Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Woody Young sees his job as preserving an icon.

"When you talk about an iconic brand--the Mickey Mouses and the Betty Boops--those are in their own category," Young says. "You have to keep them fresh. But if you mess around with them, they lose their character."

Young is president and owner of the California Clock Company, in Fountain Valley, California. The icon under his protection is Kit-Cat, the grinning, goggle-eyed, pendulum-tailed timepiece that probably hung in your grandmother's kitchen and may well hang in yours. In 1954, Kit-Cat, at age 22, received paws and a bow tie that, in concert with the mustache-like whiskers, lend him a dapper, David Niven-ish air. Beyond that, "there have been zero changes" to the basic design, says Young, who acquired the business in 1982. The product is still American-made, despite financial pressures in the '80s that nearly cost Kit-Cat all nine lives.

More than 70 percent of the population recognizes Kit-Cat, according to the company's research. Those that don't own a clock will have caught one of its myriad media cameos. A Kit-Cat clock appears in the opening credits of Back to the Future; in the Szalinski family home in Disney's Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; in videos by Katy Perry and Taylor Swift; in Super Bowl commercials for brands like Garnier and Subway; and, like every pop culture artifact worth its salt, on an episode of The Simpsons. On its 80th birthday in 2012, Kit-Cat towered over a float in Pasadena's Rose Parade. A few years later, on the opposite coast, four 6-foot-tall versions commanded the windows of the Museum of Modern Art's Soho design store.

Originally sold in five-and-dime stores for $3.95, the clock (the company spells it "klock" but Inc.'s style guide is intolerant of whimsy) now retails for $49.99. More blinged-out numbers, like one bedecked in amber jewels, go for upward of $100. The company has two main channels: roughly 3,000 specialty stores (chiefly gift, clock, museum, and souvenir shops), and direct and third-party internet sales. The website is also where more than 30,000 fan club members vote on new colors, access discounts, and catch up on "insider news."

Among those acolytes is William Cappitte, whose home in Hubbard, Ohio is a veritable Kit-Cat menagerie. Cappitte first encountered Kit-Cat at his aunt's home in the '50s. He began collecting in 1985 and now owns around two dozen clocks, displayed in every room. "They tell good time, and there are so many colors, they go with any décor," Cappitte says. "It makes you smile when you look at it. I'm 65 and I'm still intrigued by them."

Not surprisingly, over the years many rivals have offered up their own cat clocks, but no competitor has come close to matching Kit-Cat's popularity. "When you buy Kit-Cat you are buying more than just a clock on the wall," Young says. "You are buying a smile. You are buying a creed. You are buying a piece of Americana."

"As popular as the hula hoop."

In 1932, a Portland, Oregon, designer named Earl Arnault launched a business that manufactured smiles. Amid the depths of the Great Depression, Young says, "he wanted to come up with something that was cheerful." Four years earlier, Walt Disney had introduced Steamboat Willie, the proto-Mickey Mouse; Arnault borrowed the shape of Mickey's face for his feline creation. The early clocks were made of metal and required starter knobs to set their motors spinning.

Arnault's business, Allied Clock Company, moved to Seattle during World War II to make parts for Boeing. While supplying the military, it continued to turn out Kit-Cats, switching from metal to plastic. Postwar optimism and prosperity drove sales. The company sold millions of the products. "Lucille Ball used to buy them by the case to give as birthday gifts and at Christmas," Young says. "It was as popular as the hula hoop."

In 1962, William Wagner, a company sales rep, bought Allied and moved it to California, renaming it the California Clock Company. Twenty years later, Wagner, wanting to retire, approached Young, a serial entrepreneur. The new owner faced several challenges. First, the company's major channels--five-and-dimes and small specialty shops--increasingly were being eclipsed by Walmart and the big-box stores. Young conducted some tests in those markets but pulled back after one major retailer had the product knocked off cheaply in China. 

Young chose, instead, to double down on the specialty store market, growing that base substantially through trade shows. Best Products, a popular catalog showroom at the time, performed well. He also labored to distinguish Kit-Cat from knockoffs and rivals: adding the word "original" to the company's marketing and the brand name to the clock face. California Clocks has been profitable ever since, experiencing a significant boost in the late '90s with the introduction of a very early, and very successful website.

What makes Kitty run?

Parts, too, were a problem. Up until the late '80s, Kit-Cat clocks ran on electric motors, with cords. The company's motor supplier chiefly sold to the appliance industry, which was switching to digital clocks. With most of its electric motor customers gone, the supplier said it would have to double the price. Young was forced to move to batteries.

The problem was that the electric motor in Kit-Cat had operated not just the clock but also the swiveling eyes and swinging tail. The battery ran just the clock. No swivel. No swing. Young tried to get a new battery engineered, but there were too many variables, such as weight, materials, and the location of the fulcrum to maximize limited power.

At an inventors' conference in Pasadena, where he was speaking on intellectual property, Young went from booth to booth and recruited four individual attendees to attack one piece of the problem each. He combined their solutions and within 30 days had a working prototype. "I'd taken the problem around the world to vendors without success," says Young. "But those inventors got the job done."

Technical difficulties resolved, California Clock still struggled with costs. The company had always made its own parts, except for those motors. Its new supplier of quartz movements--a manufacturer called Takane that was based nearby--also possessed the rest of the equipment, such as plastic extruders, that Young needed to make Kit-Cat. So, in 1994 Young turned over all production to his supplier, sold his factory, and moved in with Takane, from which California Clock remains independent.

"Rent, extra handling and shipping costs disappeared," says Young, who also cites as benefits production efficiencies and improved logistics. Meanwhile, consistent demand for Kit-Cat production "has been really important for our partner's business."

What's new, pussycat?

The only way an 87-year-old brand stays relevant, Young says, is to keep things fresh. Some elements--those eyes, that smile, those pointy ears--are fixed. But over the years the company has introduced myriad variations.

For decades Kit-Cat was like the Model T: available in any color so long as it was black. Now the clocks come in a rainbow's worth of hues, including designer shades like coral and pumpkin. There are gentleman cats (bowtie) and lady cats (pearls and eyelashes). Exotic animal cats with leopard, tiger, and giraffe markings. Cat jewelry, cat clothing, cat children's books. "About a year ago we started putting out a lot of cartoons on the web and Facebook. We put videos up for the major holidays," Young says. "We're always doing something to keep people interested in Kit-Cat."

For many fans, though, Kit Cat's appeal is its connection to the past. Clocks from the mid-20th century are still around, manufactured to last but also to be easily fixed. The company sells parts dating back 60 or 70 years that consumers or clock shops can install. "If one of these Chinese clocks doesn't work, you throw it out the door," Young says. "But many of these are heirlooms."

With production managed by Takane, California Clock employs around 12 people. One of Young's daughters has worked in the business, and her husband is CFO. Young, who is 75, assumes they will take over someday.

But he's in no hurry to leave. "What makes me happy is all these love letters I get from people who say how much the clock means to them," he says. "For some, it's like a pet. They talk to it. When you have a Kit-Cat, you're not alone."

Published on: May 30, 2019