Pulling Fisher SpacePen out of a time warp took some arm twisting and deft wiring

You get the feeling from Paul Fisher's living room that the past few decades haven't made a big impression on the 82-year-old man. The gold and pea green are one clue. The moon-walk photo and other pictures of astronauts -- in some, Fisher is shaking hands -- are another tip-off. And for those on whom subtlety is lost, there's the Songs of the Sixties sheet music propped up on the baby grand in the corner.

So what's wrong with a little nostalgia, even if it occasionally lapses into the eccentric? Nothing at all -- unless you're trying to run a company. That's why Fisher SpacePen Co. was stuck in a time warp of flat sales and anemic profits. It wasn't a lack of creativity or dedication on the part of Fisher, the founder and CEO; even as sales of the company's once-hot specialty pens languished in the 1980s, Fisher could be seen scurrying next door to the factory laboratory in the middle of the night -- in his pajamas -- to test out new ink recipes. The problem was that Fisher couldn't get in tune with the information-intensive management techniques that were becoming the norm at other, faster-moving companies.

It's an old story: a company founder can't keep step with modern times but can't let go of control. In this case, however, the story has a happy ending. Thanks to two persistent children and a fast-talking consultant, Fisher finally, if reluctantly, agreed to a high-tech makeover. The result is a stunning turnaround -- in the past year, sales have increased by more than $2 million; and they're expected to do the same this year.

Paul Fisher was an economist and an inveterate tinkerer when, in 1948, he decided to make a business of his obsession with designing a better ballpoint pen. Fisher Pen Co. thrived when it made smooth-writing ink cartridges, but it was the 1960s space race that inspired Fisher's crowning achievement: a pressurized pen that could write under almost any conditions, including zero gravity and vacuum. The pen became standard issue for astronauts. And thanks to the national space craze, Fisher was able to parlay NASA's seal of approval into a Tang-style bonanza for mass-market versions of the SpacePen. Annual sales were around $6 million by the early 1970s, when Fisher renamed the business Fisher SpacePen Co.

But the magic of a NASA endorsement wore off in the late 1970s, and there were no meteoric product innovations or down-to-earth marketing strategies waiting to replace it. As Fisher tried to fuel his company on the fizzling hype from the space craze, sales stayed flat, at around $7 million, through the early 1980s. Fisher's sons, Cary and Morgan, had entered the business by that time and had quickly recognized that the company's approach to marketing and finance was strictly from the Sputnik era. But their father refused to hear talk about newfangled management tools. "He's a scientist, but he didn't trust computers," says Cary, who noted that his father's obsession with perfecting his ink formulas -- to the senior Fisher, the only way to grow a successful company -- got in the way of his making simple management decisions. "In one six-year period," Cary recalls, "my father didn't even raise prices."

And that's where things stood two years ago when Jim Jobin stumbled across the Fisher SpacePen booth at an industry trade show. Jobin, 37, then director of marketing and national accounts for Perma Products, in Duncanville, Tex., had long been a fan of the SpacePen's never-fail functionality and offbeat elegant looks. (The most popular model resembles a rounded, large-caliber bullet; it snuggles comfortably in a pocket and uncaps to form a full-size pen.) Jobin, who can come off a little like Gomer Pyle on speed, started chatting up Morgan, who was running the booth. Soon Morgan, who had had hopes of growing the company quickly, was spilling his pent-up frustration at his father's slow-moving management style. Jobin and Morgan ended up talking for hours. Jobin had a few suggestions. Morgan responded by offering him a job as a marketing consultant. Jobin couldn't resist. "I had always carried a SpacePen in my shirt pocket," he laughs, "but I'd lost it." When Jobin stopped at the Fisher SpacePen booth, he had only been hoping to pick up a replacement.

After Jobin finally got a close look at the company's operations, he almost regretted his decision to join the team. Signs of Old Man Fisher's eccentricity were everywhere. For starters, the company is in Boulder City, Nev. -- the only place in the state where gambling is illegal, a magnet for conservatives. And Fisher lives above the company's offices, erasing even that tiny gap the most ardent entrepreneurs usually maintain between their business and their personal lives.

