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The Amazing INFOTUBE®

By Cynn Chadwick

You see them everywhere.  They have become part of the American landscape. Popping up on rural roads in Maine, dotting subdivisions in New Jersey, along sidewalks in front of condos in California, these seemingly rudimentary clear plastic tubes capped red on either end can be found attached to millions of For Sale signs all across the country. The InfoTube® has become as much a part of today’s real estate market as the priced homes themselves. The function of the InfoTube® is pretty clear; inside these transparent, waterproof, airtight cylinders, homeowners and real estate agents, alike, shelter the specs of the homes they are hawking. Not unlike the old-timey sandwich boards of yesteryear, the InfoTube’s® modern equivalency does the same service in a much more efficient manner.  Interested, prospective homebuyers can drive up to a For Sale sign take the information and carry it away for further consideration at their leisure. It’s convenient, efficient, private, economical, and in today’s hustling and transient world of working adults, InfoTube® is one of the most ingenious inventions of our times.

The InfoTube’s® design is as straightforward as the woman who invented it. With good old fashioned American ingenuity, some stalwart Missourian Show Me, and that fast-truth of necessity being the mother of invention, Tommi Crow is the mastermind behind both the design and production of this simplistically brilliant product. The story of InfoTube’s® evolution is nearly as fascinating as the woman herself.

Bred and buttered in Missouri, as they say, this forty-something year old titan is a force to be reckoned with. Standing around 5’6’, short blond hair, bright green eyes, and a deep husky laugh, Tommi Crow’s energetic presence is larger than the compact frame that contains it.  Behind those bright eyes is a clever mind at work and you can almost hear the gears turning as she talks about how the InfoTube® came into being and the countless new projects she has on her many burners.

After graduating from the Missouri State University, in 1982 with a degree in elementary/special education, Tommi found herself in a highly competitive teaching market – even as a specialist. This, combined with a blossoming recession, she finally left Missouri for Dallas in hopes of a better employment climate.  She found it, but disappointingly it was not in teaching. Instead, she became a sales rep for Pulte Home Builders, which eventually led her to real estate and the opening of her own agency.

Before these days of cell phones, faxes, and the internet, a real estate agent had huge challenges in selling homes. A mere “For Sale” sign gave a potential home buyer only a phone number contact.  Dallas, at the time, was suffering a terrible blow to its real estate industry. Previously low interest rates and inflated construction projects saturated the market sending thousands of home-sellers into foreclosure—a disaster for some, a boon for others, but steep competition for all. Advertising spots in local newspapers were expensive, agents in the field were missing calls back at the office, and houses stayed listed for months on end;  buyers and sellers alike were frustrated by the conditions. As Tommi saw it, how to get information into the hands of the prospective clients quickly and efficiently posed the greatest challenge.

And so, in her garage, with hacksaw in hand, Tommi Crow made the first strikes against the white plastic PVC piping that was to become the prototype for the InfoTube®.  Along with rubber plumbing strap, universal end-caps, and a few sheets of sticky mailbox lettering, Tommi wrapped, capped, and clipped together the apparatus, which was first known as TAKE ONE (spelled out in black, peel and stick letters).

While the concept made sense: keeping the tightly rolled spec-sheets from flying away in the wind and getting soaked in the rain, there were a few flaws in the design. For one, the tubes were not transparent, neither agent nor buyer could determine what was even inside. The plumbing strap was cumbersome and the end caps were a bright orange, giving the appearance of dynamite sticks.  Not one to accept mediocrity, Tommi immediately replaced the PVC with clear plastic and upgraded the plumbing strap to stamped stainless steel. Eventually, as good ideas have a way of spreading, inquiries about TAKE ONE tubes poured in from other realtors in the area, all wanting to know where they, too, could purchase a tube.

 Tommi suddenly found herself, late at night, again, in her garage making tubes for her own business and others. As demand increased, becoming too much even for the moon-lighting carpenter she’d soon hired to make the tubes, she realized she needed a bigger operation to manufacture the goods.

It is here where the story comes around full circle. In 1990, with a growing demand pressuring her, Tommi took her product to the University of Texas at Denton’s Vocational and Rehabilitation Center. Here, the first InfoTube® assembly line opened and was operated exclusively by handicapped and disabled people. Tommi’s earliest interests in the special needs community and her immediate endeavors in creating her product merged—forming a perfect union.

In 1991, a representative from Home Depot, an enterprising new hardware company with a store in Dallas, contacted Tommi about the tube. Needless to say, the retailers’ interest in InfoTube® catapulted the company forward. At about the same time, the university’s vocational and rehabilitation center funding was cut, forcing her to find another facility. As fate seemed to be having a hand in this venture, it should come as no surprise that help was only a few blocks away. GoodWill employs scores of otherwise unemployable people, and again, Tommi saw the mutual benefits.  It was here that InfoTube® remained until she moved both herself and her company to the mountains of Western North Carolina.

