Editor’s note: On the year of her 50th Wedding Anniversary, Marie Gellerstedt also celebrates her 50th year as owner of Nixalite of America. In the following Q&A provided by Nixalite, Gellerstedt gives great insights about this successful family-owned enterprise.
Q: How was the business started?
A: My dad, Charles B .Kaufmann, was a lawyer. In the1940's he teamed up with Fred Burnside, an engineer, to find a solution to the bird problem. They knew that roosting birds were costing countless thousands of dollars’ loss in the nation’s cities—as well as a lot of frustration for architects, city planners and building maintenance people. They studied bird habits and experimented for five years before inventing and perfecting Nixalite.
Fred and dad designed the very first bird control wire strips, now known as “porcupine wire”. They named it Nixalite. “Nix” means “no” and “Alite” is a shortening of the word, “alighting” and from this combination the registered name Nixalite came into being.
In 1953, dad took sole ownership of the company and patented Nixalite. The patent only lasts for 17 years, so the other porcupine wire products you see on the market today are all copies of their original design. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has recognized their design by including the original Nixalite bird control strip in its design collection.
In 1957 my dad suffered a heart attack. That’s when my life changed drastically. My dad was on his death bed and asked me to promise not to sell the company. Be careful what you promise! I gave my word, and “My Forever” began at the age of 30.
Q: There weren’t many women in upper management those days. Was this difficult for you?
A: After graduating from Augustana College, I worked for a decorating company and really knew next to nothing about the bird control business. Now I was the boss! and in those days, it was unusual for a woman to be top officer of a company. I used my initials: M.A. Gellerstedt, so that people would assume that I was a man. That way if someone called and asked for Mr. Gellerstedt, I would say that Mr. Gellerstedt was not available but that I was Mrs. Gellerstedt and could I help them. This seemed to assure them that I must know something, because there must a man in charge. However, I did have a few salesmen who turned around and walked out of the office when they discovered that a lady was in control, eventually these gentlemen and I worked together and became good friends.
Q: What were your first challenges as the new owner?
A: My first project was to revamp a huge illustrated manual my dad had written titled, How To Install Nixalite. Dad had been a lawyer, and had written an excellent manual however it was extremely wordy. You had to get by a lot of flowers before you got to the meat. I wanted to write the manual in language a kindergartener could understand. So I clarified and simplified the entire manual. The principles of this manual are used universally today. It was quite a challenge—but gave me a crash course in learning about bird control.
Q: What were your first steps in marketing your product?
A: It was a big challenge. Not many people were aware or cared about the problems roosting birds caused. After my dad died I was trying to market a new product and concept with very little money.
Once I took over the company, we focused on advertising mainly business to business. We first advertised in the architecture, construction, facility management and pest industry trades. We also used postcard decks, which were a very good way to get inquiries.
Q: Can you talk about how the business impacted your family?
The first years were a struggle. In fact, my husband Keith basically financed the whole thing with his income from Bendix Corporation and working in the evenings manufacturing Nixalite. If not for his job, Nixalite Company wouldn’t exist. I had my first child, Lori, in 1958. Then things got really complicated, trying to run the business and take care of a baby. The next year Todd was born. With two babies, I did a lot of work at home late at night, and money was scarce. Every cent went back into the business.
Then in 1963 I had my third child, Jon—and three years later, Cory was born. They all were expected to help out. As each child learned to count to 10, they would count out the Nixalite fasteners and bag them. We all worked very hard.
As time went on, the children grew up. Lori became a dentist and Todd had other interests. Jon and Cory stayed on and are now Co-Presidents. Cory handles marketing, administration, finance, and the computers. Jon handles R&D, manufacturing, inventory control, and sales.
Q: How did the office operate in contrast to today?
A: It’s a completely different world! The main office machines were the typewriter, adding machine and telephone. Urgent matters were sent by telegram. Telegrams were delivered personally by a telegraph delivery boy. Carbon and onion skin paper was used in every office to make copies of the written correspondence. If you wanted to send anything "fast" it went Air Mail. Fax machines, copiers, computers, E-mail and 800 numbers were some of the dreams of the future. It was an entirely different mode of carrying on business. Now everything is instantaneous.
In 1950, there was only one Nixalite machine, and now we have four. In 50 short years, our facility has grown from 1000 to 24,000 square feet!
Q: Can you sum up your philosophy of doing business?
I believe that the sale, although important, is NOT everything. We take great pride in being truthful with our customers, and never try to sell them something when we know it won’t work. For instance, some customers don’t understand the importance of the size of the ledge and using multiple rows of Nixalite. We explain to them, “We are not trying to sell you more Nixalite, but if you install just one row when more is required, the birds will be able to sit behind it and you will have a bigger problem than you have now. You need to do the installation correctly to get the proper results.” We’re proud of our name. People know that if they buy from Nixalite, they will be dealt with truthfully and in an ethical manner. We are here to work for our customer and give them superior service.
Q: How involved are you in the business now?
A: As the CEO of Nixalite Company I am still actively involved in all facets of the company. The bonus is that I don't have to be at work at 8 o’clock and can take days off when I need them. I’ve always enjoyed all aspects of the business. Since his retirement in 1988 from Litton, my husband Keith manages human resources and works with Cory in the computer division. He is also corporate Secretary/Vice President. So now there are really three men behind me— the problem is, now when they ask for Mr. Gellerstedt we have to ask, "Which one?” I feel that working this late in life has kept my mind active. It’s wonderful to see how far women have come in the business world from back when I had to pretend I was a man. Things have really changed for the better.
Growing Brick by Brick
• 1949: Nixalite acquires a 1000 sq. ft. building in Rock Island, IL with our office in Davenport, IA. In 1957 our offices moved to the Rock Island location • 1964: Space requirements precipitate move to “huge” 1500 sq. ft. building in Rock Island • 1979: Out of space. Moved to a 3000 sq. ft. building in Moline • 1985: Acquisition of present East Moline building, which was 12,000 sq. ft. Ran out of room! • 1993: Bought 3,000 sq. ft. building next door • 1994: Remodeled, connecting the two buildings, for 15,000 sq. ft. • 1996 Purchased property next door, built new building, connected all 3 buildings for a total of 24,000 sq.ft. • 2007 Running out of room and another expansion is needed.
• 1949: Nixalite acquires a 1000 sq. ft. building in Rock Island, IL with our office in Davenport, IA. In 1957 our offices moved to the Rock Island location
• 1964: Space requirements precipitate move to “huge” 1500 sq. ft. building in Rock Island • 1979: Out of space. Moved to a 3000 sq. ft. building in Moline
• 1985: Acquisition of present East Moline building, which was 12,000 sq. ft. Ran out of room!
• 1993: Bought 3,000 sq. ft. building next door
• 1994: Remodeled, connecting the two buildings, for 15,000 sq. ft.
• 1996 Purchased property next door, built new building, connected all 3 buildings for a total of 24,000 sq.ft.
• 2007 Running out of room and another expansion is needed.