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April 29, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Caldwell has enjoyed an extra 70,000 hours to invent things

Dalen Products(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series on Knoxville’s Neal Caldwell.)

Imagine what impact you could make if you had an additional 70,000 plus hours in your life because you only slept four hours a night.

Knoxville business executive and inventor Neal Caldwell knows how an inveterate inventor can use that time to build a solid business and now turn his attentions to the need for pure, clean water in Third World Countries.

We sat down recently with the high-energy octogenarian at his family-owned company – Dalen Products, Inc. During a whirlwind interview and tour of the production floor and warehouse, we also had a chance to see where Caldwell works on TivaWater, his current endeavor to allow families in places like Uganda have access to up to 10 gallons of pure water a day.

Caldwell is a soft-spoken individual who can laugh at himself, but has clearly been driven by a passion to make a difference in his community, for his family, and for society in general.

“I have not missed a day of work from sickness in the last 45 years,” he says, proudly adding that he takes no prescription medications, a fact that he attributes to his wife’s interest in nutrition. “I generally sleep four hours a night – 4 to 8 a.m.”

Caldwell says he was a Design Engineer at Robertshaw Controls in Knoxville in 1964. He was also serving as Knox County Campaign Manager for Barry Goldwater who was the Republican nominee for President.

“My boss would not let me do any of the campaign work on company time, so I had to do it at night,” he explained. This was the catalyst that caused Caldwell to learn how to survive on only four hours sleep a night so he could do both jobs.

“It took three weeks to adjust,” Caldwell said, adding that “being on that schedule allowed me to do several things.” One of those “things” was working at Robertshaw during the day and devoting five years to literally building the family home on eight acres he bought in HardinValley. He did all of the work, except for the carpenters who got it under roof, for an expenditure of $15,000. Caldwell says the toughest challenge was building the kitchen cabinets.

“I was accustomed to working 16 hours a day, so I did not know what came next,” he said about 1975 when he started Dalen.

During his years at Robertshaw, Caldwell was able to practice his skills as an inventor. He had designed a central controller that competed with the industry leader on two important measures. It was one-third the size and one-third the cost.

“I was so impressed with myself,” he laughingly said. The “bug” to be an inventor and “put them (his inventions) to work for me” was born. Caldwell came close to leaving Robertshaw, but struck a deal to work eight hours for the company and pursue his own ideas with the understanding that he owned the intellectual property he created on his own time.

One of those ideas was an automatic ventilation cold frame, a need that he understood since gardening was a hobby. Caldwell convinced George Park Seed Company to sign an exclusive deal with him for 2,500 of the devices, and he was off to the races.

“I made $10,000 in the first year and lost $10,000 the second year,” Caldwell admitted. He and Dalen have been profitable every year since then.

Dalen’s products range from an inflatable snake that scares birds away from cherry trees to three types of owls, including two with moveable heads that customers purchase to scare away Canadian Geese. One of the owls has a head that is moved by the wind, while the other has a solar-powered head.

“We’ve sold seven million of the hard-bodied owls, more than the number of pink flamingos sold,” Caldwell says with a wry sense of humor.

Dalen sells a significant percentage of its products through Wal-Mart, including a landscape fabric that was uniquely impermeable to weeds but permeable to air and water.

Caldwell also related the story of a product he had no interest in producing and for two years declined a request to do so. It was bird netting, something that he did not find particularly intriguing and a product that was already dominated by another company.

During his third-year effort, the persistent sales representative said, “Mr. Caldwell, with all due respect, for an innovative man, you are about as stupid as they come.”

Caldwell relented, decided that packaging was the key, and soon captured 80 percent of the market.

For the last three years, Caldwell has been focused on what is clearly a passion for him – pure water. That effort is the subject of the second article in the series.