Presto Chairman Brought SaladShooter, FryBaby to the Masses
National Presto Industries Inc. introduced
the home pressure cooker at the 1939 World's Fair. The company's longtime
chairman, Melvin S. Cohen, believed in his flagship product so firmly that
his dinner often required three of the contraptions to prepare.
Under Mr. Cohen's leadership, the Eau
Clair, Wis., appliance company developed dozens of household gadgets,
including the FryBaby and the SaladShooter. For every winner there were
numerous duds, like the ChipShot potato chip slicer.
Mr. Cohen, who died Dec. 16 at age 90,
stockpiled the company's cash in between expensive product rollouts. From
1994 to 2000, Presto had at least 70% of its assets in investment
securities. The Securities and Exchange Commission subsequently demanded
that it register as a mutual fund but lost an appellate court decision in
An attorney trained at the University of
Minnesota, Mr. Cohen worked at the Office of Price Administration and the
Civil Aeronautics Board before joining the National Pressure Cooker Co. in
1944. The company had put kitchen tools on the back burner during the war
while concentrating on munitions manufacture for the government.
After the war, pent-up consumer demand for
pressure cookers drove rapid expansion. The company tended toward vertical
integration, doing its own tool-and-die work, printing and shipping. In
1946, Mr. Cohen married Eileen Phillips, daughter of the company's largest
In 1953 the company began concentrating on
the burgeoning consumer market for appliances. It introduced the first
steam iron to use tap water, and then in 1956 had a big hit with a
submersible electric frying pan, the first of a long line of submersible
By now an expert on patent law, Mr. Cohen
negotiated an agreement with the Farber family that prevented a
potentially destructive court battle over a similar Farberware product. He
was named Presto's president in 1960 and chairman in 1976.
Under Mr. Cohen's leadership, Presto
developed its own products and avoided debt while continuing to produce
munitions as American involvement in Vietnam scaled up.
"One of Dad's guiding principles: Thou
shalt always have a war contract," says Maryjo Cohen, who succeeded her
father as chairman in 2002.
The focus returned to consumer goods in the
1970s, when Presto scored big with the PrestoBurger and FryBaby,
appliances designed for making McDonald's-style meals at home. Presto had
another hit with its slicer/dicer SaladShooter, introduced in 1988, and
another with the TaterTwister in 1991.
Despite strong sales, the company didn't
have a major new introduction after that, and the stock price stayed flat
for years. By 1999, Presto had built a cash reserve that attracted the
interest of shareholders, the SEC and the New York Society of Security
Analysts, which issued a report calling for greater accountability at the
Seeking to invest the cash in new products,
Mr. Cohen in 1999 issued a public appeal in Inventor's Digest that
generated 565 proposals, including a motorized jump rope.
"Realism necessitated rejection of all but
43," he wrote. "None survived critical analysis."
In droll letters to stockholders -- he
single-handedly penned the annual corporate report starting in the 1940s
-- Mr. Cohen stressed competent corporate governance and the company's
unbroken string of dividends (set to extend to a 65th consecutive year,
Ms. Cohen affirms).
Notes Ms. Cohen, "Just about all our
competitors have merged or gone out of business. We're the last of the