BY DON KELLER, INVENTOR & FOUNDER OF KEL-LITE
I conceived the idea of Kel-lite while working as a deputy sheriff for Los Angeles County. I was tired of breaking cheap flashlights and forced to finish my shifts lightless. I started working on the concept in 1964, studying materials, costs and manufacturing techniques. I talked with material experts and concluded the best material was aluminum for strength, cost and weight. I learned certain aluminum alloys had better machining characteristics than others as well as which ones had a better look with anodize (finish).
This whole process took me over four years to bring it all together, then I had to have a prototype made.
There was a small machine shop in Covina California. Owned by Frank Patti. I contacted Frank with a proposal to become partners in Kel-Lite. He liked the idea but wanted to make a few lights to make sure we could produce them in such a way as to make them more affordable to the public. We put our design ideas on paper, bought the material and started making a prototype in early 1968.
The first prototype looked more like a space capsule in that the head had a radical taper to it. The second prototype was the large head KL model that we eventually produced. The first few lights we produced also had a very heavy knurl on the barrel, end cap and face cap. We later lightened the knurl as we received complaints from cops that it was tearing up their sap pockets. We eliminated the tail cap knurl as it was hanging up when they took the light out of their pocket.
In the later part of 1968 Frank and I formed a partnership and later a corporation to make flashlights. Frank machined the product, I designed, helped machine, assemble and sell the lights. As the target market was Law Enforcement I enlisted many cops around the country to help me sell them, I paid these people about $1.00 for each light they sold. The first Kel-Lites were the large head 2 cell through 7 cells. The original selling price ranged from $12.95 for a 2 cell to $18.95 for a 7 cell. This was a lot of money in the late sixties when a cop’s salary was around $600.00 per month.
In 1969 I resigned from the sheriff’s department and used my retirement money to go into the flashlight business full time. I maintained reserve status with the dept. until I retired in 1981. Soon we were having a hard time producing enough lights to fill all the orders, our total manufacturing space was around 2000sq ft. of which I had about 600sq ft. to assemble and ship the lights. We started looking for a larger space in late 69 and found a 10,000 sq ft building down the street from where we were presently located. As sales picked up I started receiving calls from police dealers wanting to purchase the light i.e. George F. Cake Co, F. Morton Pitt Co. etc. I had to now raise my retail prices to allow for a dealer discount. Prices then went to $15.95 for a 2 cell to $22.95 for a 7 cell. Quantities ranged from 1-36, 37-59 and 60-99 with a lower price in each quantity range. I started hiring sales representatives to sell the product and attended a number of trade shows where we demonstrated the Kel-Lite. I used friends who were active Law Enforcement officers to work the shows with me.
In early 1970 we started producing a small head version of Kel-Lite 2 through 7 cell, along with bringing other products on board to expand our product line. Some of the products Kel-Lite pioneered was the first revolver speed loader (Firepower) invented by John Hunt, Plastic practice ammunition (True Blue), Flashlight holders, Judo Sticks, Traffic wands and flashlight clamps were a few of the accessories we produced to enhance the light line.
In mid 1970 Tom Gratny (a former cop) joined the company and started handling a lot of the sales responsibilities. We found ourselves always short on capital and sold some shares in the company. One of the original; shareholders was Tex Shoemaker of Shoemaker Leather. Tex was a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. and we had worked the same sub-station together prior to his retirement.
In early 1971 Frank and I decided we needed help in managing the business, my experience fell short when it came to business management. I had met Norm Nelson who was at that time president of Per Lux Co. they produced the louvered driving lights for semi trucks. Norm gave me a lot of advice and I thought of him when we were discussing bringing a manager on board. We made an offer to Norm to join the company as General Manager, he accepted and became Vice President/General Manager of Kel-Lite along with stock options equal to mine. I wrote the Manual of Defensive Tactics with flashlights along with Norm as we both had martial arts backgrounds.
The months passed, sales increased and finances got more critical. Norm and I were having problems as I did not agree with his management style and undermining my authority. In January of 1972 a board meeting was held and I was voted out as president, Norm was voted in as President and shortly thereafter I resigned and left the company. Tom resigned shortly after I did.
In late 1972 or early 1973 Norm moved Kel-Lite to Barstow, Ca. Tom & I started Pro-light in 1973. Toward the end of the 70s Kel-Lite made an agreement with Safariland Leather products to take over the sales and marketing of Kel-Lite. During the Pro-Light years I designed a light for John Bianchi of Bianchi Leather called the B-Lite in Temecula , CA.
In 1979 I went to work for Tony Maglica of Mag Instrument, Inc. who designed the Maglite. Around 1983 Kel-Lite started working with Streamlight and eventually Streamlight bought out Kel-Lite and changed the name of the light to Excalibur.