After years of back strains from reaching down to prop open doors, Robert Duff tried using his cleaning carts to do it -- only to pay some $5,000 in door-repair charges from cart scratches.
A common task in his more than 20 years of janitorial work had become burdensome. He knew there had to be a better way to keep a door propped. And there was.
Duff and his 17-year-old son, Juliano, had the idea of taking the standard doorstop base, using a wood wedge, and attaching a dial stick to it -- a simple alteration that made it easy to prop a door open without having to bend down.
"People think of janitorial work as a no-brainer job, but you do have to have the right tools to do it well," Duff said. "I realized if this was something helpful for us to use, it had the potential to benefit lots of other people, too."
This was the first version of what has become Duff's Doorstopper and has turned the 41-year-old Farmington man into an inventor; he first had it patented in 2000.
Since the first version, Duff worked to develop a prototype, which he changed several times before producing a doorstop with a wedge-shaped rubber base coupled with a broom-style 30-inch handle. Duff went on to add a version with an adjustable handle, another with a magnetic handle that attaches to the base and, more recently, a version that clips onto a belt.
The company has sold almost 3,000 doorstops to hotels, hospitals, senior citizen homes and others since the product hitting the market in July 2007. The stoppers are being sold at local Ace Hardware stores and distributed through New Brighton-based Dalco Enterprises, which distributes all across Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
Duff said he and his family have owned and operated the JuMar Enterprises cleaning franchise since 1993. Aside from having to bend down to prop doors, Duff had a hard time because he has grown up with a mild case of cerebral palsy, affecting the functionality of his left hand. His doorstop allows him to use just one hand to prop open doors.
Right now the product is breaking even and paying for itself, and Duff said he hopes that as the economy recovers, the sales will pick up and the business can expand.
A bright future
Tony Pankey, the main investor in Duff's Doorstopper, is confident in the future of the product.
"It's something that could really standardize the way people use doorstoppers," Pankey said. "Once a couple of hotels pick this up and really see the benefits of it, it will take off."
In fact, some Hilton Hotels have picked up the product and Pankey hopes that the doorstop will become the standard for all hotels, hospitals and cleaning companies.
"Robert is a genius, the things he's come up with. We started with one design and ended up with four," he said.
Mark Miller, director of sales at Dalco, said their company has had success selling to hospitals, universities and other customers and has attracted some new clients for distribution as well.
"We look for unique products that there is a need for," Miller said. "His is unique from anything else out there."
The usability of the doorstop is why Duff's wife, Rosetta, who serves as the CEO, thinks it will take off. She knows from experience, having used the product many times while doing housekeeping work.
"It's easier getting doors open, not leaving your cleaning cart to keep the door open and having to walk back and forth for supplies," she said. "It is a product that is serving a need and I think will really take off."
But Robert Duff and his family aren't forgetting about their cleaning franchise and hope the two can work together into the future.
It's a family business, Robert Duff said. "We're like the Huxtables," he said. "I'd like to see my grandkids operating this one day."
Juliano Duff has helped his dad with the development of the product and says that after attending college, he would like to eventually take over the businesses one day, creating other products and tools.
"I would like to see it in hospitals and hotels all around the world," Robert Duff said.
For what it's worth, he recently sold some doorstops to a hotel in London.
Vadim Lavrusik is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.