As the intense summer sun beats down on this southern Utah town, everything is cool at Chums International Inc.
Sunglasses dangle from the Chums(TM) worn by everyone at the head office. When they aren't making or marketing the eyeglass retainers, employees at Chums may be attending the company-sponsored Chinese exercise classes, taking a monthly "well day" off or enjoying a company sailboat outing."On lunch breaks I go out back and work in my garden," says barefooted sales manager Bill Rice, wearing cutoffs.
But the laid-back atmosphere at Chums International belies the red hot success of the company's eyeglass retention device and plans for the future. Sales are expected to double this year, hitting the $1 million mark for the colorful cotton tube designed to keep your glasses on your person. And after the market's waters have been sufficiently chummed, the company will introduce a line of outdoor clothing.
The aggressive plan comes from Chums International's low-key founder and president Mike Taggett - a 32-year-old river runner who abandoned his dream of being a bush pilot in South America to pursue a way of saving sunglasses from the rapids.
In the past four years, Taggett has moved his operation from the back corner of a local warehouse to a renovated, spacious office building on Main Street. Seven months ago he opened a manufacturing-shipping facility in nearby LaVerkin, easily identified by the hundreds of colorful and custom-painted or tie-dyed Chums draped over racks outside, drying in the desert sun .
The firm's 20 employees, along with a network of local cottage laborers, produce 20,000 Chums a week, sold in more than 2,000 retail outlets across the United States and in 15 foreign countries. Taggett said the principal purchasers are outdoor enthusiasts, but he has also heard they appeal to mechanics and surgeons to keep their glasses on while working, and fashion-conscious teenagers who like the variety of colors. About 10 percent of the orders are for custom inscribed Chums used as personal or promotional gifts.
He came to Hurricane as a river runner for Grand Canyon Dories and liked it so much he made it his home in 1983, after taking a degree in Latin American studies from the University of Arizona. And although life in southern Utah may not be as exciting as that of a bush pilot, Taggett has had his share of anxiety starting a business.
He recalls his home in the back room of a warehouse in Hurricane. Just Taggett and a $60 sewing machine trying to come up with the perfectly designed product. It took about a year to arrive at the simple solution: slipping the open ends of a seamless cotton tube over the eyeglass temples and cinching the loop in back with a sliding bead.
The seamless tube avoided the possibility of its splitting apart, and segments of surgical latex tubing sewn into the open ends grip the glasses so they won't slip off. Every Chums comes with a lifetime guarantee.
Taggett initially marketed his invention as Jerks but later changed it to Chums, after a friend's dog named Chumley.
After failing to secure a $5,000 loan from a local bank, the big break came. It was a message on his telephone recorder from the president of the company that makes Swatch watches, whom Taggett had met at a trade show and given him some Chums.
"He was calling from New York and said girls loved these things hanging around his neck" and he wanted to order some more to sell as an accessory item, Taggett said.
The desperate dory boatman nearly gave away that first order of 290,000 Chums, but he did manage to negotiate a $100,000 up-front payment from Swatch, which was the startup capital he needed to give his project a serious effort.
When the initial order from Swatch came, Taggett and his small sewing machine were overwhelmed, so he contracted the work out to a large manufacturer in St. George. Today, he contracts most of the assembly sewing to polygamist housewives in Colorado City, Ariz. "They are reliable and do quality work. Cottage labor also saves on overhead and benefits," he said.
But the unique seamless cotton tube is made in LaVerkin with special sewing machines that take a spool of cotton yarn and weave it into a durable tube of fabric.
Usually open and free with information, Taggett becomes protective about the machines he had made especially for Chums. He recalls the time he let two northern Utah distributors tour the plant and the next thing he knew, there was an imposter retention device on store shelves called Bonkers.
"We're lucky we haven't gotten burned too badly, for how loose we were at first," Taggett said.
But while Chums International may be tightening up on the trade secrets and distribution contracts, they're as free-wheeling and creative as ever on getting their final product into as many hands as possible. At trade shows, Taggett and other Chums representatives arrive well stocked to pass out as many Chums as possible to parking valets, doormen, janitors and maids before handing out the product to buyers and distributors during the show.
At the sales booth sits the "Genzer Gyro" machine - a spinning mannequin head that provides a tongue-in-cheek demonstration of how other retention devices fly off at high spinning speeds, while the Chums remain snug on the head.
"It's a promotional gimmick, but it does show how good Chums are," Taggett said.
Other marketing efforts include co-sponsoring sporting events, such as bicycle races, sailing regattas and ski events across the country. They have a distributor who will pass Chums out in Seoul, and the company is shooting for sponsorship of the 1992 games.
Taggett has other plans on the agenda - such as establishing a coffee house, Chumley's, scheduled to open in Hurricane next to company headquarters by the end of the summer, and continuing with Chums Research - a project still in its infancy, from which Taggett and some other partners hope to develop energy efficient generators for the home and factory.
But, while there is ample room for all of Taggett's ventures, the main focus now is to make Chums the generic name for eyeglass retainers.
"We are so busy," Taggett said. "There are so many people without Chums."
Taggett said he is working on a "diplomat" model for those who don't like the cotton tube dangling on the back of their neck. Also in the planning stages for elderly consumers are "Chumforters" - individual cotton tubes that can slip over the temples of eyeglasses for a more comfortable, snug fit.
In addition to bringing in revenue, flooding the market with Chums will bait the market for the firm's entry into the outdoor-clothing business. Taggett is still working on prototypes of his custom hats, shirts and pants.
"We want to make about a half-dozen items of staple outdoor clothing with high-quality material and craftsmanship," Taggett said, noting each handmade item would be signed by its maker and carry the company's lifetime guarantee.
A catalog of Chums' future line of clothing products, currently on the drawing table, would sell the personality of the company - featuring vignettes of cottage workers, employees and rural Utah - as well as the products.
Taggett recognizes the stiff competition in outdoor clothing. But he said he doesn't personally aspire to rule the marketplace and attain millionaire status. His humble goal is to someday see Chums International average $10 million in annual sales, while maintaining a pleasant, casual place to work for about 60-70 employees.