Without Apple's help, local iPhone case maker strives for a perfect fit

As David Schweitzer, quality manager for Ventev Mobile, picked up four iPhone 6-laden packages in the mail room at the company's Hunt Valley office and walked to his desk on the second floor, he was nervous.

While people lined up at stores all over the planet Friday, enticed by the new iPhone's bigger screen, faster operating system and sharper video, Schweitzer and his colleagues were focused on minute details: the exact placement of buttons on the sides, the headphone jack, speaker and power outlet.


Ventev already had invested tens of thousands of dollars in making the first run of iPhone6 accessories, but sales all over the country, and Ventev's credibility as a maker of iPhone cases, power cords and chargers were at stake.

Apple works closely with Ventev and other manufacturers on power cord and charger specifications, but not the details a case-maker needs. Those particulars are cloaked in secrecy, meaning members of the Ventev production team spend months sleuthing for the precise information.


Now the question: Were they right?

"There's always a degree of nervousness to it," Schweitzer said. "But with all the research we put into it, there's a very high level of confidence."

Confidence that the cases — thousands of which already have been made — would fit, that the buttons would work with the case on. Since early this year the Ventev production crew has been following tech websites where the Apple rumor mill hums constantly, and checking this information with their own sources.

"There's a lot of rumors. You have to weed through what's right and what's wrong," said Scott Franklin, marketing chief for Ventev, a division of Tessco Technologies Inc.

Franklin estimated that tens of thousands of dollars were invested in the first run of cases and accessories shipped or soon to be shipped to some 5,000 stores across the country.

A serious miscalculation would mean that production would stop, so factories in southern China could retool and start again. That could take up to a month, putting them behind in a crowded field of competitors.

It also could mean retailers lose confidence in Ventev as an Apple accessories supplier, Franklin said.

"You've got some lost credibility," he said, "which might be the biggest problem you'd have."

And this is the iPhone 6, touted as a larger, faster replacement for the iPhone 5 released last year. Apple made the usual big show of the unveiling the mobile phone Sept. 9 at a performing arts center near its California headquarters. Early orders broke an iPhone record: 4 million in the first 24 hours. Apple stock jumped.

Ventev produces accessories for several phone manufacturers, but Franklin said Apple is about half their business. The division brings in about $30 million a year in revenue for Tessco, a wireless products and equipment supplier that brought in $560 million in 2014.

A day before the iPhone 6 arrived, Franklin spoke confidently, knowing the track record. They've been working on the product without a serious miss since the second generation, the iPhone 3G, was released in 2008.

Still, it hasn't been perfect.


This time, they followed a rumor that the iPhone6 would have a lighted Apple icon on the back, as their laptops do, but they weren't certain. So they produced only one type of case — in leather — with a tight circle of eight holes on the back where they thought the light would be. The clear plastic cases would show the light, as would the ones with a lattice of holes on the back.

The lighted icon never materialized. Franklin figured Ventev eventually would produce a version of the leather case without the holes, but in the meantime it wasn't an obvious flaw and it didn't interfere with the phone's function.

Ventev also delayed producing cases for the larger iPhone 6 Plus, relying on reports that the release would be a few weeks after the iPhone6. As it turns out, both were released Friday.

Franklin and product manager Sara Carson did not seem too worried, as the iPhone 6 was expected to outsell the larger version by more than 2-1. They figured Ventev could stagger the delivery of the larger cases, none of which had arrived yet at the office in Baltimore County.

Representatives for Apple did not return an email seeking comment on the need for secrecy about even mundane details of a new phone design.

Marketing professor P.K. Kannan of the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said the secrecy suited both a competitive smartphone market, and in maintaining Apple's "aura."

"Historically, Apple has had this buzz surrounding the new products," Kannan said. "The idea is you want to take people by surprise."

So, Kannan said, Ventev operates like a fashion designer betting on trends, or a sports merchandiser guessing the next championship team to know which logo to put on all the hats and T-shirts to catch the first wave of buyers.

It's a fine balance, Franklin said. Produce enough to meet early demand, but not so much that you get slammed if the stuff doesn't fit.

About a dozen of Schweitzer's colleagues gathered around his desk Friday morning as he opened the boxes. At hand were the cases and power accessories.

"There was a lot of excitement," he said.

The iPhone6 snapped into each case with a satisfying click, a perfect snug fit. The buttons aligned just so. Everything worked.

No one got an Adam Jones-style pie in the face, but Schweitzer said there were "some 'hoorays,' 'thank you,' 'YES' … A lot of relief, a lot of weight-off-the-shoulder type of feeling."

Satisfying, he said, even if the next Apple phone might be only months away.

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