Business

Bluffton contractor rolls out new tow hitch

Terry Brinkley, right, inventer of the Switch Hitch, and his marketing director, Max Hoag, show off their swiveling tri-ball trailer hitch on Tuesday.
Terry Brinkley, right, inventer of the Switch Hitch, and his marketing director, Max Hoag, show off their swiveling tri-ball trailer hitch on Tuesday. Staff photo

His friends call him "MacGyver."

His business partner calls him an innovator.

Bluffton contractor Terry Brinkley, who builds custom swimming pools, was, like others, using multiple hitches on his fleet of work vehicles for pulling trailers with different coupler sizes. That meant changing hitch balls on the trucks every time a different piece of equipment was needed.

"Anyone that has ever experienced this knows how frustrating it becomes, especially when you can't remove the hitch because of rust and corrosion," Brinkley said.

To add to the frustration, the hitch pins were often misplaced or lost, and Brinkley grew tired of the inconvenience.

"My mind started turning," he said. "There's got to be a better way to turn these tri-ball hitches without having to remove them from the receiver ... and have it lock in place without having to pull the pins out."

Out of sheer necessity, Brinkley went to his workshop and designed a fix -- the Switch Hitch.

He machined and patented a swivel and locking mechanism that allows users to choose three different towing options without removing the hitch from its receiver. Users lift up on a spring-loaded carbon steel pin welded to a 2-inch bar of steel to rotate from one ball to another. The pin automatically locks in place once a towing option has been selected.

The Switch Hitch was given a Class IV towing capacity of up to 10,000 pounds of gross towing weight, based on testing.

In 2012 -- after spending $40,000 with a patent attorney -- the first hitches were manufactured and offered for sale.

Finding investors and local business owners to develop and produce logos, brochures and a website was relatively easy. Persuading distributors to buy the product? Not so easy.

Brinkley enlisted the help of former pool customer and Berkeley Hall retiree Max Hoag, who became fascinated with the product.

Hoag, who has 30 years of marketing experience working with automotive companies in Detroit, spent six months reaching out to 25 potential distributors, including Home Depot, Lowe's and NAPA Auto Parts. Only one, Tractor Supply Co., responded.

The company agreed -- after a 30-minute pitch -- to sell the product in 30 of its stores on a 90-day trial run that began June 10, Hoag said.

Switch Hitch is also sold in 20 D&B Supply stores in Idaho and can be purchased for $129.95 through Amazon.com or Sears.com, he said.

The company also has an advertisement running in the July and August issue of Popular Mechanics.

"But we still need help getting the word out," said Hoag.

He approached Peter Swift, a senior business instructor at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, who teaches a summer online entrepreneurship class.

"It's a challenge faced by a lot of entrepreneurs with a product that does not have mass appeal," Swift said. "I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to include it as a case study for students to devise a social media marketing strategy."

Swift said he will probably include Switch Hitch as a case study for a marketing class he teaches in the fall.

"I thought it was an ideal brain-teaser for both of my classes," Swift said. "... The one place -- a generational issue -- they are struggling with is positioning and marketing the product through social media. And the students live and breathe that."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom

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