You’ve probably never heard of Steve Hartman or know what a backer rod is. Hartman, the current CEO and president of Industrial Thermal Polymers in Toronto, Canada, (along with his father) turned the backer rod into something you most likely use every summer.
The pool noodle.
On a show produced by Kai Ryssdal on Marketplace called “Brought to You By,” Hartman talks about how he and his father joined forces to start a plastics company back in 1980. Soon after, Industrial Thermo Polymers began manufacturing backer rods which are used in expansion joints in skyscrapers. Like any prolific invention, it started off as something else entirely. The gray 9-foot rods were always around the office and a few of them inevitably ended up at Hartman’s father’s swimming pool.
“It seemed like every time we jumped in the pool,” the pool noodle inventor said, “we were playing with these things.”
Understanding their appeal, the father-son tandem decided to dress them up with color and hit the market. Pool noodles initially had a hard time finding anyone who was willing to pick them up and when a store would try to sell them, it was usually at the wrong price point (something like $15—in the 90s!).
Put simply by Hartman, “it was a tough sell.”
So tough that the Hartmans never considered getting a patent for the pool noodle. As patents work, “once you show a product to the public, you have one year within which to file a patent. We thought, ‘What’s the point of filing a patent? No one’s buying them.’” So the ITP never got exclusive rights to the invention.
Eventually, a company called Canadian Tire—a store that carries all kinds of odds and ends—decided to carry the product and sold it at the right price so that it would be more of an impulse buy. Even without a patent, the pool noodle took off. ITP’s pool noodles currently represent 50% of the pool noodles on the market in North America.
Hartman estimates his company produces 6-8 million pool noodles annually.
“We’re certainly the largest single producer in North America.”
Steve Hartman lost his father suddenly in 2002 after working together for over two decades. Pool noodles will always be a reminder of fun they had together that turned into something bigger than either of them could have anticipated.
“A lot of people asked how we could work together for 22 years,” Steve reflected. “And I said he was more like my best friend than my father.”