BY MICHAEL L. DIAMOND • BUSINESS WRITER, ASBURY PARK PRESS MARCH 25, 2010 - Original Article
Charles Stone was demonstrating a new toilet seat in his office the other day...wait, let's start over.
It was more like Stone was giving a sales pitch about Sani Seat, a toilet seat wrapped in plastic that he and his business partner, Jerry Wagenheim, said is the perfect antidote to messy public restrooms.
"It is such a no-brainer to me," Stone said. "It's cost-effective, it's sanitary, and it looks a lot better. Why wouldn't you (buy) it?"
Stone and Wagenheim own North American Hygiene Inc., an Asbury Park company that assembles and sells the Sani Seat toilet seat, a device that aims to make the, um, bathroom experience cleaner and more efficient.
They want to hop on board the trend in the cleaning industry that allows people to use public restrooms without touching a thing. Their customers already include Chicago O'Hare International Airport. But they admit selling their toilet seats at times has been a struggle.
The company has sold upwards of 5,000 seats — to airports such as O'Hare, restaurants and doctors' offices. Dr. Paul Klenoff, a dermatologist in Ocean Township, purchased a Sani seat several years ago, and his office manager, Donna Silverthorne, said it has been easy to keep clean and maintain.
"It's for sanitation reasons, really," Silverthorne said. "All the patients that come in think it's the best."
For now, the company has six employees and isn't profitable, but the owners think it could mean big business. Companies have been developing hands-free systems — faucets, paper towel dispensers, hand driers — to ease users' fears about the spread of bacteria and to be more environmentally friendly.
Even public toilets come with an automatic flush so users don't have to touch the handle. But when it comes to the seat, there are few options except to line it with paper to act as a buffer between...you get the picture.
Which poses problems of its own. Stone and Wagenheim said users aren't fully protected by paper. And they tend to flush the paper down the toilet, risking a back-up and a call to the plumber.
"This is antiquated technology," Stone said of the pre-Sani Seat seats.
Stone, 60, lives in Wall Township. He is divorced and has two grown daughters, Cori and Jodi. Wagenheim, 65, lives in Aventura, Fla., with his wife, Denise. He has two grown children, Kenneth and Mindi.
Stone was a young lawyer practicing in Neptune, and Wagenheim was a young entrepreneur with a magazine subscription business in the early 1970's, when they sat next to each other at a business networking event in Asbury Park.
Wagenheim quickly hired Stone for legal work. A decade later, they teamed to start Fax Express Inc., becoming one of the region's biggest fax machine suppliers, they said.
Meantime, Wagenheim started new ventures, including a bill collection agency and real estate company. But it wasn't until Stone saw the hygienic toilet seat at a trade show in Chicago in the early 1990s that they thought they found a product that could be as popular as the fax machine.
They signed a licensing agreement with the toilet seat's inventor. They made a few improvements. And then they began to sell it.
How does it work? Users wave their hands in front of a sensor, setting off a motor that rolls out a new piece of plastic around the seat. The old plastic is cut away to be recycled. The seat sells for about $190, but North American Hygiene expects to make most of its money by refilling the plastic.
It sounds like a why-didn't-I-think-of-that product, but Wagenheim said trying to sell the toilet seat hasn't been easy.
"It's harder than (selling) magazines," Wagenheim said. "I thought it would be the easiest product to sell in the world because it's sanitary. But it's very difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. People are used to putting the paper product down."
For now, Stone and Wagenheim are hiring distributors worldwide and hope their children will take over when they retire. By then, they hope the Sani Seat will be as common as the motion-activated faucet.
"Of all the (hands-free) items they should have chosen first" to install in public restrooms, Stone said, "they are choosing last."