SMOKINCHOICES (and other musings)

December 14, 2012

(Gold) Point Man

COURTNEY HERGESHEIMER DISPATCH PHOTOS Fountain pens await final assembly at Bexley Pen Co., the largest maker of fountain pens that has manufacturing in the United States.

P O I N T    M A N

Local fountain-pen manufacturer is a leading figure in the fine-writing-instrument niche

By Dan Gearino THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Along a West Side industrial strip is a business built on handwriting, a venture that manages to be a factory and a boutique all at once.

Howard Levy, founder and president of Bexley Pen, built his company in the early 1990s, when other U.S. producers were moving factories abroad.

Bexley Pen Co. Inc. is the largest maker of fountain pens that has manufacturing in the United States. Its founder and president, Howard Levy, built his company in the early 1990s, when other U.S. producers were moving factories abroad.

With three employees, including Levy himself, Bexley Pen assembles its products by hand, from the metal nib to the plastic barrel. Its small factory store is at 2840-B Fisher Rd., and its products also can be bought at retailers across the country and abroad.

The company occupies an unusual place as a prominent player in a niche that is far from prominent. At pen conventions, including one held each fall in Columbus, Levy is a celebrity. “We’re one of the best-known, best-kept secrets in the country,” Levy said.

Bexley Pen Co. Inc.

Employees: 3
Annual sales: Not disclosed
Year opened: 1993
President and co-founder: Howard Levy
Products: High-end writing instruments, most of which are fountain pens.
Website: http://www.bexleypen.com     
Source: company information

He begins the pen-making process with sheets of cast plastic or hard rubber that come in one of 40 colors or patterns. An industrial lathe cuts the material into the outer casing of the pen, including threads to allow parts to screw together. Employees then sand and polish the parts.

The work takes place in a two-room, 6,000-square-foot factory. In one room is the “dirty” work: the cutting and sanding. In the other is the “clean” work, the final assembly.

Prices begin at about $100. On the upper end, customers can special-order a model for about $23,000, a price that reflects the cost of precious-metal materials.

COURTNEY HERGESHEIMER DISPATCH    Fountain pens are polished until they shine at Bexley Pen. The company’s products can be bought at its local factory store and at retailers across the country and abroad.

Levy describes himself as a perfectionist — at home in his factory, and less comfortable in the world of sales and marketing.

The company’s main customers are retailers that specialize in high-end writing instruments and stationery. Among them is Appointments, a store in downtown Cincinnati owned by Doug Kennedy. He describes Levy as a “boutique manufacturer” who is well-known among pen enthusiasts.

“He has a very strong following,” Kennedy said. “Right now, I have two Bexleys in my pocket.”

A low-end fountain pen can cost as little as $10. Bexley Pen products are in a middle ground between the mass-produced ones from Asia and the ultrahigh-end ones made in Europe, he said.

BEXLEY PEN CO.    The red version of Bexley Pen’s just-released 20th-anniversary collection

The big player is Montblanc International, based in Germany, which has about 90 percent of the world’s high-end market, Levy said. He estimates that 50 companies, including his, divvy the remaining 10 percent. He declined to disclose his annual sales.

Levy, 58, said he became fascinated with fountain pens as a child in the suburbs of New York City. He was interested in the feel and performance of the pens and their differences from ballpoint pens.

As an adult, his day job was managing manufacturing plants, and his hobby was making pens.

He moved to central Ohio in 1991 to work for a manufacturer. Two years later, he started Bexley Pen as a side business, founding the company with L. Michael Fultz of Chicago and Steve Van Dyke of Milford Center. The two other partners were fellow pen enthusiasts with business experience.

Levy picked the name “Bexley Pen” because he lived in Bexley, but the company’s operations have always been in Columbus. He and his wife live in a house in the suburb, and they raised three sons there.

The company has endured many ups and downs, none more difficult than the recent economic downturn.

Levy survived the recession in part by beginning to offer steel pen nibs as an alternative to gold, which reduced his prices and helped sales. Pen enthusiasts prefer gold because it has more responsiveness, but it had become too expensive to remain a standard item, he said.

Fountain-pen enthusiasts tend to be older men, but Kennedy from the Cincinnati store has seen a recent rise in sales to younger buyers.

“Young men are finding old-school products,” he said.

He thinks this is kind of like the resurgence in interest in old-style shaving equipment, such as brushes and safety razors. “There’s a certain nostalgia about a very practical item,” he said.

Levy is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his business. He describes current sales as good, but they always could be better. He still gets excited about going to work.

“Every day, I love coming in and trying out new concepts and new designs,” he said.

dgearino@dispatch.com

(Whenever I can find special companies of interest – – that are “MAKING IT IN AMERICA”,  that’s a turn-on and should be heralded.  .  .  guess I’m just funny that way.   Imagine – “gold nibs”  Wow !   Jan)

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