A Look Back At: The Willinger Bros.
I have been extremely fortunate to be able to live my hobby as a career my entire business life. I started out as a pet retailer and through hard work was able to be involved in all aspects of our business.
Today, as I work trade shows worldwide selling K-Line Pet Products, I deal with great young entrepreneurs who have almost no knowledge of who or what innovations paved the way for the success they enjoy today. As there are no books and nowhere to go today to learn about our rich past or the individuals who built the pet business from the ground up, I thought I’d start the process with a story about The Willinger Bros.
The Willinger Bros., Harding and Allan, were extraordinary in their vision of the future. They started a small firm called Wil-nes with their cousin, Harold Nestler, that launched most of the innovations we now take for granted in the aquarium field. Allan developed some of the first pumps, heaters and filters for aquarium use.
For example, heaters consisted of separate heating elements and themostats—two products and no pilot light. Allan put them together in one piece and added the pilot light. At first they made these products in the kitchen of their NYC apartment with help from their parents and friends.
They sold the products to aquarium dealers in and around the city—many of whom sold out of their homes, not storefronts. The selection of fish was mainly goldfish and livebearers. This is how it all started.
Wil-nes became the Metaframe Corporation, which launched the following patented exciting new innovations: The Hush 1, 11 and 111 Air Pumps, The Adjustable Aquarium Heaters, the Dynaflo Power filter which led to all the hang on power filters we know today, the Aqua Vac, the first mass-produced stainless steel aquariums in multiple sizes, the first lighted Aquarium Hoods, the first realistic, plastic aquarium plants, the first mass produced corner and plastic injection molded undergravel filters.
And Metaframe was responsible for packaging products that had never been packaged before: Packaged filter media, packaged aquarium gravel, and a host of other conveniently packaged accessories like air tubing, algae scrapers, plant sticks, granular fish foods, and, last but not least, The Habitrail.
Allan Willinger was the fish keeper, engineer, inventor, designer and a strategic thinker who was almost always in the background. He also was the father of Jon Willinger of JW Products fame.
Harding Willinger was the expert marketer who, with Allan’s help, made sure all packaging met their precise expectations. Harding was also a brilliant businessman who saw the potential in the pet business and built the first national distribution system to get their products to the masses. Harding’s vision required more capital, so they sold a good portion of the Metaframe Corporation, to the Mattel Corporation and that’s when we saw monumental growth. His vision brought the first national advertising on TV and in national magazines such as Look and Life of Aquarium Kits and The Habitrail. Allan and Harding dreamt up a national campaign in search of a “Teddy Bear Hamster,” and help make gerbils big business.
At the time there were only a few small distributors in the U.S., and there was one in Chicago with a talented sales team. Harding recruited Pete Peterson to move to Florida, Walt Ebers to move to Los Angeles, and few others to distribute the Metaframe line to key markets. Many didn’t have enough funding, so Harding helped with liberal terms and big inventories.
Harding helped fish and animal suppliers make livestock available. On a trip to San Francisco, he found a young firm collecting brine shrimp for fish food. Harding used Metaframe’s muscle to build the San Francisco Bay Brand of live and frozen foods.
After selling out of The Metaframe Corporation (and living up to their non-compete agreement), the Willinger Bros. re-entered the industry with Second Nature Aquarium Products.
The first launch was the Whisper Air Pumps. The Whisper pumps were made in Japan by the same factory that made the original Hush pumps. Allan said he learned a lot through his early years, and with Second Nature he was able to reach perfection. The Whisper pumps had a revolutionary silicone flapper valve and diaphragms in more sizes than imaginable. With the Plantastics aquarium plants Allan spent months making sure that each leaf was etched to ensure that it was a good surface area for beneficial bacteria to grow. This was in addition to making sure the plants were the most realistic and lifelike possible. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the success of the Whisper Power Filters and the revolutionary Bio Bag that sold by the millions.
After selling Second Nature to Tetra, the Willinger Bros. retired. Sadly, both have passed on, but not without leaving a tremendous legacy. Allan’s son and Harding’s nephew, Jon Willinger, practiced law before joining the family business. He recently sold JW Pet to PetMate. Jon had great teachers, learned well and built his own legacy.
Besides their brilliant vision, marketing and product innovations, the Willinger Bros. paved the way and shared their love of the pet business with all those who worked with them, as well as for many other pet industry counterparts. They were gentleman to deal with, helped anyone who needed it and did business that was an example to all.
I was blessed to have these two as my mentors and fortunate to be able to learn how to do business by example.
- Phil Cooper