Sam Walters and his son Marvin don’t get to meet many of the people who benefit from the products of their company. But when they do, it can be a very emotional experience.
“We were at a trade show and a woman with a white cane came up to our booth, looked at our products and burst into tears,” the younger Walters said. “She said she became functionally blind five years previously and 10 different doctors told her she would never be able to read again. But with one of our products, she could. And we were able to help her.”
The product? The reference to the white cane said it all; Sam and Marvin Walters design and market optical aids for the visually handicapped.
Unless someone is totally blind, they say, they probably can help. Not bad for an Agoura company that consists of a father, the president; his son, the vice president, and one office worker. Then there are the long hours, the time spent on the road, the trade shows that always seem to be on the opposite end of the country and the ability to recall the entire Howard Johnson’s menu. But Sam of Westlake Village and Marvin of Oak Park say they wouldn’t do anything else for a living.
It’s that kind of commitment that has resulted in a line of more than two dozen products ranging from miniature telescopes to low- and high-power monoculars that can be mounted on glasses, tripods, chestpods, various table stands, a headband to which a light can be affixed and various accessories. A Japanese company manufactures the products for the men.
“Our products can help people who are legally blind, can’t drive and have vision under 20/200,” Marvin said. “The major difference is that a monocular you might find at a sporting goods store can’t be focused to extremely close distances. Depending on the unit, ours can go as close as five inches. We even have rubberized olive drab models for kids who might need help but might balk at using such a device. They look like something the Army might have. They even come in a khaki-colored carrying case.”
Looking at the company today, it seems as if Sam, 78, and Marvin, 50, have been at this forever. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a case of rebellion in Sam’s youth, none of these inventions would have come about, at least not under the S. Walters Inc. name.
Sam’s father wanted him to be a watchmaker and, in the 1920s, what father wanted, father got. Pulled out of school in Hamilton, Ontario, at age 14, Sam first apprenticed and then practiced his trade into his mid-20s.
But he didn’t like it much. He moved to Pittsburgh and signed on with Eastman Kodak, where he repaired cameras for the princely sum of $20 a week. Sam liked it so much that when he was offered a job repairing watches for $45 a week, he turned it down.
Moving to Los Angeles in 1947, he worked as a camera and binocular repairman and soon had his own shop, Walters Camera Repair. The family sold it in 1983.
It was in 1970 that Sam attended a talk by a Rand Corp. specialist who explained how the visually handicapped could benefit from binoculars.
“He had more than three dozen lenses,” the elder Walters said, “changing them every time distance changed.” After the lecture, Walters said, he told the Rand expert that all those lenses weren’t necessary to do the job. The expert demanded proof.
The next morning, repairman-cum-inventor Walters returned with a bulky monocular that could focus from infinity down to less than 12 inches.
Walters said the man from Rand was impressed but wondered if the device could be made smaller. Walters went to work to decrease the size and find a manufacturer for his creation.
Today, after creating newer and smaller devices, changing manufacturers a couple of times and fighting for patents, Sam and Marvin believe that they are leading competitors not only in quantity but in innovation.
The company sells thousands of units each year to schools, hospitals, ophthalmologists and opticians and is well known in the business. But the Walters’ ability to sell only to professionals--these are prescription items and only a licensed doctor can dispense them--sometimes creates problems.
“There are many forward-thinking people in this business,” said Marvin, who joined the company about five years ago. “But there are others from the so-called old school, which stick to (the notion that) ‘if you can’t fix the problem with contacts or glasses, then don’t do anything.’
“As gratifying as it is to have someone come up to us and say our products have helped, it’s heartbreaking to hear about others who are unaware of the technology we’ve had for 20 years.”
A second concern is pricing; the company cannot regulate what the consumer will finally pay. Consumers have to rely on what the doctor will charge.
And fortunately for business, but unfortunately for the population, demand for their products, they say, is booming.
“The clientele is growing greatly now because the elderly population is growing,” Sam said. “Yet some of our largest customers are schools, where we can provide miniature telescopes for visually handicapped students who could not otherwise attend normal classes.”
“Unless the person is totally blind,” Marvin said, “there is always something that will help.”
UP CLOSE / SAM AND MARVIN WALTERS
Occupation: Father and son designers and salesmen of optical aids for the visually handicapped.
Professional goal: “Making sure that all the visually handicapped people that need help, get help,” said the younger Walters.
Personal goal: “My wife would be very happy if I wasn’t on the road as much,” Marvin said.