For the next decade plus, Haywood Vocational Opportunities, a non-profit organization located in Waynesville, North Carolina, housed InfoTubes’® assembly and distribution center. Nestled in a small crook of a valley, this pristine modern facility with its native stone façade is surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. Umbrellas shade outdoor tables, and a grassy yard leads to a cool, babbling brook that borders the grounds. Indoors, there are employee locker rooms, break rooms, cafeterias with microwaves and vending machines, and a separate indoor smoking area. HVO is home to a number of manufacturing companies, and employs nearly two-hundred handicapped and disabled people. Of these men and women, dozens worked for InfoTube®.

We enter the cool, warehouse-sized room with its tall ceilings, sparse in décor but for the giant INFOTUBE® (one that Jack might find at the end of the beanstalk) hanging from the rafters. There is activity at every corner. People bustling about, the hum of small chatter, a manager with a clipboard stands surveying the operation. As Tommi strides in, all heads turn. There is immediate recognition in the smiles on the faces of those many who know The Boss. A young woman leaves her station and rushes over, wrapping her arms around Tommi who squeezes back and asks, “Did you finally get rid of that cold, Annie?” Annie smiles shyly and nods. Next, there are a number of high-fives from the men shooting rivets with stapler-like compression guns. We make our way around the line, and Tommi introduces both the stations and the assemblers. 

The assembly operation appears as simple as the InfoTube® itself. Clear tubes arrive measured and cut to length. They slide through a printing press (no more peel and stick letters) where the word INFOTUBE® is stamped in thick, black ink.  That once used plumbing strap, now replaced by straight steel is hand-bent to shape around a circular knob.  In this instance, Tommi confides that she would save money if she automated this station, meaning having the steel bent before shipping, but she wants to employ as many as possible – and practical – and can do so by keeping it in operation. The assemblers are paid by the piece. Next to each station, a small counter is mounted and each assembler hits the button for every finished part.

There’s a drill press whirring, and Russ, the guy who’s been operating it for years, is happy to show me his job: a quick thrust of the fast spinning bit bores down, pricking into the clear plastic. He offers me a go at it and I am equally as delighted to have successfully made my own mark on an InfoTube®

At the next station, Tommi skirts behind a small sweet-faced fellow with Downes’ Syndrome. He is seated and threading line – the kind that attaches our labels to our clothing – into the red caps, and hooking them to tubes.  I catch a glimpse of the golden-hearted teacher Tommi Crow must once have been, as the otherwise tough Missourian affectionately circles Johnny’s shoulders and whispers in his ear. He grins and breaks from his duties to give a quick hug back. After he demonstrates his job, Tommi leans over and says, “Hey Man, I don’t think you’ve been keeping track of your numbers here.” Laughing, she punches his counter button over and over. Johnny giggles and tells her he’s going to make a lot of money today.

As we stop and chat with each employee, it is plain that this is only one of many frequent visits Tommi makes to HVO. She knows the names of all of her full-time assemblers, and makes an immediate connection with the new ones. As she moves from person to person, asking about their lives, their families, their jobs, it is quite obvious that Tommi is thoroughly enjoying herself, and they her.  She appears to be connecting back to her roots, somehow.

Crow-Erickson Enterprises, Inc. manufactures well over half a million InfoTubes® per year – nearly three-thousand per day.  What is a little astounding to comprehend is that every single InfoTube® purchased in any Home Depot, Lowes or other major hardware stores in the United States was hand-made at this very facility. Each one assembled by this small community of handicapped and disabled, an oft-times unemployable population, in a little town in America.

When asked about the business-end of this enterprise – meaning, wouldn’t it be cheaper to automate or manufacture in Japan? 

Tommi offers this:  Maybe, but for what? This isn’t a commodity like food; this is a tool for selling a house. If I have to charge a few cents more per tube to employ twenty people here in America, people who want to work, who otherwise might not be able to work, who take pride in what they do, then so be it.” She turns to me, and in that straight-forward swaggering show me style, she adds:

“These are the most loyal an industrious employees I could ask for. Unlike others in similar manufacturing jobs, my folks get to see their products all over the place. They’ve been known to check out displays in Home Depot and Lowes, straighten shelves in disarray, and make formal complaints when the slots are empty.” She laughs. “They know that their very own hands have made that product. There’s pride there – for all of us.” 

By the year 2014, Tommi anticipates producing 1 million InfoTubes per year.  “Will you automate then?” I ask now, somehow worried for the security of the assemblers’ jobs in the face of a growing demand and the obvious practicality of  automation.

“I’ll never fully automate InfoTube,” she says, looking over her operation, the flutter of happy employees, the stacks of box towers packed with InfoTubes® readying for deliveries marked Tucson, Memphis, Boston, even Dallas, “Why should I?” she asks with a sly smile.

Imagine doing good and having great success – what another novel idea!