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Company in the Spotlight: Gemini Kaleidoscopes is a visionary success

'Black hole' idea became a colorful business, as Zelienople firm makes 1 million kaleidoscopes every year

Sunday, December 13, 1998

By Joyce Gannon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When he launched Gemini Kaleidoscopes 17 years ago, Michael Thurston didn't beat the bushes for start-up cash or customers.

 
  Linda and Mike Thurston have turned making kaleidoscopes into a thriving business - Gemini Kaleidoscopes ships more than one million to shops nationwide every year. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

He was actually looking for a way to quietly abandon the venture.

Thurston admitted that when he and his wife, Linda, sent samples of their colorful kaleidoscopes to the Smithsonian Institution back in the early 1980s, he hoped they would be rejected.

"I felt we were putting money into a black hole. ... My idea was to shut it down," he says. But the national museum couldn't get enough of them and Gemini Kaleidoscopes' business took off. The company now ships roughly 1 million kaleidoscopes a year to museum shops, specialty toy stores, card shops and companies that buy custom 'scopes for promotions or sales incentives.

"I thought maybe it was a fluke; I didn't know if the stuff had any charm," said Thurston, 58, a former engineer and business manager for Alcoa who met his wife, Linda, 56, a former dietitian and homemaker, when both were students at Carnegie Mellon University.

After graduation, the couple lived in Los Angeles and other places as Michael pursued an engineering and management career with Alcoa. He left the corporation around 1978 to work at smaller firms in the United States and Europe to get more experience as a hands-on manager.

 
  Gemini Kaleidoscopes

BUSINESS: Designs, assembles and sells kaleidoscopes.

HEADQUARTERS: Zelienople

EMPLOYEES: 25

HISTORY: Michael Thurston, formerly an engineer and manager with Alcoa and his wife, Linda Thurston, a former dietitian and homemaker who dabbled in design work, started the business full-time in 1981 after building their first kaleidoscope.

   
 

Linda, meanwhile, taught at the West Penn Hospital School of Nursing and dabbled in design work for a friend's company until 1980 when a business contact of Michael's asked the Thurstons to build a kaleidoscope.

After their first creation, they started "fooling around for the fun of it" with kaleidoscopes and soon decided to work on them full-time.

Once the Smithsonian placed orders - and the couple finally acknowledged they had a salable product - Linda Thurston took samples to shows and sales representatives in New York City "and suddenly we were very busy," Michael Thurston said.

Not sure how to finance Gemini's rapid growth, Thurston visited an old friend, prominent businessman David Christopher, who at the time was partner in charge of the Pittsburgh office of accounting firm Price Waterhouse.

When Christopher suggested they approach banks to secure a loan, Thurston was still not convinced a kaleidoscope business made sense.

"I told the banks I wouldn't be disappointed if they turned us down ... I thought it was still a crapshoot," he said.

But the company secured financing, and working out of the basement of a house in Wexford, they soon had a steady flow of orders.

By 1988 they had set up shop in their current headquarters, a mix of office and warehouse space located just off the Evans City exit of Interstate 79 in Zelienople.

The plain, mustard-colored facility has a tiny Gemini sign near the front doorbell but gives no hint at the creative products being made inside.

Gemini's staff of 25 makes the plastic lenses used in the kaleidoscopes. Some of the lenses are polished for weeks before they're installed into pre-manufactured fiber tubes. Alcoa supplies the metal used for the small mirrors for each kaleidoscope. Workers then place the tiny beads or plastic parts that provide the colorful designs and patterns when reflected by multiple mirrors and viewed through the lens.

If all parts are in stock, it takes about 10 to 15 minutes to assemble one kaleidoscope, Linda Thurston said.

Gemini also designs the exterior labels for its kaleidoscopes but prints them off-site.

The company typically ships orders within 24 to 48 hours of receiving them, she said.

While most of Gemini's kaleidoscopes are less than a foot long, it has made larger ones, including a three-foot model it designed for a Lego display at the Mall of America in Minnesota. One of the smallest is the five-inch-long "Teenie-Weenie" that a child can easily slip into a pocket.

Most of its products retail for $5 to $20.

One of the custom kaleidoscopes in Gemini's collection is a bright red one designed for Edwin Schlossberg and his wife, Caroline Kennedy, to use as their 1995 family Christmas card. Other custom designs are one featuring pickles and tomatoes made for H.J. Heinz Co. when it dedicated its renovated North Side plant in 1992; one featuring Peter Max art that was featured in a Spiegel catalog; and custom designs for the Special Olympics and Sports Illustrated for Kids.

Gemini is currently designing one for the Martha Stewart Living catalog.

The company sells only to a network of toy and gift representatives that in turn distribute the kaleidoscopes to retail outlets. That's a big reason the company has been slow to create an Internet site: It's not ready to sell directly to the public, Michael Thurston said.

Among the places around Pittsburgh that sell Gemini kaleidoscopes are Shadyside Variety Store, Watermelon Blues in Oakland, Carnegie Science Center, the Carnegie Museums and the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

Thurston declined to disclose sales but said they are under $10 million and "getting a little bigger each year."

About 20 to 25 percent of revenues come from international shipments to Europe, Asia, Canada and South America. Sales to the Pacific Rim are especially strong despite problems with Japan's economy, he said.

"Their middle class is not in a recession like their government is," he said. "Any place there's an emerging middle class with good, disposable income, people will pay a premium for a kaleidoscope."



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