By J.F. McKenna
A business leader “engages in the act of being busy…and makes things,” Harry Beckwith writes in his new book, Unthinking: The Surprising Forces Behind What We Buy. “An entrepreneur, by contrast, engages in artistry; she makes music or something closely akin to it.”
If Beckwith is correct—and he is—Akron lays claim to the Midwest’s most successful “entrepreneurs’ colony.” Meet the Eisingers — Lee, Debby and Todd. The husband and wife and their son each engage in separate forms of artistry as business. The music they make comes from doing well by doing good.
Lee is president of The Akron Metal Etching Co. (AME), a long-established family business that specializes in design etching for the architectural world as well as the rubber and plastics industry. Wander into the Locust Street business in downtown Akron and you will also find Debby, president of HomeSense Enterprises LLC, a manufacturer of products to keep people both safe and independent in their homes.
As incontrovertible proof that entrepreneurship often has a genetic base is Todd, whose growing greeting-card business “wants to help inspire people with disabilities and their families by seeing that they can do great things.” The 29-year-old businessman incorporates his Down Syndrome into a business plan that helps “families recognize how many opportunities and great moments they will experience having a person with a developmental disability in their life.”
The Eisingers are all about championing opportunities, for themselves and for others. I knew that the minute I met Debby and her family six years ago. At that time, HomeSense Enterprises was just getting off the launch pad.
A third-generation manufacturing-craftsman, Lee had invented a device designed to shut off a stove when it is left unattended too long. Initially, he had fashioned his marvel of practical engineering solely to help his mother, who suffered with Alzheimer’s disease but wanted to stay in her own home as long as possible. Before long, Lee and Debby decided that this patented tool should be shared with a market that now includes aging adults and latchkey kids.
It didn’t take long for Debby, now president and majority owner of HomeSense Enterprises, to introduce the first generation of the product to such customers as the Columbus YWCA, the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority and Alpha Phi Alpha Homes of Akron. Today, HomeSensers can be found in 25 states and Puerto Rico.
“Most fires that take place in the home start in the kitchen, and most are caused by unattended cooking,” Debby told me during our first visit. Pleased by the peace of mind and the sense of safety the HomeSenser offered, the Eisingers soon looked to similar iterations for the gas stove and 120-volt appliances such as the coffeepot and the space heater.
All this family-focused entrepreneurship doesn’t come without market adaptation at times. “The current economy has been brutal to AME’s customer base,” Lee explains. “So in order to stay in business, we’ve sought out new markets which we could service. The trick is to find industries or applications in which you can adapt your technology to provide a look that is unique. One such area has been the architectural industry, for which we etch large panels for building facades and wall coverings with unique patterns. As far as anyone knows, we introduced the concept.”
Poet Robert Frost preaches that “good fences make good neighbors.” The Eisingers champion their successful businesses through strong family ties that reach out to the community. As I wrote in Northern Ohio Live magazine in 2006, they likewise “insist that a commitment to all members of the community is part of their business plan. Factored into that strategy is their son Todd, who helps to fashion part of the casing for each HomeSenser. Though developmentally delayed, Todd is an essential part of Team Eisinger, say his parents, who also have a son Justin and a daughter, Erin. ‘We hope to have more people like Todd working in the business in the future,’ his mother says.
“The future may arrive sooner than the Akron couple realizes. The national engineering magazine Designfax recently proclaimed that the product is ‘invented locally, produced locally and benefits globally.’ Another big boost to the business came in 2004, when Lee received the Da Vinci Award for his invention. Named for the celebrated artist, inventor, scientist and Renaissance man, the award was presented by the Engineering Society of Detroit and the Multiple Sclerosis Society Michigan Chapter. And Lee was among the 100 finalists of the first Invent Now America! competition, whose sponsors include the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron.”
Six years later, Lee still points out that invention is really plain old Midwestern problem-solving. “I’m not an engineer, but I was desperate about my mom’s living situation,” he says. “I had already been through the stores, looking for something that would work. I needed to resolve it.”
Giving a sharp twist to an oft-quoted aphorism, Debby advertises in the current HomeSense Enterprises brochure that “mother was the necessity of invention.” In supporting Todd’s new greeting-card business, Lee and Debby apply a bit of advice from famed Southern journalist Hodding Carter Jr.: “There are two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots. The other is wings.”
The Inspires 2 Aspire products and Web site — www.inspires2aspire.com — are Todd’s own. But the entrepreneurial pedigree cannot be denied. Todd’s cards, featuring photos of the owner-entrepreneur, bespeak trying one’s best, never giving up and sharing with the world.
“Inspires 2 Aspire became a reality with the assistance of the Summit DD Community Employment Services Micro-Enterprise Grant Program,” the Web site says. “We are also supporting others by hiring staff with disabilities and sharing a portion of our profits with organizations that support individuals with developmental disabilities.”
The cards offered by Todd’s company are especially encouraging to those whose families are faced with the very real challenges that Lee and Debby first faced when Todd was born in 1982. “If you need to send a card to someone, but are at a loss for words, let us help,” the site says. “A family facing an uncertain future is looking for encouragement and support. They need congratulations on the birth of their baby and a glance at the possibilities ahead for their future. We want to share the realities instead of the fears.”
Following his parents’ lead, Todd is always busy growing his business. His cards can be found at the Locust Street office, Hattie’s Café in Hudson and Weaver Gift Gallery locations in Greater Akron. He also keeps a lively social schedule. On August 20, Todd will serve as honorary chairman of the NEO Buddy Walk at Progressive Field. He is soliciting 1,000 “supporter signatures” for the Inspires 2 Aspire team that will participate at the event. (For more information, go to Todd’s Web site or the event Web site, www.theupsideofdowns.org .)
And Todd is equally generous when it comes to sharing business insights. Especially if the discussion takes place over cheeseburgers at lunchtime.
What advice does he have for new entrepreneurs?
The president of Inspires 2 Aspire cranks up his best businessman’s smile and says, “Show me the money!”
J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications specialist. Reach him at email@example.com .