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2/16/2003

Call him a ‘reckless innovator’

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Brian Kelleghan didn’t start out to be an inventor. His college degree is in business, and his former occupation is “currency trader.” In fact, the owner of 16-year-old Bison Belts prefers the term “reckless innovator” to inventor.

But his company has continually grown in sales over its lifetime and these days is generating in excess of $3 million annually — not bad for a company that sells most of its items for $5 or less.

A climbing accident and subsequent stroke led to the end of his former professional career, and Kelleghan turned his mind toward inventing designs and items that didn’t previously exist.

His first patent came for a “T-lock” belt buckle, an idea at which American manufacturers essentially laughed.

“They rejected it, and that’s the cool part. I love that,” Kelleghan said, grinning ear to ear and parroting his nay-sayers. “‘Our Ph.Ds in plastics said you cannot build your belt buckle that way.’”

He not only built the buckle; he soon began making whole belts. He noticed that cloth belts available on the market were limited in their design. For instance, he could find square patterns, he said, but why not picture patterns?

“I thought if you could make squares, you should be able to make pictures,” said the 43-year-old Kelleghan, a Chicago native who still climbs. “I just figured that if somebody was dabbling in squares, why don’t you take all these same squares and shrink them and put order to them?”

Again, he couldn’t find any American company willing to manufacture his invention. “‘There’s no market-pattern weaving — that would cost $1 a yard,’” he was told.

He found a small weaving company in France to make the belts and debuted them at a 1990 trade show.

“It was explosively successful,” Kelleghan recalled.

Today, the “pattern webbing” part of his business — belts and dog collars, among other things — accounts for two-thirds of his revenue.

“When I see something that I think is going to be ultimately successful, it never ceases to amaze me how many times I’m told it’s not going to work,” Kelleghan said.

Have you seen the dog collars with the Grateful Dead “dancing bears” on them? That’s from Bison Belts.

The other major chunk of Kelleghan’s business comes from his aluminum creations.

He estimates that in 2002, 6 million to 8 million keychains and bottle caps left his warehouse, in shapes as diverse as Mickey Mouse’s ears and a rainbow trout.

His designs are created out of carabiners, the clip-like devices used by climbers. He holds patents on designs of these carabiners that never existed before.

“Basically, what I do is I get concepts,” said Kelleghan. “I wander flea markets and antique shops and look for unique and unusual things that I can modify and modernize and add design to.”

In the case of Disney, or the Pentagon keychains he designed, he pitches his idea to the company, and if the company officials like it, he makes the product. Then he cashes their checks.

“Pretty much everybody that sells outdoor equipment is or has been a customer of mine,” Kelleghan said. “In addition, we do private-label stuff for companies like L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer, and they sell our stuff under their name in places like Japan.”

If you’ve seen aluminum bottle openers in the shape of iguanas, guitars, Harley Davidson motorcycles or skateboards, those are likely Bison Belt products.

If they’re not, it’s likely an illegal knockoff, and Kelleghan would probably like to know about it.

Bison Belts, with about 40 employees in Longmont, has 27 outside sales representatives and distributors in eight countries.

But Kelleghan’s creativity hasn’t been limited to belts and keychains; he has also invented the Bison Belt “chalk ball” that climbers use, and last year he designed and made bobblehead dolls.

Rather than sports heroes or politicians, his dolls come with names like “Joe Hiker” and “Joe Kayaker.” Had it not been for the West Coast dockworkers’ strike, you would have seen them on the shelves last Christmas.

“So we got pinched with those, but any (of them) we did put in REI or EMS sold through,” Kelleghan said. “We had great sales numbers.”

Other recent Kelleghan creations include a “man in the moon” carabiner and a belt buckle that allows for a water bottle to be clipped to it. And there’s more — a lot more.

“I’ve got gobs and gobs of ideas here just waiting to be developed,” he said.

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.