Nottingham-Spirk creates the kind of innovative, but practical consumer products loved by customers, as well as the largest corporations in the world.
Consider the paint can.
The paint can was ignored for a century. It was round, metal and messy with a lid you needed to pry off with a screwdriver. That was until Nottingham-Spirk Design Associates invented a plastic paint container with a pouring spout and a screw-top lid. Common sense? Maybe, but why did it take more than 100 years to make it better?
Now think about the electric toothbrush. The first electric toothbrushes were released in the United States in the 1960s, but due to the hefty price tag and lackluster performance, nobody purchased them until 2001 when Nottingham-Spirk created an electric toothbrush that cleaned teeth better and cost less than five bucks. The oral care device market now charts at $2 billion a year. Those products, in addition to improvements to the milk jug, the vacuum cleaner, the Christmas tree stand, are just a few of the 460 U.S. patents John Nottingham points out in his University Circle headquarters’ rotunda of patents. Stacked to the ceiling, little two-by-four inch gold plaques cover two-thirds of the wall, each with a small, etched product schematic, description and patent number. Through the doorway is a photo and five rare signatures encased in glass of that other prolific inventor: Thomas Edison.
“His record is 1,093,” says Nottingham, a tall, slim ebullient Midwesterner with a wide grin. “We’re closing in on his record.”
Nottingham, 56, John Spirk, 57, and their staff of 70 inventors create innovative, yet inexpensive consumer and business products, which are often sold to companies such as Proctor & Gamble, The Sherwin-Williams Co. and Hasbro as spin-offs. They have generated more than $30 billion in revenue for their clients. Those kinds of sales get the attention of CEOs, all of whom want shelf space at Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot, retailers where you will find dozens of Nottingham-Spirk designs. The duo invents these products not just because they are “cool,” (an adjective you will hear from them frequently), but because they are priced to sell — by the millions.
“We don’t even do a product unless the price point is going to be right,” says Nottingham. “Most other people design something and see how much it will cost. That’s the opposite way of doing it.”
That kind of practical innovation has helped grow the design firm every year since it was founded in 1972. The growth nurtures new products and fresh ideas, much to the benefit of Nottingham-Spirk, and to perhaps establish Northeast Ohio as a consumer-product design hot spot.
“Innovation today is the key competency that American companies have to have to beat competitors,” Nottingham says. “It’s not low-cost manufacturing, it’s innovation. The company that innovates is the one that succeeds today.”
Ever heard U2 played through a church pipe organ? At Nottingham-Spirk, located in the renovated First Church of Christ Scientist (see “Divine Inspiration” sidebar), you can. With a few mouse clicks, Nottingham-Spirk’s creative staff, a crew of early 30s and younger art school graduates, who work in the former main sanctuary, can play any song through the organ. But it also has other benefits. Last year when a British executive from one of Nottingham-Spirk’s corporate clients came to visit the firm, Nottingham programmed “Rule Britannia” to play during the executive’s tour. Tears welled up in the man’s eyes.
“When we purchased the building, they asked if we wanted the organ because they were going to sell it,” Nottingham says. “We said, ‘No, hold on! Time out! We definitely are going to want the organ.’”
Nottingham-Spirk’s $15 million, 60,000-square-foot headquarters exemplifies what the firm does best: making the extraordinary out of the ordinary, finding beauty and quality and improving on it.
Down the main circular corridor, Nottingham points to one of the hundreds of products displayed on the walls, like a retail hall of fame. This product, released this year by $49.7 billion consumer products giant Unilever, is called the Dove Skin Vitalizer, a handheld facial cleansing device. Next to that is a new baking soda refrigerator-deodorizing product for Arm & Hammer, which automatically informs the consumer when it expires.
“The problem with baking soda is people forget about it,” Nottingham says. “This does two things: You mount it inside your refrigerator with a suction cup, therefore you always see it. The second is it’s less baking soda, so it’s actually costing them less, but they make more money on it because it has a little replacement indicator. It’s built in obsolescence.”
Although products like these are often requested by Nottingham-Spirk’s corporate clients, it wasn’t always this easy for them to land assignments from some of the largest companies in the world. In 1972, fresh out of the Cleveland Institute of Art, where the duo’s friendship began, Nottingham and Spirk toured Europe, spending less than $5 a day for food, drink and lodging, while meeting with designers and soaking up as much of the culture the two Pittsburgh-area natives could absorb for a summer.
