WEST UNITY, Ohio - If someone were to hold a contest featuring would-be inventors trying to start a business, William H. "Bill" Peters ought to be one of the judges.
In 1950, Mr. Peters tinkered in the basement of his Montpelier home, and came up with a small brass product that launched his longtime business, Manta-Ray Inc., and a slew of patented items sold internationally.
"He started making float valves for poultry watering equipment," said Marjorie Peters, his wife and business partner.
The hand-made valve opened or closed when water in a tank rose or receded.
"We still have our original customer. We've been making that thing for 56 years now," she said, noting that it's now plastic instead of brass.
But float valve sales are a tiny part of Manta-Ray these days.
The firm is in its 13th successful year of making ChildBrite sand and water tables, art easels, activity centers, totes, and storage units used by elementary schools, preschools, daycares, and churches.
"Some people think of us as a toy maker, but we don't because everything is geared to child development, not just play," Mrs. Peters said.
ChildBrite items are made by 11 plastic molding machines, a process Manta-Ray took on three decades ago, and one that nearly put the Peterses in bankruptcy.
In 1978, they moved Manta-Ray from their basement in Montpelier to a shop in West Unity. They bought an injection molding unit because machining brass parts was too labor intensive to meet demand for Mr. Peters' float valves and other inventions he was developing.
"The whole reason for our company is Bill's got a very inventive mind that doesn't have an off switch," his wife said.
But in 1984 Manta-Ray agreed to make plastic parts for an auto supplier. After buying more plastics machines, the company suddenly lost several contracts, which happens frequently in the auto supply industry.
The company survived by doing custom-molding jobs, but it was ailing. In 1993, the couple's attorney advised filing for bankruptcy.
"That's not our nature. We told him we were not going to do it," Mrs. Peters said.
In fortuitous turn, the firm took a job making parts needed by a maker of educational products. "We lost that customer, but Bill took a close look at the educational market place and we noticed that everything was all made of wood. We said, 'Why can't why do some of this out of plastic?' " Mrs. Peters said.
ChildBrite was launched and its durable plastic sand and water tables were a hit. The move took the firm from bankruptcy's brink to an estimated $3 million annual sales this year.
"ChildBrite is very good quality. It's got good value for what people are spending," said Kevin Worthington, president of Worthington Direct Inc., of Dallas, an online seller-distributor of early childhood development products.
The local firm sells the products mainly to the U.S. market, but the line also has won over customers in Canada, Puerto Rico, Germany, and England.
Manta-Ray's latest product idea is all Marjorie's.
A devotee of sewing, she designed a new Sew-Brite line of cutting and crafting tables which has attracted attention in sewing circles.
"I'm a home sewer. I love to sew, but the biggest problem is, 'Where do I cut out my patterns?' So I came up with a cutting table and they're just going really well," she said.
Contact Jon Chavez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6128.
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