But what really knocked Jobin for a loop was that nothing was automated. Other than a couple of stand-alone PCs and a primitive accounting program, there were few signs that the world had changed in the past quarter century. Jobin was so relieved to see a fax machine that he shuddered.

With no information technology, the sales operation was a mess. Leads were constantly falling through the cracks because the system for tracking them consisted of a notebook and some scraps of paper. With no way to organize leads by region, it wasn't unusual for a salesperson to travel to a state for just one sales call. Historical information was nil, making forecasting impossible. "The first year I was here, we lost $400,000 because we miscalculated demand on certain products," says Jobin.

The situation was so grim, Jobin realized, that he would have to put off his marketing mission. What this company needed first was a technical manager. Jobin was no techie, but he'd do what it took. "I had to," he says. "There was no infrastructure."

The first challenge was bringing the senior Fisher into step. Fisher didn't seem to mind that the company had long since stopped growing; he liked running a small company. Clearly Jobin wasn't going to win him over with talk of big plans. Instead, he wooed Fisher on the tennis courts (though Fisher often complained that Jobin let him win). Once he'd established trust on the clay, Jobin played to the older man's love of gadgetry, singing not the business but the technological praises of some of the newer computer products. Fisher eventually came through with a $35,000 computer budget -- along with an offer of a full-time job as director of marketing. (Jobin's now vice-president of sales and customer support.)

Jobin went to work buying PCs and linking them via a Novell network. Unwilling to blow Fisher's budget or trust on a consultant, Jobin, along with Cary, studied networking technology and spent weekends running wires through the company's offices.

When the network was finally up and running, Jobin focused on the sales-lead problem. He brought in ACT!, a contact-management program from Symantec Corp. (800-441-7234, $170 to $190). He oversaw the entry of every sales lead, along with information about each lead, into the database. Then he set up an 800 number that connected laptops on the road to information from the D&B MarketPlace database on CD-ROM (MarketPlace Information, 800-999-9497, $599 for basic service), which allowed salespeople in the field to get updated lead lists. The upshot: the average number of exposures before a sale closes has been cut from five to two. Emboldened by his success, Jobin talked Fisher into bringing on 53 new salespeople, many of them to work on international sales.

And then there was the World Wide Web. If you've ever tried explaining the Internet to your grandparents, you might be able to relate to what Jobin and Cary went through trying to convince the senior Fisher to back a company Web site. Cary gave up, but Jobin once again found a way through the obstinacy. He did a search on the Web and showed Fisher that other companies -- including the Sharper Image -- were already making money selling SpacePens on the Net. Particularly galling to Fisher was the discovery that someone who had worked for him was running a Web page that offered SpacePen seconds at a discount. Fisher called his lawyers -- pausing only long enough to tell Jobin to get going on a Web site. The site (http://www.fisherpen.com/spacepen) went up last February.

Jobin's efforts have paid off. In the past year, sales have shot up $2.3 million, from $3.5 million to $5.8 million. The administrative costs of sales -- including Jobin's travel, phone calls, and Federal Express -- have dropped 30%, not including the thousands of dollars the company has saved on marketing materials since Jobin moved production in-house.

Not that success seems to have softened Fisher. Asked what he thinks about the role technology has played in his company's turnaround, Fisher looks up from admiring his pen collection and says, "I don't know what the hell you're talking about." Jobin has gotten to the point where he can shrug off Fisher's occasional truculence. "Sometimes Paul feels he's losing control and snatches it back," he says. "But I'm getting used to the emotional roller coaster." Besides, Jobin knows that whether he admits it or not, Fisher is catching on. The proof: Fisher recently had a PC installed in a corner of his living room, not far from the astronaut memorabilia.

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Sarah Schafer (sarah schafer@incmag.com) is a reporter for Inc. Technology.