March 03, 1986 12:00 PM

After Bill and Nickie Campbell became the proud parents of William Jr. on Feb. 2, 1983, they encountered a typical problem of bottle-feeding babies. Most baby bottles are too big for an infant’s tiny hands to hold before the age of 8 months. Until then parents must assist the child during feedings. Bill, 31, and Nickie, 24, went along with the status quo until Nickie’s dad, Rex Gore, a welding quality inspector at a power plant, made a trenchant observation. “He said, ‘Someday someone will put handles on these bottles so they’ll be easier to hold,’ ” recalls Nickie.

That nudge was all the Muskogee, Okla. couple needed: They determined to invent the better baby bottle. Nickie, then employed as a manager of a steak house, spearheaded the effort, while Bill worked full-time in his father’s wholesale plumbing supply business. Using modeling clay, she shaped various bottle forms, testing each on her child. “William was our R&D department,” Nickie laughs. A three-sided bottle and a four-sided bottle were scuttled before they hit upon the elongated doughnut shape that a patent search revealed was unique.

The name they picked, ÄNSA, sounds Swedish but was actually serendipitous. “We stumbled across it while working a crossword puzzle,” says Bill. “It’s a Latin derivative meaning ‘handle.’ We added the umlaut to give it a European flair.”

A major challenge was locating a company to manufacture the plastic prototype. Finally a blow-mold maker in Arkansas, accustomed to turning out models for plastic containers, agreed to create a mold, and a Miami company was found to manufacture bottles.

But when ÄNSA, Inc. exhibited its first wares at the Dallas Trade Mart, they were a bust. The bottles had been created in bright opaque colors like red, blue and green. Parents weren’t interested in bottles they couldn’t see through to determine if they were dirty. When the Campbells changed the plastic bottle colors to clear pastels, they were in business. The first 50,000 sold out in 60 days, and demand quickly got ahead of supply. Their leased Muskogee plant of 1,000 square feet was upgraded to 15,000 square feet. Startup expenses were about $10,000. (“We used money we would have spent on clothes and vacations—we just scrimped along,” says Bill.) In 1985, the first full year of operation, the couple grossed more than $1.5 million. They now have more than 35 employees, including an international sales director who’s mobilizing for an attack on Europe. At $2.50 per bottle, sales have vaulted to 250,000 a month.

And it was all done without the assistance of child development experts. Nickie notes that when baby William’s Muskogee pediatrician, Dr. Alexander Theodore, heard of their idea, he said, “How can I get in on it?” Indeed, Dr. Theodore has only one reservation: “It might encourage parents to let their babies go to bed with the bottle, and of course pediatricians hate that because it promotes ear problems and tooth decay.”

Despite the bottle profits, Bill, now vice-president of the company, and Nickie, the president, still inhabit the same two-story wood-frame house. Bill explains they are now paying themselves the same amount that they got from their old jobs (about $44,000 a year). “We’re trying to leave as much money as we can in the business,” he says. Both work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. while baby William stays with his maternal grandma.

To his parents’ dismay, 3-year-old William is still milking the family product for all it’s worth. “Our only problem is how to get the bottle away from him,” Nickie says. “When he goes into the warehouse, he just goes wild. He thinks that all of the bottles are his.” Since William is now old enough to be weaned, perhaps Mom and Dad should consider reinventing the cup.

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