While most of their classmates settled in the art meccas of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the duo returned to University Circle to launch their design firm as co-presidents, which are titles they still hold today. With no roots in Northeast Ohio or venture capitalists to back their endeavor, Nottingham and Spirk split the region in two and hit the streets to stir up clients. Spirk took the East Side; Nottingham covered the West. Spirk, the more soft-spoken of the two, but equally as confident, landed their first client, toymaker Little Tikes, only two years after Tom Murdough founded the company and at the time had $1 million in annual sales. (Little Tikes was sold last year to MGA Entertainment for $250 million.)
“It’s easy to get into these places when they’re small,” Spirk says. “Also, after 35 years it’s much easier to get into companies and get their attention. Because due to the things we’ve done and the differences we’ve made in key markets, it gets their attention.”
After designing several popular toys for Little Tikes, another customer signed on, this time from what was a tiny, rural Lorain County town.
“John Nottingham walked into my office one day, I liked him, he told me what they were doing and I became their second customer,” says Jack Kahl, founder and former chairman and CEO of Avon-based Manco, now Henkel Consumer Products. “We were a small, struggling company and they were even smaller and more struggling.”
Kahl asked the duo to redesign the packaging on a home repair product, Roof & Gutter Patch. Based on that first project, Nottingham-Spirk redesigned the look of all of Manco’s dozens of products, covering them in the unique kelly green color and creating the world-famous Manco T. Duck, the yellow cartoon duck logo and namesake for Manco’s Duck Tape.
“With the brand came the confidence, not only for our company, but I think John’s as well,” Kahl says. “It’s been a friendship that has lasted a long, long time.”
Perhaps more crucial for Nottingham-Spirk’s growth trajectory was Kahl introducing them in the late 1970s to a rapidly growing retailer based in Bentonville, Ark., owned by Sam Walton. Manco’s Care Mail, a line of padded envelopes, cartons, sealing tape and other mailing items Nottingham-Spirk helped design, became, along with Duck Tape, one of Wal-Mart’s coveted VPIs, or Value Producing Items.
“When we have a strategy, we say, ‘This is our strategy for Wal-Mart, and this is our strategy for all the other retailers,’” Nottingham says. “It’s done for Wal-Mart first because that’s going to be 35 percent of the sales in some cases and then it trickles down to OfficeMax and everything else.”
On weekends, you’ll find Nottingham, who lives in Bratenahl, and Spirk, a resident of Gates Mills, roaming the isles of the big box retailer, brainstorming new ideas, an art they compare to how a musician composes songs or a comedy writer discovers new jokes. It’s part of their DNA.
“We look and see what’s not there,” says Nottingham. “We literally visualize an innovation sitting on the shelf next to the competition at a price point. We know it has to be a certain size, has to be a particular price point, it has to be packaged a certain way, merchandized a certain way, and made of a certain material. You visualize the exit strategy before you even start.”
What the men would like to see in Northeast Ohio is a similar passion for retail products. Consumer goods, which drive close to 70 percent of the U.S. economy, have an edge on the slow-churning, locally popular biotech and high-tech industries due to their speed to the market, Nottingham says.
“The banks, the accounting firms, the investment groups, they have almost ignored consumer products because they don’t think it’s high-tech enough, but the problem is you can’t ignore the volume,” says Nottingham, adding that Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in Ohio and the United States, and three of the five largest companies in Ohio are consumer-focused: Kroger, Proctor & Gamble and Federated Department Stores, all based in Cincinnati.
“We started the SpinBrush company in the year 2000 and created a product company that was making hundreds of millions of dollars in about three years,” he says. “We don’t have to wait decades for [these products] to succeed.”
This success, however, has not gone unnoticed by city and business leaders. Nottingham and Spirk are frequent guest lecturers at regional business colleges, especially Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, just down the street from their headquarters and both men serve on the boards of The Cleveland Clinic and the Cleveland Institute of Art.
“John and John are truly pioneers,” says Chris Ronayne, CEO of University Circle Inc. “They’re clearly product pioneers, but they’re pioneers in the sense that they’ve taken a challenging building and made it an incredible innovation center and hopefully it inspires their product team and their research team, and serves as a catalyst for other companies to locate in this knowledge base.”