By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Jeff McCaleb has sold cars for more than 40 years, but the latest product he’s selling has no wheels at all.
It’s a funnel, but not just any funnel.
McCaleb calls his invention the MultiFunnel. As its name suggests, it can be used for a variety of purposes. And at a recent trade show in Indianapolis, it was the big new hit.
“I’ve never invented anything before,” McCaleb said. “We were surprised.”
His inspiration for the MultiFunnel came from a water bottle and a refrigerator.
McCaleb, a co-owner of Mid South Auto Sales in Tupelo, noticed refillable water bottles didn’t fit at the water dispenser of his refrigerator. Filling the bottle meant tipping it an angle, which could lead to a mess – and the bottle wasn’t completely filled.
So, McCaleb thought, why not design something to serve as a funnel to solve that problem.
Now, 2 1⁄2 years later, McCaleb, along with his business partner Stacy Simmons and other associates, have what they think is a potential hit in the MultiFunnel.
Designed and made in the U.S., the MultiFunnel isn’t anything like the traditional round cones people are accustomed to seeing. Instead, its shape is reminiscent of a modified high-heeled shoe. Made from a hard, durable plastic, the MultiFunnel, unlike traditional funnels, also can lay flat on many surfaces, allowing hands-free use.
“It can withstand 75 pounds of pressure and it takes four minutes to overflow,” McCaleb added.
Brian Vonderheide, Mid South’s general manager, has been deeply involved in the project. The buzz generated at the trade show, along with comments from people who have been given free samples, has excited the makers.
“We sell cars, so this is something totally different,” he said.
Despite their unfamiliarity with selling – much less designing, manufacturing and marketing – a non-automotive product, the men have endured a grueling process to bring the MultiFunnel to market.
“The patenting process took 18 to 20 months alone, “ Vonderheide said. “Once we got that done, we looked at where we could manufacture it.”
They scoured the country to find a manufacturer and found one in Pickwick, Tenn.
“We were told we could save some money building in China, but that meant we couldn’t see it being made and we couldn’t talk to them easily,” McCaleb said. “Doing that was very important. I can be at the plant in about an hour and a half.”
Said Vonderheide, “Jeff made it clear he wasn’t going to do it if it was going to be made outside of the U.S. So now we have a product designed in the U.S., made in the U.S., by a U.S. workforce.”
The MultiFunnel originally was targeted to be used in the kitchen. Refilling water bottles was just the start.
“You can pour milk, oil, baby formula … whatever you have in the kitchen,” he said.
Focus groups also found uses for the MultiFunnel outside the kitchen.
They used it to fill lawn mower and other power equipment gas and oil tanks. They used it under the hood of cars and trucks. That version is called MultiFunnel II. It’s the same funnel, only a different color to differentiate between indoor and outdoor use.
At the Dealer Expo in Indianapolis geared toward power sports – ATVs, UTVs, snowmobiles, for example – the MultiFunnel garnered many inquiries.
“We had 600 interested parties in three days,” Vonderheide said, “from small local shops to big town dealers.”
Among them were three major oil companies and a major manufacturer whom the men declined to reveal since potential deals could be made with them.
“We had people from New Zealand, Mexico, Canada, Italy and the Netherlands looking,” Vonderheide said. “And we’ve gotten an order from a company that’s putting the MultiFunnel in a catalog that goes out to 2,500 dealers.”
The Indianapolis power sports show is just the beginning, however.
The MultiFunnel team, which also includes Tracey Sheffield Morton, the marketing director, is going to heavily promote its product. They’ll attend the International Motorcycle Show next month in Daytona and they’re looking at going to a housewares trade show.
So how much does the MultiFunnel cost? Only $7 each.
McCaleb and his business partners are targeting the wholesale market, so a retailer down the distribution chain could potentially ask for more.
Also, in an agreement with Hancock Fabrics, MultiFunnel is shipped from the Baldwyn-based craft and fabric retailer’s warehouse.
In Tupelo, Scruggs Farm Lawn & Garden has the MultiFunnel available.
“We’ve got 40,000 ready to ship now and we can easily make more,” McCaleb said. “We think this could be big, but we’ll see.”