1970 was a banner year. All was right with the world. The Droll Yankees annual meeting with twelve people attending was held at the house in Barrington. As had become the custom, copious quantities of cheese and crackers and Old Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours were consumed.
To add to the festive spirit, my father informed us, “Famous people from many lands bought feeders. One day Baron Rothschild and John Nicholas Brown stopped in to buy some after seeing one at Clare Booth Luce’s in Hawaii. The Baron asked me to visit him in Paris, but the great pile of Nitty-Gritty has prevented me from accepting his invitation.”
He might have been thinking about his early days in Boston designing avant-garde furniture for the great families of New York and Boston. He was again the great designer whose humble house would be a destination for the Old Money.
He went on to say, “In 1970 Droll Yankees moved into a sound position financially and could have paid off all of its liabilities and had more than $4,000 left over. Cash was retained, however, to pay approximately $10,000 in taxes which will be due in 1971 and $5,630 due Stedman Amory of Johnny Appleseed’s as return on his venture capital investment in the bird feeder. He will probably receive $40,000 return on his investment of $8,000 by the time his account is settled. It must be remembered that without his investment the bird feeder might never have gotten off the ground.”
Dorothy Kilham was named corporate secretary and reported that just a year after it was introduced, the A-6 bird feeder sales had reached 32,640 units for the year. She added that correspondence and other paperwork had become overwhelming.
My father took another dive into consumer psychology, quoting Forbes magazine: “The American consumers are polarizing their buying styles, with preference for tip-top prestige or rock-bottom pricing.”
To capitalize on this insight, he announced his plans to develop a new bird feeder, the B-7: “It would have the same geometry as the A-6 but be taller and greater diameter. It holds a lot more seed. Since this is in the tip-top prestige class, we can set the price for a $3.00 profit instead of the $1.00 profit we make from the A-6.”
The B-7 as introduced to the bird world the following year. It was promoted as only needing to be filled every three days instead of every day. Schieren Associates, Peter’s distributor, showed it at the Chicago Gift Show and reported that it was a great hit. Schieren estimated sales of 20,000 B-7s per year.
My father said to me, “See how just adding a different size version of your product can make such a great difference in sales and profits?”
“What about the sales of the A-6?” I asked.
“Its sales continue to increase so the sales of one model of the feeder does not cannibalize the sales of an apparently similar model.”
My father always disclaimed any sophistication in business, but I never was aware any of his sophisticated businessman board members offering many insights like this.
He thought for a moment, a little remorsefully, it seemed to me. He went on, “The record sales are decreasing. Perhaps we haven’t given them enough attention.”
The records, of course, were what got Droll Yankees rolling and they engaged the attention and support of Alan Bemis and John Chafee. They were friends and advisors through thick and thin.
The sounds of nature records were probably my father’s defining artistic achievement particularly since he always considered himself to be an artist. And they built the starting customer base for the feeders business.
Now the question was, how would he divide his time and company resources between the records and the feeders?
My father answered that question unexpectedly one day by showing me a new feeder prototype. It looked like a plastic flying saucer that was suspended by a rod in its center. The basic shell was clear Lexan about seven inches in diameter and two inches thick. Spaced around the top edge were three red discs with petals. They were over an inch in diameter and had one quarter inch holes in their centers. The flying saucer with the red flowers was aimed squarely at the hummingbirds. These tiny birds could consume immense quantities of sugar water nectar. Later models would have seven and eight feeder holes.
There was a lot of interest for this feeder in the Southwest where hummingbirds are very common. I gave him the contact information for people I knew around Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I was born and spent time with my mother when she moved back there. My father sent samples to Arizona and New Mexico, and they were declared to be the best if not the only real hummingbird feeder yet. Five hundred and forty were sold in the first year. He received a patent for the feeder in 1975.
Peter pressed forward with new product developments. He started working with James Baird of the Audubon Society to publish a bird guide. Nothing came of that.
Then he started working on a weed killer kit. Little biodegradable plastic cups were to be pounded over lawn weeds to kill them because sun and water would be blocked out. These cups were over an inch in diameter and an inch deep with a sharp tooth edge. A wooden mallet was supplied with the kit to pound them in. The priority target weed—at least the one my father experimented on—was the bright yellow dandelion, ubiquitous all over North America and Europe.
He received a design patent for the weed killer in 1975 but abandoned the product. Probably his distributors, who had good instincts for judging the potential success of a new product, showed little interest.
Meanwhile, John Chafee, who had been a director or officer of Droll Yankees from the beginning, was elected chairman and legal counsel. He was between posts in Washington as Secretary of the Navy and later, Senator from Rhode Island.
In 1973, Peter bought back my Droll Yankees stock and all other small shareholders stock for $20 a share. This was twice what I paid him for my shares in the dark days of 1964. I assumed then that the money was forever gone in the name of supporting a worthy cause. Actually, it mounted to an 8% annual return on my investment which was better than most other alternatives at the time.
But in a sense, I felt hurt. In 1964 I was still a student, supporting my starving inventor father, and now I’m being shown out of the inner circle. Later in business, I would learn that there could be legal reasons for this—such as consolidating his estate—but if that was the case, he should have explained it to me. This was his way. He didn’t mean any harm—he probably thought he was helping me by increasing my cash—but he didn’t empathize. He didn’t probe about my thoughts and feelings.
Maybe he did feel something. He invited me to a walk on the nearby beach. It was in the early spring before the sunbathers were out. Gulls were flapping around picking up scraps and squawking for no apparent reason. A lone fishing boat was setting out.
My father stopped and looked at a collection of trash spewed over the beach. “Just look at that—all those plastic plates and cups. Can’t people find a trash can? If Dorothy saw that, she’d harass the mayor until he sent someone to pick it all up. Now you’re a management consultant to big corporations—including one making disposable plastic foodware—why don’t you have them provide means for recycling their plastics?”
I was stuck. I didn’t know what to say. My client didn’t ask me to address this issue and, for the sake of good relations, I didn’t to bring the issue up with him.
Then inspiration struck. “Why don’t you give me at least a half-dozen of the A-6 feeders and I will give them to executives of my clients? This will be a positive way to make them more environmentally conscious.”
I presented the feeders to my clients. My senior client contact at the disposable plastics company fell in love with his feeder. He was so pleased he ordered feeders for his associates and friends.
But I think my father was also telling me something else. Peter and Dorothy did not enjoy Providence as an urban experience. He called it a “backwater” and worse. It was an archetypal New England industrial city that had lost much of its industry but not the hulking industrial buildings and dilapidated neighborhoods. The once-thriving textile, jewelry, and machinery industries were moving to the south or overseas. Corruption was rife.
They moved to Barrington, a suburb on the bay, which was nice but was losing some of its class as demonstrated by the beach trash. Barrington was convenient, however, to my father’s contacts in Providence and it was the best that he and Dorothy could afford. He was hoping to meet more interesting people but was disappointed.
As an inventor seeking perfection, Peter Kilham ultimately would not be happy until he found an environment that was natural and uncontaminated. A place with lots of birds, trees, and other delights of nature. Something like he remembered at his family’s summer place in New Hampshire.
Moving to Barrington was a good idea at the time, but I sensed that Peter and Dorothy were restless. They were taking country drives on nice days.
Larry Kilham is an award-winning author who has traveled extensively overseas for over twenty years. He worked in several large international companies and started and sold two high-tech ventures. Larry has written books about creativity and invention, artificial intelligence and digital media, travel overseas, and four novels with an AI theme. He looks forward to hearing from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.