David Jennings knows something about building a manufacturing company.
He and five partners built Advanced Lighting Technologies from a startup inside the basement of a 100-year-old farmhouse in Ohio, and turned it into a corporate giant with 1,500 employees and $100 million in annual sales. Together, they took Advanced Lighting public in 1995, raising $29 million in an initial offering and another $38 million in a secondary offering eight months later.
By the time he left in 1998 as president of Advanced Lighting, the company's annual sales of metal halide bulbs reached $185 million. Jennings and his wife, Elizabeth Sotz, an electrical engineer with General Electric, retired to Fort Myers. “We looked all over and as far as Hawaii,” Jennings says of his experience seeking a retirement home. “This is the best area in the world to be.”
For several years, Jennings and Sotz did what retirees are supposed to do: they traveled and enjoyed life after years of hard work. They indulged in their passion for all things Disney. “Our northern home is Celebration,” Jennings says, referring to the town Disney built near Orlando.
But Jennings had a knee operation in January 2009 and couldn't find medical equipment that would keep his bed covers from pressing against his sore leg. So the engineer tinkered with plastic pipe and created what he now calls My Comfy Blanket Lifter, a device that keeps bedcovers from pressing against your legs with an insulating cover that stops wind drafts.
The blanket lifter proved to be so helpful that Jennings decided to form a company called Advanced Comfort to manufacture the device, which now has a patent pending. Jennings estimates the market has 30 million people who suffer from a wide variety of ailments of the limbs, including bedsores, pressure ulcers, arthritis, neuropathy, plantar fasciitis, fibromyalgia and orthopedic injuries.
Jennings and Sotz spent $250,000 of their savings to lease 6,000 square feet of manufacturing space in Fort Myers. They engineered and built most of the 19 machines that employees use to make the blanket lifters. “We wanted to create jobs here,” Jennings says. He's the CEO and she's the president of the company.
Advanced Comfort just started selling the blanket lifter a month ago (it costs $100), so there's only one other employee now. But the facility was designed to accommodate 25 workers.
While they built their own manufacturing equipment to suit their needs, they also bought sewing machines from Robb & Stucky, the furniture retailer that went bankrupt. Jennings scoured for aluminum at Garden Street Iron & Metal, a scrap yard in Fort Myers, and retrieved useful pieces that were discarded by a boatlift manufacturer. “We had to get creative; it made it fun,” he says.
Jennings says he's proud of the fact that the couple has been able to start the company without outside financing, and he expects the company to grow using cash flow from operations. “We had a line of credit and we gave it back,” he says with a chuckle. “We'll grow as we can afford to grow.”
Jennings says the blanket lifter is the first of what will be more comfort-related items. He says women over the age of 50 control 80% of the country's wealth, and research shows that they seek out comfort-related items, from clothes to bedding. “This is the tip of the iceberg,” Jennings says. He's acquired 72 Web domain names with the words “My Comfy.”
While he enjoyed retirement, Jennings says he's excited about working again. “I'm not going to lie to you; I'd love to go on a cruise,” he says. But, he says: “The excitement of it is rejuvenating; I'm really passionate.”