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Gadget Man : Aficionado Turns His Hobby Into a Thriving Mail-Order Business

March 29, 1988|BARRY STAVRO | Times Staff Writer

Consumer electronics salesman Rich Kullback remembers the day Drew Alan Kaplan called to complain.

Kaplan, owner of a thriving mail-order electronics firm in Canoga Park called DAK Industries, has a reputation as the ultimate gadgets freak, someone who literally takes things apart to see how they work.

Kaplan had agreed to buy some portable speaker systems, but had discovered that there was only one speaker in each unit, not two as promised. "He called me up," Kullback remembered. "I sat listening on the speaker phone. He said, 'OK, I'm opening up the left one.' You had to take a hammer to it to get inside to look at it. I could hear the hammering. You had to destroy the plastic to get in there. Ouch."

The manufacturing company Kullback represented agreed to put in the second speaker. Only then did Kaplan take delivery.

Approach Yields Returns

Kaplan has used this hobbyist-turned-fanatic approach to build one of the nation's biggest mail-order consumer electronics firms. As sole owner of DAK Industries, he presides over an estimated $120-million-a-year business. His 68-page DAK catalogue is mailed across the country, and its hallmark is the unusual first-person style of the ads, each with Kaplan's byline and with up to 1,400 words of text per page. Every word is his own.

He sells everything from radar detectors (to alert drivers to police speed traps) and stereo speakers to security lighting systems, hand-held photocopiers and televisions with 2-inch screens.

"Normally, you look at a catalogue and you see a picture of an item with some description. But this man writes a story. It's like reading a novel," said a DAK supplier, Al Mucciarone, vice president of marketing for CBM America Corp., a Los Angeles marketing arm for Citizen Watch Ltd. of Japan.

"Kaplan is one of the most brilliant people in the audio business," said Roland MacBeth, national sales manager for Cerwin-Vega, a Simi Valley maker of stereo loudspeakers. "There are a lot of talented engineers needed to produce a product. But it takes a brilliant merchandiser to bring it to the attention of the public."

Yet, while making a name for himself as the L.L. Bean of consumer electronics, Kaplan remains a reclusive figure. Friends describe him as a loner who spends much of his time holed up in his $700,000, gadget-filled hillside home in Tarzana preparing his five or six catalogues a year.

"When he's producing a catalogue, you can't talk to him," said one of his suppliers. "It can take 10 minutes to 10 months to get him on the phone."

Kaplan, 41, rarely talks to the press and refuses to be photographed. "I'm not a publicity hound," he said in a telephone interview, declining to be interviewed face-to-face. "No. Then you'd take a picture of me."

"Drew is an aficionado of adult toys," said another DAK supplier, Gary Stines, Western regional manager for Emerson Radio. "Everybody who works for Drew is a gadgeteer. It's like Santa and his elves. I go up to his house for a meeting and end up spending half my time playing with his new toys."

'Grander Scale'

Kaplan founded his business in the 1960s while studying psychology at UCLA. On the side, he sold reel-to-reel tapes and installed stereos. "I had nine tape decks in my dorm room. I started selling tapes to support my hobby. I'm still doing what I did then. It's just on a grander scale," he said.

He shies away from selling readily understood products such as VCRs and color TVs, and hunts for consumer electronics that, in his words, require "an explanation." To move his merchandise, Kaplan uses hyperbolic headlines: "Ego Basher" (for a computerized chess game) or "Stealth Bomber Plus" (for a cassette tape deck). He drops names: William F. Buckley is a satisfied customer of DAK's electronic thesaurus.

He also uses colorful product descriptions. Of a computer modem, he writes: "Sex Education 1A. You need to determine whether your computer's . . . connector is male or female. If you look at the picture above, you'll note that . . . connector has holes going in it. It's a female. If it had copper pins sticking out, it would be a male. Now wasn't that simple? So, if yours is female, order our male cable and modem program. . . ."

Marshall Buck, chief acoustical engineer for Cerwin-Vega, calls DAK a gadgets catalogue. "I went through one of his catalogues recently. Because my sales resistance was strong that day, I thought every single one of those things was a useless gadget. Nobody needs any of this stuff."

But Kaplan claims 2 million active customers, and Arnold Fishman, who runs Marketing Logistics, a direct-marketing services firm near Chicago, pegs DAK's sales at $120 million last year and growing 20% a year.

Sears is the top mail-order firm with about $2 billion a year in sales, Fishman said, and dwarfs DAK, but he said DAK--along with The Sharper Image in San Francisco and Cincinnati Microwave--is among the biggest consumer electronics mail-order firms in the nation.

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