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New product comes out already on top High hopes ride on cartop carrier


Bob Cook has one employee. His company has one product. It comes in one size, and it's targeted at one market.

But, hey, it keeps the luggage dry.

Mr. Cook is an entrepreneur who has come up with SoftStow, a cartop carrier designed by his New Horizons Products Corp. for Chrysler minivans.

Operating out of a 1,500-square-foot office and work space off Guilford Road in Annapolis Junction, the company has accumulated start-up costs of more than $150,000. And Mr. Cook says he has had to sacrifice a six-figure salary in the commercial real estate industry to develop and market his product.

All for 11 pounds of bungee cords and vinyl-coated polyester-cotton-sateen.

"I, like a lot of people, had always had a burning desire to have my own business," he says, as well as "this desire to make something."

It started to make more sense when the real estate industry soured and his company sold off his division in 1988. He could have stayed on with the new firm, but he opted instead to set out on his own.

His cartop carrier is not a new idea, nor is it cheap -- $218.50 from the factory -- but after more than a dozen prototypes and a test marketing last summer, Mr. Cook is confident the product will take off.

"I expect to sell over 2,000 units in the next 12 months," he says.

He expects most of those sales to come from Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge dealers who have agreed to carry the

product. Two dealers, Tate Dodge and Tate Chrysler-Plymouth in Glen Burnie, have already sold some of the carriers.

Chuck Edwards, sales manager at Tate Dodge, has had ample opportunity to compare a number of cartop carriers. "Of all the ones that I've had [demonstrated], that's the only one that I will really carry," he says.

"Those that bought [SoftStow] really like it, and some of those that don't [subsequently] come back after pricing some of the other ones."

Of sales so far, Mr. Cook will only reveal those from a test run of 60 last summer and "hundreds" more since then. Most have come through direct mail; an initial 3,000 mailers were sent to Chrysler minivan owners last summer and another 37,000 mailers have since been sent throughout Maryland and Ohio.

The decision to target Chryslers came from counting cartop carriers on the road. "We did extensive beside-the-highway surveys and determined that the Chrysler minivan owners were by far the largest users of this product," Mr. Cook says.

Mr. Cook hopes to put out new lines for other minivans, although the current model can be adjusted for use on Mazda MPVs, Nissan Quests, Mercury Voyagers and Volvo station wagons.

One customer, John W. Mitchell of Dorsey's Search village in Columbia, is getting his year-old carrier altered by Mr. Cook for a Chevrolet Suburban.

Mr. Mitchell says he is happier with the carrier than he was with his Chrysler minivan, "so I kept the carrier and got rid of the car."

"My daughter has one of the hard [carriers], but the problem is that it's bulky. She goes to the University of Delaware, and she has to rent a storage unit just to keep it," Mr. Mitchell says.

He also said he was impressed with the unit's waterproofing, which kept his luggage dry through a severe rainstorm in Tennessee this summer. "I'd like to represent the line," said Mr. Mitchell, a salesman. "They really have got a nice piece of equipment."

One of the main selling points of the carrier is that all of its seams are made water-tight with plastic tape fused to the material at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mr. Cook says he experimented with hundreds of fabrics until he found one sufficiently waterproof to meet his standards. "We tested it in our extensive laboratories -- we went out in the back yard and put the water hose up to it."

Coincidentally, he chose the same synthetic blend fabric that Chrysler uses for its Jeeps' convertible tops. Mr. Cook boasts that his product contains American-made parts except for the Italian-made strap buckles.

The fabric is sewn together in West Virginia, where labor costs are low, then shipped to Annapolis Junction, where Mr. Cook and assistant Charlie Kuttner attach the final straps and bungee cords.

The bungee cords are another selling point that Mr. Cook takes care to point out to potential customers. When a soft carrier is only half full, the cords secure the slack so it doesn't flap in the wind.

While there are other soft carriers available through catalog sales, Mr. Cook sees his chief competitor as Sears Roebuck and Co., which sells the X-Cargo for $80. The hard plastic carrier is cheaper, but it's also bulky and has more than 100 parts to assemble, Mr. Cook says.

Judging from casual conversations he has had with Sears automotive shop managers, Mr. Cook guesses the retail giant sells 250,000 of the hard carriers annually.

"We'd like to do 10 percent of that in the next 12 months," he says.

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