Sunday, August 15, 1999

Mousetrap maker snares sales

For 75 years, inventor's device has been catching pests in volume

Des Moines Register

        ALBIA, Iowa — Austin Kness had an idea for a better mousetrap back in the 1920s, and he built one.

        Seventy-five years later, the company he founded, Kness Mfg. Co. Inc., is still building versions of that mousetrap in Albia.

        Dwight Mater, the company's marketing manager, says the traps are used in the White House and at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

        Kness Mfg. builds a variety of traps, but its bread and butter is a metal box-style mousetrap based on Austin Kness' original innovative design.

        The Kness Ketch-All Multiple Catch mousetrap doesn't use bait. It catches mice alive and can catch several before it needs to be reset.

        Kathy Kness Wauson, president and chief executive officer as well as a granddaughter of the founder, says annual revenues total $3 million to $5 million. She and five other descendants of Austin Kness, including company vice president Russell Kness, Ms. Wauson's cousin, own the company.

        Kness Mfg. (the “k” is pronounced) employs about 50 people and contracts with a sheltered workshop for some assembly work.

        Greg Baumann, director of technical and field services for the National Pest Control Association, said Kness Mfg. is one of the more visible companies in the pest control industry. “They have a long history of making innovative rodent-control products,” he said.

        The metal Ketch-All is a spring-powered wind-up trap about 7 inches long, 5 inches wide and 5 inches high.

        Mice enter through a small hole in the side out of curiosity, to find a safe place to stay or to build a nest.

        Inside, the mouse finds a round, mouse-size tunnel.

        One side of the curved wall is part of a spring-powered paddle wheel. When the mouse steps on a panel in the floor of the trap, the paddle wheel scoops the animal up and plops it in an adjacent holding room.

        The wheel has three paddles, and when one mouse is scooped up, the next paddle moves into place to await the next arrival. The trap can catch up to 15 mice at one setting.

        The mice can be released outside or killed. An optional attachment allows the animals to climb through a tube into a water-filled jar, where they drown.

        The retail price is usually around $17.

        Ms. Wauson said business is good.

        Company sales — from Ketch-Alls and other products used to control rodents and insects — have been increasing at an annual rate of 10 percent to 15 percent a year for at least the past nine years, she said. About 10 percent of sales are exports to overseas markets.

        Kness customers fall into two main categories:

        • Distributors who buy the products and sell them to operators in the professional pest-control industry.

        The operators use the products to control rodents at a wide range of locations: Businesses, manufacturing and processing plants, warehouses, grain mills, bakeries, museums and other facilities.

        • Some large retailers, including the Lowe's and Home Depot home improvement store chains, and buying groups that resell the products to other retail stores.

        Company founder Austin Kness, nicknamed “Brick” because of his red hair, was a widower with six children to raise when he came up with the idea for the Ketch-All trap in 1924, a company history says.

        In his mid-30s at the time, Mr. Kness, who came up with various inventions during his life, was working as a custodian at Audubon High School, where mice were a problem.

        Mice caught in traditional, small wood snap traps would die behind obstacles in the school. He would have to set numerous traps, empty them and clean up the mess.

        He came up with idea for a box trap and made one using a square oilcan, a tobacco can, a spring from a curtain rod and the wood base from a crate.

        He captured five mice the first night he used it.

        Mr. Kness founded Kness Mfg. in 1927 in Storm Lake, but the business closed during the Great Depression.

        The company was revived in the late 1930s and got a major boost in 1942 when Mr. Kness' three grown sons invested in it. The business was moved to Albia in 1944. The first part of the current 50,000-square-foot plant was built in 1975, with additions in 1977 and 1990.

        The company's big growth spurt came in the 1970s, when the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration directed food processors to catch rodents by confining them in a box trap to reduce hair particles in the air.

        At the time, the Ketch-All was the only box-trap available.

        The Ketch-All was originally patented, but patent protection ran out about 50 years ago, Ms. Wauson said.

        She said three other American companies make multiple catch traps. Among them is Streamwood, a Pennsylvania company, best known for making Victor snap traps.

        The Kness product line has grown to include snap traps, called Snap-E; the Mini-Mouser, a smaller plastic version of the Ketch-All; and a plastic outdoor ant controller called the Ants-No-More.


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