Do you remember any plastic toys that you loved as a child that aren't available anymore? Tim Maday, a fire inspector in Kentwood, Mich., did -- and his story provides an interesting lesson in how plastics companies can get in the proprietary product business. His story, from the Grand Rapids Press, tells how Maday stumbled across a business opportunity because he wanted to buy a plastic firefighter's hat for his son. The versions he found for sale today were too flimsy, but he eventually found one he wanted on eBay -- a novelty helmet that Texaco gas stations sold for $3.98 each back in the mid-1960s. Maday fell in love with the old helmet, and he decided that others might want to buy one too. He decided to get into the plastic toy helmet business.
A price quote to build a tool that could produce a fire helmet mold proved too costly. Instead, Maday tracked down one of the original Texaco hat manufacturers, Park Plastics Co. of New Jersey, and bought a mold with money borrowed from relatives. He created custom stickers for the shield on the front of the hats, which are molded at RKC&A Plastics in Wyoming, [Mich.], and his son developed a Web site. Four years later, Fire Chief Products LLC has sold more than 3,000 novelty helmets through oldfirehat.com. A pink helmet is one of the most popular, and orders for a green one with a "Firefightin' Irish" shield surge around St. Patrick's Day. "It was word of mouth and it's really taken off," said Maday, 50, who assembles the helmets and affixes the stickers in his basement. "I get a lot of antique fire truck buffs that buy them."Maday sells the hats for $18.50 to $39.95, plus shipping. Using a conservative estimate of $18.50 each, that means he's had sales of at least $55,500 in four years. It's not a huge business, but it shows the potential for molders willing to invest a bit in an old tool and a low-cost Web site to sell a niche product at a premium price.