A little wagon called the Big Kat Buggy, which doubles as a cargo carrier that can be hitch-mounted on an SUV, is taking Statesboro entrepreneur Kevin Rackleff to Vegas.
He will pitch the Big Kat Buggy and several accessories this weekend at the Sports Licensing and Tailgate Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Rackleff, 44, founder and president of Rackleff Enterprises, which trucks solid waste from transfer stations in nine southeast Georgia counties, got the idea for a more fun-oriented hauler after watching families arrive at recreational sporting events.
"I've got three kids. So we are at ballparks, Mill Creek mostly, every weekend, and that's kind of where the idea was birthed," he said.
Rackleff's youngest plays travel baseball after coming up through recreational programs. The tournaments last all day.
"A lot of families would take these collapsible wagons and put in coolers, their tents, chairs, all that kind of stuff for the day, pull it all into the ballpark and then bring it all out that afternoon, and I'd watch them unpack it and fold it back up and cram it all back in their SUV," Rackleff said.
He had a couple of very handy technicians working in the Rackleff Enterprises machine shop, he said. One, who does some work on boat motors, had built a contraption with a retractable receiver hitch. This gave Rackleff the idea of putting a retractable hitch on the side of a wagon, making a hand-pulled buggy that, when hitch-mounted with its off-road wheels well above the street, becomes a cargo carrier.
That way, families could arrive at a ballpark - or the beach, a lake, a fishing pier, a campsite, or tailgating at a stadium - with the wagon already loaded and not taking up space inside the SUV or other motor vehicle. The wagon's handle is also retractable, so it's not in the way on the road. The Big Kat Buggy can be secured with just a pin on most vehicles with a receiver hitch.
Rackleff's employees built the first basic prototypes, one of steel and one of aluminum, in his company's Statesboro shop, proving that the concept would work.
Early in the process, Rackleff contacted a patent attorney. The attorney's research showed that the combination cargo hauler and wagon, and particularly its use of the retractable hitch, were patentable, Rackleff said. He now has two design patents and one utility patent filed.
He also called on Innovative Design Products, or IDP, of Irvine, Calif., to come up with a refined design that could be manufactured and marketed.
"You know, it's all new to me," Rackleff said recently. "I mean, I'm in the transportation business and I never took a new product to market from concept to sales, so I hired a company to do our design engineer work."
IDP generated specs and illustrations of various designs that he chose from as the product was refined. Made of aluminum and a tough plastic, the version coming to market is lighter that the Statesboro-made prototypes.
"One of the neat things about IDP and where they were worth their salt for me was, they had the manufacturing in mind from the get-go," Rackleff said. "In other words, every little thing you do requires tooling, additional costs in manufacturing, so they were very good about reducing."
But he opted to give the Big Kat wider tires than were readily available for hand-pulled wagons.
"We paid for a little more tooling costs and things like that up front, but in the long run, we wanted to make sure at the beach it will go over sand when loaded with coolers and all," Rackleff said.
He also signed a manufacturing contract with IDP, and the Big Kats are being manufactured in China. When he was interviewed two weeks ago, the first 1,000 had been shipped, destined for the port of Savannah.
A second order of 5,000 will reduce his production cost by $60 a unit, Rackleff said. The price to consumers for a Big Kat Buggy is $499.
Several accessories also are coming to market right away, including a cargo net, cup holders, a deep holder for three multiple fishing rods, and a mount for a beach-size umbrella. Coming soon, he said: a bait tray with basket. The detailed design is already in hand.
"These are items that are going to sell, you know, for Mother's Day, Father's Day, birthdays," Rackleff said. "We've demonstrated it to several retailers just to make sure our price point was good. They like the product, and we've had very good response."
Another accessory that has been designed and is in the "coming soon" category is the power box. It can be locked onto the buggy rail or carried by a separate handle for charging in the car or at home. It has three USB ports, high- and low-output, for charging devices such as phones and music players and potentially lights and a fan.
All can be seen at www.bigkatbuggy.com.
In addition to Rackleff, there are two silent investors in Big Kat LLC, a company separate from Rackleff Enterprises.
The process, from concept to a product now poised to be marketed nationwide, has taken about two and a half years.
Kat and dogs?
The product name comes from Rackleff's nickname. On a hunting trip more than 20 years ago, he fell off the top bunk in a rustic cabin but landed on his feet, "like a big cat!" as a hunting buddy exclaimed.
So far, the Big Kat website shows the buggy only in black and shiny aluminum. But in Rackleff's office, he also has a display model in red and black, which somehow suggests dogs more than cats. No deals are in hand, but he is interested in sports licensing, which could one day make available buggies with logos.
At the Sports Licensing and Tailgate Show this weekend, Rackleff will be one of three product developers vying in a live "The Big Pitch" competition with Kevin Harrington, formerly of the TV show "Shark Tank."
Big Pitch competitors will receive feedback from industry experts, and the winner will get a slot in a 30-minute televised segment about new products on the Fox Business channel.
"That will be fun," Rackleff said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.