At Last - A Multi-Purpose Paint

Kiplinger's Personal Finance, helmikuu 1950

Answer to a question starts a business

A question he couldn't get out of his mind - "Why shouldn't there be one kind of paint that you could use on everything?" - started Frank E. Felt on the road to having a manufacturing business of his own. But 12 years and a lot of work elapsed before Felt found the answer to his question and thereby acquired the business.

At the time the question started nagging at Felt, he was only four years out of Brown University and was running a small paint store in Winchester, Mass. He could not see any sense in forcing people to buy one kind of paint for walls, another kind for floors, another kind for metals, and a still different kind of material - shellac or varnish - for finishing wood surfaces. But no multi-purpose paint existed.

Felt decided to invent one. It was a bold decison. He was an engineer, not a chemist. He had no laboratory, no particular know-how in compounding paint, and no capital. He had to make a living while experimenting.

So he sold his not-too-prosperous paint store and took a job with E. B. Badger & Sons Co., of Boston, construction engineers. In his spare time he worked at his paint idea. He spent hundreds of hours in libraries reading everything on the subject. He took courses, including one in paint technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research convinced Felt that if there was to be one coating that would stick to everything, it would have to be made from a new formula. That brought him to the use of a rubber base with a petroleum solvent rather than lead with oil.

When he started compounding rubber paints, Felt submitted them to large industrial laboratories for testing. The laboratories were interested and glad to work out particular problems for him. Among those which helped were Hercules Powder Co., American Cyanamid Co., Monsanto Chemical Co., Shell Union Oil Corp., and Esso Standard Oil Co.

At the end of the war Felt quit his job in order to spend full time on the final stages. By 1948 the chief problem was one of setting up and financing a business to manufacture and sell the new product.

Felt persuaded Frank V. Widger, head of the asphalt department of the Texas Co., to join him. Widger had been in the asphalt business for more than 30 years, and his experience was valuable. He supplied the capital for a small factory in Detroit. When that plant was damaged by fire, it was decided to move operations to Alexandria, Va., where Felt has his home.

The partners did some further work on their formula, and by 1949 their tests showed that they had a coating which could be used on any kind of material for all purposes and which also had some other remarkable qualities. They called it "Prolac."

Clear and uncolored, Prolac serves all the purposes of a shellac. It is waterproof, and you can even spill alcohol on a surface covered with it without making a white mark. It is impervious to acids.

With "ground-in" rubber colors added, Prolac becomes a "paint." It dries in 20 minutes. It doesn't face, chip or crack. Some test panels which have been exposed at the Hercules laboratories for 76 months show no signs of wear.

One thing about Prolac appeals to the amateur is that it leaves no brush marks. An Alexandria garage owner who has been using it on his concrete floors puts it on with an ordinary push broom.

A manufacturer of caddie arts, the little contricances golfers use to save their backs, cut two hours from his manufacturing time by using quick-drying Proclac. An Alexandria iron manufacturer is using it instead of the traditional red lead to protect girders.

The materials that go into Prolac cost more than lead and oil. Therefore to keep the price of the product down, economies have to be made in various ways. One competitive advantage is that no elaborate factory is necessary. The Felt-Widger plant consists of a large mixer and a lot of metal drums. That's about all.

A cut in costs is achieved by inexpensive distribution. Prolac is not sold through regular retail channels. The two partners sell direct to the consumer. In the present stage, that means individually drumming up customers, calling on the garage man, talking to the housewife who wants to paint her kitchen, demonstrating the use of Prolac to the dairy which has had trouble with the effects of lactic acid on painted surfaces.

Felt and Wigder, now incorporated under the name Widger Products Corp., expect to expand and set up dealers in other parts of the country. All about all a dealer need is a place big enough to store drums of Prolac and space for canning it in smaller containers.

So far, the Felt-Widger business is very small. Returns in the first year did not wide pout development expenses. After the partners tooks modest salaries, all other profits were plowed back into the business. But Felt and Widger confidently expect a prosperous future. The question Felt asked 12 years ago, and finally answered, promises to pay off.

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