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A Well-Oiled Machine : Lubricant Dispenser Is One Mainstay for Lean Santa Ana Venture

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lubricating oil in needle-nosed squeeze bottles and plastic pistol grips for aerosol cans might not seem the stuff of entrepreneurial empires, but don’t tell that to Harvey Brody.

These products help fuel a multimillion-dollar business that Brody and his staff of two--wife Phyllis and daughter Eileen Yoelin--operate from a rundown commercial building behind wrought-iron gates in one of Santa Ana’s meanest neighborhoods.

And while Brody’s business is no Microsoft, its supremely self-confident boss is made from the same mold as Bill Gates and other well-known entrepreneurs whose praises are sung in business courses from Berkeley to Bangor.

“He’s the kind of person we should have been studying 30 years ago,” says William H. Crookson, an associate professor in the entrepreneur program at USC’s Marshall School of Business.

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Brody runs something many major businesses are just now beginning to look into--a “virtual corporation” that markets several specialty products but has no employees, few assets and hires outside contractors to perform much of the work. Brody has invented some products and acquired the rights to other items from inventors and manufacturers that just couldn’t market them properly.

He spends his time finding new markets for his products, keeping his manufacturers and distributors happy, searching for new products to sell and figuring out how to make his goods better and less costly than competing items.

He shuns fad items, concentrating instead on products that mechanics and do-it-yourselfers, among others, will want to use over the years.

His companies, Delshar Industries Inc. and Norvey Inc., “are just way ahead of the curve,” says Crookson. “The virtual corporation is every entrepreneur’s dream. To have someone else doing all the stuff you don’t like to do.”

Brody has been living that dream for more than four decades, and to hear him tell it, his story is a simple one, and easy to emulate.

He won’t disclose financial figures for his private company, but hints that gross volume is close to $20 million a year. Profits, Brody says during one of his lengthy expositions on the joys of what he does, are “unimaginable.”

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He did have employees at one time. He started Delshar as a sideline to his oil bottle business in 1969 to publish a self-help course based on his own business experiences and ultimately hired 30 workers.

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But he got rid of the publishing operation in 1987. “I got tired of coming in every morning running at 3,600 rpm and seeing my employees running at 2 rpm,” he says. “It made me sick to my stomach.”

Brody, 65, who holds a business degree from Washington University in St. Louis, started a typewriter repair business to help pay the bills in college. He wound up inventing his first product--a telescoping spout for the ubiquitous plastic squeeze bottle.

The needle-thin spout slides into the bottle for storage but extends to 7 inches to make it easy to place lubricant deep into the nooks and crannies of machinery. A new model gives the technicians who buy tens of thousands of Brody’s bottles every year a 14-inch reach.

Brody says he developed the techniques that have made him a success while working part time for a series of inventors and engineers in the Los Angeles Basin in the 1950s.

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“They were some of the best marketing people around” at a time when the personal touch--Brody’s hallmark--was more important than fancy multimedia sales presentations.

“That’s why I can say that it’s easy to do this. It’s something you can learn if someone takes the time to show you how,” he said.

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It worked for Brody, anyway.

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Since taking it to market in 1957, Brody has sold more than 60 million of the 4-ounce Zoom-Spout Oiler bottles. The containers, filled with quality lube oil or rust dissolver, wholesale for just under $1.

“They’re the best stuff out there,” says Mark Chance, buyer for Robertshaw Controls Corp.'s national parts and supplies division, North American Uniline. “I don’t know what’s in it, but his oil works better than anything else I’ve seen and I’ve been in this business 25 years.”

Still, it’s the bottle that sells the product. “Everybody just asks for the Zoom-Spout Oiler,” says Chance.

Even when he’s selling someone else’s invention, Brody likes to add something to make the product more competitive.

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He recently became enamored of a colorless liquid odor remover developed by a San Fernando Valley company that never sold more than $160,000 worth of the product in a year. He acquired a license to produce it for Delshar and redesigned the packaging and marketing brochures to give them some zing. In the two years since, Brody has pushed sales of what he calls Kleen Air to $2 million a year.

