Today: Milton Levine, who built a very successful company from an unusual but simple business idea.
“Uncle Milton” as he was later known was born in Pittsburgh on Nov. 3, 1913 to Russian Jewish immigrants Harry and Mary Levine.
During World War ll, Milton served in the Army and met his future wife, Mauricette Schneider a French citizen in a USO in France while she was playing classical piano. They were married in 1945 and later had a son Steven and daughters Harriet and Ellen.
But the unusual idea for his company came to Uncle Milton, on July 4th, 1956 while he was sitting poolside at his sister’s San Fernando Valley home, during a picnic.
He noticed ants parading across the pavement to eat everything they could reach. Watching this reminded him of his boyhood when he used to capture ants and put them in a bottle so he could see how they lived.
Uncle Milton decided millions of kids were as curious as he was as a boy and would love to have an Ant Farm, especially if it was attractive and affordable. With his brother-in-law, E.J. Cossman, his partner in a novelty toy company the two men owned, he designed an “antarium.”
The original “Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm” was made from transparent plastic which displayed a little farm with a sandy base in which ants built their home and observers could watch them “cavort.”
The partners marketed “Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm” by mail order in newspaper ads and they were on children’s TV shows to show the kids and their parents how interesting and fun an ant farm could be.
For just $1.99 and postage, a child would receive an ant farm and a mail in coupon to receive the ants. After sending in the coupon, he or she would wait excitedly knowing any day, a vial with 25 ants would arrive for his or her ant farm.
The ants were red harvester ants from the Mojave Desert collected by “ant rustlers” paid a penny per ant. But not among those ants was a queen, so the ants could not procreate. In a few months it would be time to order more ants or simply collect them from one’s own yard.
How successful did those ant farms become? To date, nearly 55 years later, they have sold 20 million of them, (that’s right, 20 million of them) now charging $10.99, cheap compared with many other toys.
But priceless is the uncounted number of science students created by “Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm,” and all the others students who have enjoyed it as well.
Over the years, Uncle Milton Industries grew to offer additional scientific and educational products such as butterfly and frog habitants and planetariums.
Uncle Milton had the joy of running the business until 1995, when at the age of 82, he stepped aside as CEO and his son Steven ran it. Then in June, 2010 the Westlake Village, CA firm was sold to Transom Capital Group, for more than $20 million.
Uncle Milton lived to see it. But on January 16, 2011, at the age of 97, he passed away. He is survived by Mauricette, his wife of 65 years and by their three children and three grandchildren and by his sisters, Pearl Cossman and Ruth Shriber.
But he is also survived by the many millions of people worldwide who have enjoyed or do enjoy his scientific and educational toys.
Uncle Milton was always impressed with ants. “Ants work every day and night, they look out for the common good and never procrastinate,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. “Humanity can learn a lot from them.”
But his favorite line about ants was, “I found out their most amazing feat yet,” he would say. “They put three kids through college.”
Success Tip of the Week:
Like Uncle Milton, be open to new ideas, even during holidays or in the most casual of settings. You never know when a good idea may land on or crawl across your lap.
In the next KazanToday:
A World War ll veteran who became an accidental movie star.