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Carson firm a calculated success

John Seelmeyer

The product catalog at Calculated Industries in Carson City is a textbook demonstration of niche marketing:

* On page 9, there’s a hand-held calculator that helps concrete contractors determine how much material they’ll need to complete a job.

* On page 20, there’s another handheld calculator, this one programmed to assist real estate professionals as they work through home financing

questions.

* On page 24, a calculator targeted toward chefs and caterers provides easy kitchen conversions teaspoons to pints, for instance and scales recipes up and down.

As the company consistently posts 15 percent annual sales increase, however, it’s relying on more than introduction of new products.

It’s also opening new distribution channels including a hardfought battle to get into big-box retailers and breathing new life into old product lines, said Steve Kennedy, president and general manager.

Launched in southern California 25 years ago, Calculated Industries moved to Carson City in 1994, in part so the company could be located closer to the Lake Tahoe homes of its founders.

From a 40,000-square-foot building near the Carson City airport, the company’s 55 employees handle administration and distribution.

Manufacturing of the more than 30 calculators sold by the company is contracted to offshore companies.

New products have been the lifeblood of Calculated Industries ever since its founders, brothers Fred and Ken Alexander, created their first calculator “The Loan Arranger” for real estate professionals in 1978.

(The company today is owned by Ken Alexander and Judy Alexander, the wife of Fred Alexander, who died in 1992.) Marketed most through mail-order ads in real estate publications, the calculator took off.

A few years later, the first of a series of construction-related calculators was rolled out by the company.

Today, those construction calculators range from The Construction Master Pro, a machine that handles math such as the calculation of rafter angles, to specialized calculators for trades such as electricians and earth-movers.

And the line of calculators widened more with products to help teachers calculate grades, a navigational calculator for sailors and a time-code calculator for the film and video industries.

Users continue to make suggestions for new products, Kennedy said.

“We’ve stuck really close to the end users,” he said.

“When you get the guy’s wallet involved, he lets you know what he thinks.”

A consumer product, however, fueled the company’s push into new distribution channels big-box home improvement centers such as Home Depot, Lowe’s and Menard’s along with Wal-Mart stores.

That push was “an overnight five-year success,” quipped Mark Paulsen, vice president of sales and marketing for Calculated Industries.

The market opened in late 1999 when Lowe’s agreed to take on Calculated Industries’ products.

The big retailers move scads of a ProjectCalc, a calculator marketed toward the serious do-it-yourselfer.

It’s priced at about $20, compared with an $130 price tag on top-line professional construction models.

Distribution through big retailers has proven dramatically different from the small orders handled by Calculated Industries when most of its distribution went through specialty shops.

“If Wal-Mart isn’t happy, you have to make them happy,” said Paulsen.

At the same time that it’s keeping the big new channels open.

Calculated Industries decided to refocus its energies on the real-estate and financial calculators that are the descendants of its first products.

Much of that work, which includes a lot of customized development for individual real estate and financial companies, was spearheaded by Allen Alexander, the son of founder Ken Alexander.

That renewed push, Kennedy said, has been “a phenomenal success,” and the real-estate products now are the company’s fastest-growing product lines.

Despite the company’s continued growth, Paulsen said most of its products haven’t attracted much competition largely because the niches served by Calculated Industries are too small for big players.

So what’s competition? Paulsen answered, “The old way.”