Inventing a niche

By 

Steve Wartenberg

The Columbus Dispatch

Sunday June 10, 2012 6:39 AM

The washing machines aren’t the only things agitated at Staber Industries.

William Staber, 54, is president of the Groveport company that has made its own line of washers for almost 20 years.

And he’s often ticked off, angered by what he views as unfair competition from foreign companies, excessive government regulations and a dearth of incentives for small businesses.

But what really annoys Staber is his iron-clad belief that he and his brother, James II, the company’s vice president, produce a better-built and more-efficient washing machine than their competitors — and yet it’s never really caught on with the public.

About 7.6 million washing machines were sold in the United States in 2011, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

Since 1993, Staber has produced and sold 17,530 washing machines.

In other words, the company is a speck in the lint bins of Whirlpool, Maytag and General Electric.

By comparison, Whirlpool produces about 870,000 washing machines a year at its plant in Clyde, Ohio.

“We thought we’d invent a better mousetrap, get an 800 number and we’d be on easy street,” William Staber said.

Instead, they’re on Homer Ohio Lane, cranking out the only U.S. made top-loading, horizontal-axis washing machine (more on exactly what this means later) — and using their inventiveness to diversify and take advantage of emerging opportunities to keep their business going

Their latest ventures are energy-efficient, metal drying cabinets for clothes and machines that shoot out tennis balls to help players practice and learn the sport.

Fueled by equal parts anger and determination, William Staber continues to pursue his company’s specialty, which he calls “bending metal.”

“In order to fix this (economic) mess we’re in, we have to start making things here (in this country) again,” he said.

The brothers say they get their grit and entrepreneurial ways from their father, James, a B17 pilot in World War II. He passed away in 2003.

“He bombed the crap out of Germany in the war and then came back here and returned to farming,” said the younger James, 63.

The senior Staber bought a local business in 1976 that remanufactured the worn-out transmissions of Laundromat washing machines. He renamed it Staber Industries.

By the late 1980s, this once-lucrative business was sliding into oblivion.

“The design of washers hadn’t changed since the ‘50s,” William Staber said. “Then they began to redesign them, and you couldn’t take them apart anymore. They became disposable.”

The Stabers had been tinkering with washing machines for years, knew them inside and out, and had a back-up plan.

“We saw all the problems with the other designs and said, let’s design our own washer,” William Staber. “It was a lot of fun to design it and watch it appear before our eyes.”

The Staber washing machine’s sturdy design features the ease of a top-loading washer with the efficiency of a horizontal-axis machine. It’s also easy to remove the front panel and get into the guts of the machine, which can help owners save money if a new belt is needed.

“This way you can do it yourself,” William Staber said. “It can cost $100 just to have a repairman walk in the door to look at a washer.”

The horizontal axis refers to the way the washer’s tub spins, which is around a spindle that extends horizontally from the back of the machine, rather than from a vertical spindle on the bottom.

These days, many of the washing machines sold in the United States are horizontal-axis machines – but they load from the front.

Staber washers range in price from $1,299 to $1,899. By comparison, front-loading Whirlpool models run from about $799 to $1,199.

The Stabers say their machine uses about 15 gallons of water per load, about a third of what a conventional washer uses. It also uses 75 percent less detergent, less electricity and spins out more water, which in turns cuts dryer time.

All of this adds up to savings of about $300 a year based on eight loads a week.

“The problem is getting the word out,” William Staber said.

The Stabers can’t produce the inventory needed to get into the big-box sores, they say, and attempts to partner with Montgomery Ward years ago never panned out. Instead, Staber washers are sold over the Internet and by phone, and they also rely on word-of-mouth endorsements from customers.

Another problem the Stabers face is most people buy a new washer the day after their old one breaks down.

“They drive out to the big-box stores and buy one,” William Staber said.

You can’t do that if you want a Staber machine. Delivery takes about four weeks.

“We’ve carved out a niche, and we’re very proud of it,” James Staber said, adding this niche is for consumers who want the ease of a top-loading machine, combined with the efficiency of a horizontal-axis washer and don’t mind doing a little repair work themselves.

“It’s very rewarding and very rarely do we get an inquiry or call from someone who says they have a problem with their machine,” he said.

The Staber washer has a 3.5 (out of 5) rating from Consumer Reports, and the company has an A-minus rating from the Better Business Bureau, with no unresolved complaints.

While the Stabers are determined to keep manufacturing washers, they know they have to diversify to survive.

“There’s not a lot of companies that can turn around on a dime,” said sales manager Brad Long. “We may be small, but we can design something new real quick and get it out there.”

That’s what happened with their drying cabinets.

“The dry-cleaning industry is changing and they can’t use the chemicals they used to use,” Long said, adding this means more wet cleaning and the need for dryers. “So, it’s all about energy costs for them, and our product is much more efficient than (a conventional tumble) dryer.”

Another potential market is fire departments.

The fire-retardant chemicals in the uniforms of firefighters can break down in a regular, tumble dryer, Long said.

To continue the company’s diversifications, the Stabers recently purchased Master Sport, a floundering Indiana company that made tennis ball machines. They changed the name to Match Mate.

The company is in the midst of rolling out a new model called Quickstart to take advantage of an initiative of the QuickStart program of the United States Tennis Association to encourage children 10-and-under to take up the game.

The association’s QuickStart program features smaller-than-regulation courts and larger racquets and balls. The bigger balls will not fit into existing tennis ball machines, creating the need for new machines.

“We think this is very promising,” William Staber said.

He also thinks the drying cabinets have a lot of potential, and he remains convinced washer sales will take off.

“Yeah, it’s been a struggle,” Staber said of the past couple of decades and the constant battle to keep the family business going. “But the only thing I’ve ever done is make stuff. You get up in the morning and press on and figure out a way to get to the finish line.”

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