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He leaves distribution to specialists such as Uniline and Gem Products Inc. in Garden Grove, who can get the product out to thousands of customers at a fraction of the time and cost than if Brody had to do it himself.

Brody prints his customers’ names on his product labels. Oil bottles, for example, don’t say Norvey Inc., they say Uniline or Gem. If the products are good--Chance and other distributors say Brody doesn’t sell schlock--the private label service lets the customers take credit and keeps them coming back.

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There’s a side benefit, he chortles. “I don’t have to spend money marketing or distributing because my customers take care of that for me.”

His aerosol pistol grip is another example of Brody’s value-added philosophy. The companies make the devices, but but Brody developed a quick-change mold that lets his manufacturer switch the corporate logos embossed on the grips without having to stop production and replace the mold for the entire product.

That gives him a price advantage over competitors, who must stop production and change the entire mold when switching from one customer’s order to another.

So far, 120 corporations are buying Delshar’s Can Hand’ler pistol grips. Brody keeps a small file box in his office, filled with the metal dies bearing the logos of customers including Sears, Amway, Fuller Brush, Home Depot and Krylon, a spray paint brand marketed by Sherwin-Williams Diversified Brands Inc.

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Brody says anyone can learn to do what he does, but entrepreneur watchers say that, like many who achieve success, he overlooks attributes that set him apart from the crowd.

Among other things, Brody is driven to succeed. That’s a big part of any entrepreneur’s makeup but is something that is suppressed by most people, says behavioral scientist Edward Rockey of Pepperdine University’s graduate school of management.

“He seems to be the classic self-motivated achiever,” says Rockey. “He wants to be responsible for his achievements using his own ingenuity.

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Brody also has good instincts for spotting a product’s potential. He can identify products that haven’t done well in the marketplace but should have--and he can see how to make them successful.

And Brody can sell. He doesn’t think of himself as a salesman and takes pride in running his business without a sales staff. But that’s because Brody, himself, is Delshar’s sales force, utilizing what he calls a “diabolically clever scheme” to get his pitch heard at the highest levels of a potential customer’s purchasing hierarchy.

Brody doesn’t make blind calls to purchasing departments, where his brochures and business card will likely be dumped by a bored receptionist who’s heard it all. Instead, he calls the secretaries of companies’ purchasing managers or presidents, and makes his initial pitch to them.

“I tell them that I’ve called them because I know they are professionals who can see the value of what I have and will pass it on to their boss. It’s flattery, but it also is true, and they can tell that I believe what I’m saying.”

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Brody says that for every 50 such calls he makes, he averages five sales contracts within a few weeks. He continues to call the others, winnowing his list as the rejections become firmer. He figures that perseverance wins him an average of eight subsequent orders from his initial list of prospects.

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Brody’s companies depend on return business, and Brody pays attention to detail there too.

Chance, whose Ontario-based Uniline is one of half a dozen national master distributors for Brody’s products, said he has been dealing with Brody for 25 years and has never had a bad experience.

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Brody’s products do exactly what Brody claims they will do, and are delivered intact and on time, Chance says.

“Sometimes we mess up and don’t place an order soon enough to keep our stock up, but he always sees to it that we get a special shipment,” Chance says. “We never have to wait.”

Brody said he also adheres to a critical rule of business--people perform for people they value. To that end, he says, he pays his subcontractors as soon as he places an order. Sometimes he even pays in advance.

He uses two plastic injection mold companies to make most of his parts and two filling and capping contractors to label, fill and cap his Zoom-Spout bottles.

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All are in Southern California and Brody says he keeps in close contact with them. “Then, when I have a problem and need a rush job, they jump to keep me happy because they know that I’ll always be there to pay them,” he says.

And that, Brody says, lets him keep his customers happy, which “keeps the money flowing in.”


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