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Kazoobie Kazoos

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Jay Karr/The Island Packet
Island kazoo magnate Rick Hubbard shows off a book on how to play the kazoo that comes complete with attached kazoo, just one of the many kazoo-related items offered by his company Kazoobie Kazoos.
 
Jay Karr/The Island Packet
Kazoobie Kazoo "specialist" Darren Wright staffs the hot dye stamping machine while fellow employees Stephen Murray and Jason Jones attach resonators to kazoos.
 
Jay Karr/The Island Packet
Rick Hubbard estimated that Kazoobie will produce half a million kazoos in 2002.

Kazoo entertainer turns manufacturer


Published Friday, January 25th, 2002

If necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention, then Rick Hubbard could be called the father of self-fulfillment.

Famous for his family brand of entertainment that encourages children to join him onstage as part of his trademark kazoo band, the Hilton Head Island resident and noted entertainer has added the moniker of industrialist to his resume.

Since last summer, he and three full-time employees have been producing what Hubbard claims is at least half of the nation's supply of plastic kazoos from the back of an airplane hangar on Hilton Head.

"This year we're probably going to do about half a million kazoos," says Hubbard.

Last August, Hubbard purchased one of the country's two major kazoo factories from a company in Detroit named Med-Tek for $215,000. It only made good business sense because Hubbard, in handing out kazoos at his 200-plus performances across the United States each year, represented about one-third of the Detroit company's annual sales volume.

"We just kept buying more and more for my shows. At the peak, I was buying 75,000 kazoos a year," Hubbard says, explaining he then passed the cost on to the venues that booked him. He was buying so many, in fact, that he also became a retailer of the musical instruments. "Over the course of the eight years I had been doing business as a kazoo distributor and, between my shows and Web site sales, we had become about 30 percent of the kazoo manufacturer's overall yearly volume."

Actually, Hubbard kind of fell into the business enterprise he now heads that carries the name Kazoobie Kazoos. "Kazoobie" is a word Hubbard says he invented to use in his show that means an exceptional, fun time.

He recalls that when the Internet became popular, he found, somewhat incredibly, no one owned the domain name Kazoos.com. So he registered it and established a Web site to promote his show. Because the word "kazoo" was so numerous on his pages, early search engines would direct Web surfers to his site.

"I was the No. 1 hit if you entered the word kazoos and, consequently, people started e-mailing me, asking me where to get kazoos for their parties, church events, civic events," recalls Hubbard. "I put up a page on my Web site saying, 'If you need kazoos, I buy so many a year, I'll box them up and sell them to you' and I started getting checks in the mail."

Hubbard also had arranged a pretty sweet deal for himself. Island Postal Center on Palmetto Road had rented him a small office, where he kept his inventory of kazoos. Because he was on the road much of the time, when he received an order, he would fax the information to the people at Island Postal Center, who would box up the order and mail it for him.

"I was running the whole thing out of my back pocket with a cell phone and a laptop," he says. "But I never imagined it would get so busy. I remember being ready to step on the stage at a festival and being on my phone and closing a deal on 5,000 kazoos."

A couple of years ago, Hubbard decided to expand the fledgling business and offered his road assistant, Stephen Murray, a job selling kazoos full-time. He set him up in a small office with the inventory, a computer, a telephone and an 800-number, and upgraded the Web site with credit card processing and a secure server. Murray is now the company's director of operations, supervising production and most aspects of the business with Hubbard still on the road much of the time.

"When he started answering the 800-number on a 9 to 5 basis and responding to e-mails immediately, my sales went up 40 percent," Hubbard says. "We were selling more than I ever thought possible."

The business soon outgrew the tiny office and, while driving around one day, Hubbard and Murray just happened to see a "For Rent" sign in the back of an airplane hangar, nestled among the trees on the back of Hilton Head Airport's general aviation site. The space was perfect because the owner of the hangar, Dr. Jack Hickham, an orthodontist, had used the back of the hangar to develop and manufacture a small orthodontical plastic device. An air compressor and air lines running through the walls already existed, as well as custom tables to accommodate shipping and other endeavors. Airplanes still share the hangar, divided by a wall.

The kazoos Hubbard manufactures are injection-molded using higher grades of plastic than the company's foreign competition uses, Hubbard claims. Med-Tek, which produces various products, still keeps the mold Hubbard purchased for $65,000 on its premises.

"The demand for kazoos is not such that you need a full-time injection-molding plant running 24 hours a day and plastic injection-molding is messy and complicated so we pay them to create the parts for us. They can output 100,000 kazoo parts in three days," says Hubbard, adding the company has investigated moving the production to South Carolina but, thus far, has not found anyone with the right machinery or the know-how.

The parts are shipped to the Hilton Head site, where employees assemble the parts and affix a hot dye stamp using foil. Most other companies, Hubbard says, use silk-screening, which he tabs an inferior process.

Using 12 colors, employees are able to mix and match the bodies and caps of the kazoos to create corporate and team colors. One consistently big seller is a blue kazoo with a yellow cap that is purchased by Cub Scout groups.

"You'd be astounded at the orders we get," Hubbard says. "We've sold kazoos to the military. I have a guy in California at a top-secret installation out there. All he could tell me was they monitor the perimeter of a very intense building they work in. So he bought a whole bunch of kazoos and every morning or afternoon, they get a break and they go out and tell jokes and play songs together and just break the tension of the fairly stressful jobs they have.

"I have a prison warden in Indiana who buys kazoos because be can't get the prisoners to sing, but he can get them to play kazoos."

As Hubbard is relating the stories, Murray sticks his head in the office and says Microsoft just called requesting kazoos with lanyards.

"Microsoft, huh?" says Hubbard, lifting his eyebrows. "Nice timing," he smirks, acknowledging the interview he's participating in.

"I didn't set that up!" swears Murray, closing the door.

Because Kazoobie Kazoos is wholesaler and retailer, Hubbard says middlemen have been cut out, thus lowering the cost. Depending on the volume ordered, Kazoos can be bought for 30 cents a piece. On the other hand, a metal, gold-plated kazoo that comes in a custom-made walnut box with glass sells for $35. It's a favorite gift for executives, Hubbard says.

Surprisingly, Hubbard says the biggest seller -- more popular than a Happy Birthday kazoo -- is a wedding kazoo.

Hubbard, a full-fledged musician who plays guitar, banjo, once played bass for Chuck Berry, led 30,000 kazoo players at Oktoberfest in Cincinnati, and is the only professional kazoo player to play at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington as part of a children's series 10 years ago, now thinks he's on to his next big coup.

He has a marketing plan he's sending out to all major league and triple-A minor league baseball teams this winter, offering his services and thousands of kazoos as part of a promotional night.

Last summer, he sold the Chicago White Sox 15,000 custom-imprinted kazoos to use as part of a music night at the team's ballpark.

"The deal is, if they buy a certain number of kazoos, I will fly to their location and lead an organized kazoo band at their event. They have hat nights, ball nights, now they can have their team logo put on a kazoo," Hubbard says. "I'm real big into marketing."

That's evident by looking around the company's workplace, which sports a new T-shirt the business is now marketing. Across its front with a picture of a kazoo is a slogan that Hubbard, known for his zany antics, has created. It reads, "If you build it, they will hum."

Contact Rex Buntain at 706-8124 or rbuntain@islandpacket.com.

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