It all started about six months ago with an email.
Nicholas Sovell, 38, and his 71-year-old dad — Nick Sovell — made a pitch to Walmart.
The multinational retail corporation (also the largest employer in the country) liked it and invited the Sovells down to Bentonville, Arkansas, where the company is headquartered, earlier this month to take their idea to the next level.
Nicholas Sovell works as the Executive Vice President of RPM Inc., a Savage-based company that manufactures a multi-category line of waterproof mats under its signature brand, Drymate.
So what was the big pitch? Mats. One to put under a pet’s feeding bowls — dubbed the “Pet Bowl Place Mat” — and one to put inside a sink cupboard to protect from leaks and keep things looking tidy. That one’s called the “Under the Sink Mat.”
While RPM manufactures a variety of different products, most of the ideas have stemmed from a “pain point” from someone within the 15-employee company, the younger Sovell said. The company is headquartered along Highway 13, across from Cargill and next to Rollx Vans.
When the Sovells learned they were one of the hundreds of pitches to receive invitations to head down to Arkansas and continue conversations with Walmart, off they went for the 10-hour car ride.
If you drove by the headquarters and didn’t know what it was, you could miss it, said Sovell, who has worked at RPM since 1997, initially during the summers while in college and then joining full time in 2002 after graduating from St. Cloud State University.
“It’s not like an ivory tower by any means … they’re not spending billions on their headquarters.”
The atmosphere in Arkansas with hundreds of entrepreneurs running about was exciting, he said. It was a communal environment and people were cheering each other on.
“Everyone is kind of there to mingle,” he said.
Sovell said once they received a “blue ticket” (the Sovells referred to them as “golden tickets”) meaning Walmart would like to continue conversations to perfect the product for its stores, the company offered plenty of free consultation services and seminars to the entrepreneurs.
“We got to sit in the big meeting room where Sam (Walton) used to give his big speeches,” he said. Walton founded Walmart and Sam’s Club. The fifth annual Open Call event in Arkansas was an underscore of Walmart’s commitment made in 2013 to purchase an additional $250 billion in products made, sourced or grown in the U.S.
Open Call included more than 600 meetings with pitches for a wide range of products, including toys, apparel, natural health and beauty aids, and food, including many organic offerings, according to information from the company. Participants traveled from 46 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
RPM already has products on Walmart’s shelves and walmart.com, including Drymate Cat Litter Mats, Drymate Dish Drying Mats and Drymate Deluxe Box Liner (for tool boxes and truck boxes). The Savage company also makes products under Walmart’s private label, including the Auto Drive Cargo Liner, Hypertough Oil Spill Mat and the Expert Grill Gas Grill Mat.
Nick Sovell, a lifelong entrepreneur, joined RPM in 1986 as a minority owner and Vice President. In 1997, when owner Gene Bachman retired, he sold shares to Nick Sovell and his son, Mike Bachman, making the two 50/50 partners. Mike Bachman has been president of RPM since 1980.
Nick Sovell is also the inventor of the Key-Rock, a fake rock used to hide keys inside.
Early on, RPM sold products that would be given as free gifts for other companies’ promotional offers. However, in 1997, RPM acquired a manufacturer that made three waterproof products for schools, one of which was a waterproof blanket. The blanket had a waterproof bonded barrier backing and was different than anything else on the market. The company eventually evolved into a business that sold products directly to retail stores.
So how big of a deal is it to expand RPM’s relationship with Walmart?
“It’s ginormous,” the younger Sovell said. With thousands of stores to stock, RPM will start to process Walmart’s orders about six months in advance. But it’s a good problem to have, he said.
The new products are expected to hit shelves in fall 2019. After that, Sovell said he hopes his father will take some much-deserved time off.