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October 11, 2018 | Tom Ballard

Knoxville company punches its ticket in Walmart’s “open call” program

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

A Knoxville company punched its ticket recently when it was among the winners in Walmart’s annual “Open Call” event. Now in its fifth year, the initiative is a way to offer new and innovative products that are made in America to the retail giant’s customers.

For Bill and Dinah Vogel, working with a company of Walmart’s size was nothing new. They already had the number one selling product in their consumer products category on Amazon. Now, they are gearing-up to handle a considerably higher volume as a result of securing a contract for The Cumberland Companies and one of its products that will appear on Walmart shelves around the first of 2019.

In achieving the contract, the husband and wife team will be relying, at least in part, on individuals at Knoxville’s Sunshine Industries that provides opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

“They make all of our products now,” Bill Vogel told us in a recent interview. Those products include five versions of the “Shave Well” fog-free mirror, which is the item being provided to Walmart, three versions of the “TidyTots” potty chair liner, and “TidyCare” commode liners.

“It’s heartwarming for us,” Dinah Vogel said. “We grew with them,” a reference to about 10 individuals at Sunshine Industries who work assembling the components and packaging them. The Vogels source the individual materials. They hope to meet much of the Walmart contract by continuing to engage with Sunshine Industries, but the demand could require other suppliers.

There’s also a personal side to the story. While not intellectually disabled, their youngest son is confined to a wheelchair as a result of Spinal Muscular Atrophy, so helping disabled individuals is clearly a passion they share.

The Vogels arrived in Knoxville in 2003 when Bill was transferred here by Morgan Stanley. He’s a native of Kansas City, while Dinah grew-up in Nashville. They met in Texas after college. When they were presented with another relocation decision in 2009, they elected to stay here.

They looked at several opportunities and got close to buying a business before walking away. “Neither one of us wanted to manage people,” Bill said. At the same time, they both had an interest in consumer products.

“We had no idea what we were doing when we started,” Dinah laughingly says. Yet, from a start with two products – the initial shower shaving mirror and the liners to assist in baby potty training, they have grown to 11 SKUs across the three brands.

“We were one of the top 25 percent of all Amazon sellers by Christmas 2012,” Bill says, citing the fog-free shaving mirror. “We were able to become relevant on Amazon when it was easier.”

What’s the key to their success in the highly competitive consumer products sector?

It starts with a division of responsibilities. “We have different strengths,” Dinah says. She’s described as the creative person, focused on packaging and new product development. Bill runs the day-to-day operations including supply chain and distribution.

“We have found a niche for ourselves,” Bill says. “We didn’t invent any of these categories. What we did was come into them at the value part of the space.”

For now, meeting the contract to ensure the shaving mirror is to Walmart’s aggregator by early December is top priority. After all, there are 3,800 Walmart stores to stock. Once they have met that challenge, the Vogels say they have a few other products in mind.

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