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David Bushnell, 91; Founded Binocular Company With Products Made in Asia

March 30, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

David Bushnell, the founder of Bushnell Optical Corp. who helped make binoculars an affordable must-have item after World War II, has died. He was 91.

Bushnell died Thursday at his home in Laguna Beach of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, his wife, Nancy, said.

Pasadena-based Bushnell Optical and its owner became famous, as well as financially successful, for marketing Japanese-made binoculars -- and later telescopes, rifle scopes, camera lenses and other optical products -- at half the price of competing goods manufactured in the U.S. or imported from Germany.

"I get a thrill out of making products available to people that are better quality than they expect," Bushnell told The Times in 1971, shortly before he sold his company to his much larger rival, Bausch & Lomb, Inc. The Bushnell company is now a part of Wind Point Partners of Chicago.

More of a prescient importer than inventor or manufacturer, Bushnell was one of the earliest Southern California businessmen to realize the value of marketing goods in the United States that could be made cheaply in Asia.

He was in Shanghai in 1947 on an around-the-world honeymoon with his second wife when he became intrigued by a trader's binoculars. Knowing the product was in short supply in cash-rich but goods-poor post-war America, he sought out the Japanese manufacturer.

Already in the import-export business, Bushnell sent a pair of the binoculars to his small staff in Los Angeles and told them to start taking orders. He also asked the Japanese factory to ship 400 pairs.

A dock strike, however, prevented the shipment's arrival for anticipated Christmas sales, and Bushnell's retail customers canceled their orders. When the binoculars finally arrived, he set up his new company in Pasadena as a mail-order operation to sell them. He also ran a small advertisement, targeting spectators at Santa Anita Park racetrack as likely customers -- the first of many marketing appeals he devised to convince Americans that every home needed at least one pair of binoculars.

A subsequent advertisement urged: "The world is beautiful. See it up close."

Bushnell sold the surplus and kept on selling. After turning a $20,000 profit the first year, he decided to import nothing but binoculars.

A trained engineer, Bushnell refined the product, ordering lighter-weight materials, wide angle lenses, coated lenses to reduce glare and faster focusing devices.

He continued to have the binoculars and other items made in Japan and Hong Kong where post-war labor was cheap, but to his precise specifications, placing his name on the products. The reliable and affordable Bushnell binoculars, scopes and lenses became familiar to both American and Japanese consumers.

Born March 31, 1913, in St. Paul, Minn., David Pearsall Bushnell moved to Los Angeles with his family as a child. He studied engineering at Caltech but, realizing graduates weren't getting jobs in the Depression era, dropped out to make his first of many trips around the world.

That first one taught Bushnell that inexpensive merchandise was readily available around the world and that his logical lifework should be the import-export business.

He completed a business degree at USC and set up shop. With $400 he earned working for Sunkist, he imported his first product -- hand-painted bone bracelets from Iran. He exported asbestos from Arizona, imported cement from Belgium and exported old shoes he bought from the Salvation Army for sale in China. In the late 1930s he handled around 50 products.

Bushnell proved so adept at the business he could even turn failure into profit. When he imported $1,000 worth of reed mats from Thailand, they were so worm-infested he had to burn them. But he noticed the cases containing the mats were pure teak and sold the wood -- making more money than he would have from selling the mats. World War II halted his burgeoning international enterprise, and he spent the years working for Lockheed Aircraft.

Bushnell, who also profited handsomely from Antelope Valley land speculation, served on the board of the Pasadena Boys Club, was a trustee of the United Church of Religious Science and was active in the Rotary Club in Pasadena.

After he retired in 1974 as a vice-president of Bausch and Lomb, Bushnell moved to Laguna Beach and helped found the Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach.

Besides his wife of 27 years, Bushnell is survived by two children from his first marriage to Frances Krug, David and Jean Salfen; two children from his second marriage to Nina Gmirkin, Stephen and Natasha Suter; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Services will be private.

The family has asked that instead of flowers, donations be sent to Opportunity International, 2122 York Road, Suite 340, Oak Brook, IL 60523 or to the Center for Universal Truth, 27121 Calle Arroyo, Suite 2200, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92625.

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