With a little imagination and a lot of determination, Jason Jones turned a leaf blower and some plastic pipe into a million-dollar family business.
Jones, 22, was inspired to invent a pitching machine after his arm grew tired from hours of pitching the ball to his younger brother, Brantley, in the Joneses' backyard.
``My arm really started to ache and the idea just kind of came to me,'' Jason Jones said. ``I've always been very interested in the sciences and the arts, so sometimes it's hard for me to believe that I invented a pitching machine.''
Instead of selling the idea to a sporting goods company or contracting out the manufacturing, Jones' family used the invention to start a small blow molding company in Irmo, S.C.
Jones said his pitching machine began with surplus tubes and an old vacuum cleaner in the basement. The baseballs barely rolled out of the tube with the vacuum's force, so he used the family's leaf blower instead.
``When my brother and I first hooked the pipe into the leaf blower we had no idea that it would give the balls so much speed,'' Jones said. ``After the first ball flew through the air, I looked at Brantley and his eyes lit up. We knew we had come up with something great, right at that moment.''
Jones knew the machine was a success when his brother's friends would come over and practice swinging at balls after school.
``When I saw 15 of my brother's friends from the team using the machine, I figured that maybe it did have some potential,'' Jones said.
Jones' instinct was correct. The Stee-Rike 3 pitching machine is currently being sold in Wal-Mart stores nationwide. The company, Stee-Rike 3 Inc., made about 900,000 of the machines in 1997, bringing in sales of $1.5 million, said Jones' father, David.
From one end of the pitching machine sticks 36 inches of PVC pipe. Coming out the top is another pipe into which balls are dropped. They come together in a box that controls airflow. The machine operates when attached to a leaf or lawn blower.
David Jones, who has worked in the past in marketing and manufacturing, now works on the Stee-Rike 3 pitching machine full time.
``An invention like this doesn't become a hit over night; it takes a few years and a lot of nurturing and determination to bring it up,'' David Jones said.
David Jones said when Stee-Rike 3 came into greater demand, the family decided to manufacture all of the parts for the product. He said the operation uses PVC, high density polyethylene and linear low density PE in its one, used blow molding machine to create the machine. The family also designed and patented the mold used to make the product. The company owns a 20,000-square-foot facility with 11 employees.
The machine is produced in a single-shot ball model that costs $39.96, or an automatic version with a built-in ball shagger for $86.96. The machine produces fastballs, curves and grounders, and includes three balls. Balls can reach up to 45 feet and 35 miles per hour.
``I think the machine has become so successful because we all really worked together on this. We didn't know much about blow molding but we learned and we helped each other,'' Jason Jones said. ``Everybody in my family and a lot of our friends really pulled together to make this work.''
Jones graduated in May from the University of South Carolina. The money from the Stee-Rike 3 helped put him through college. He currently is helping with the pitching machine operation by using his graphic design abilities to create packaging for the product. He also designed a Stee-Rike 3 Web site.
``My dad handles business, my mom deals with payments, my grandpa helps design molds, and my brother is the guinea pig,'' Jones said.
``I like the fact that we are still taking care of the business all by ourselves.''