invent?
I started with a janitor’s cart – janitors need to be mobile and have their supplies on hand. I added pressure washer components – janitors need to remove soils, but they don’t want to touch disgusting surfaces. Then I added a carpet extractor body for clean liquid spraying and vacuum removal – restroom soils need to be captured and removed from the restroom. Finally, I added a hose reel to wrap up 25 feet of vacuum hose. This Willy-Wonka contraption became the prototype for the KaiVac, and it was dog ugly.
Not only was it ugly, but it was way too expensive for me to build. I had to pay $400 for a cheap carpet extractor, then I had to buy the janitor’s cart and other parts on top of that. I needed to find a way to lower my costs, so my baby could survive. The KaiVac was still just an idea. I was stuck on how to take it to the next level. I had seen autoscrubbers that had large, molded plastic bodies. How did they make them? I didn’t know anything about plastics.
Remember, this was the nineties. I could not Google it. I did have my Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Cincinnati. I had learned a little bit of everything: electrical, fluids, heat transfer, etc. But nothing about plastics. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How was I going to make the KaiVac work?
I was still doing my breadwinning job at Valley Janitor Supply. I visited a big customer, Champion Paper Mill, to do an inspection of their restrooms and make sure our dispensers were working properly. I was told to wait by this big restroom next to a busy intersection in the factory. There were forklifts going by, bulletin boards covered in notices. Adjacent to me, there was an overhead door. Suddenly, it opened, and a big gust of wind blew through like a tornado. Papers blew off the bulletin boards, and there was a moment of chaos before the wind settled down. Over my shoulder came a hand with a piece of paper, “I think you dropped this, sir.” I turned around to see who handed it to me. There was nobody there.
The paper was a flyer from a local plastics used-equipment company. I called the number and spoke to someone who was very knowledgeable about plastics. One connection led to another, and, within a couple of months, we had our first molds and our first water tank and vacuum tank. This capability greatly reduced the cost to make the KaiVac.
Who was the hand? Was it an angel? Was this a miracle? I’m not sure if it was a miracle, but it was the breakthrough I needed. I could mold this invention from plastic, shape it to fit the function. The KaiVac became a sculpture that was beautiful and functional and brought dignity to restroom cleaning while putting a smile on the face the janitor.
Next year will mark 25 years since the company formed. The KaiVac is not just a strange-looking prototype. It is an innovation that has been tested and refined repeatedly over the years. Our customers rely on Kaivac No-Touch Cleaning to deliver in the restroom, and they find new uses for it every day. As for me, I was in the right place at the right time, and I’m forever grateful to the person (or angel) who handed me that flyer.