It's been almost 20 years since Ingrid Kosar figured out a way to make thermal bags that would keep pizza and other meals hot enough for home delivery.
As it turns out, there's another kind of sizzle -- albeit more subtle -- that's kept Thermal Bags by Ingrid, Inc., a hot commodity for nearly two decades.
Ingrid Kosar holds one of her company's camouflage delivery bags.
The sizzle in question is fueled by none other than Kosar herself. It's the result, associates say, of her ability to combine high-quality, innovative products and connect with her customers.
So is Ingrid Kosar a marketer's dream?
"Oh yeah, oh yeah" says Bob Sandidge, an independent marketer whose Creative Core has worked with Kosar's company 2½ years. "The great thing about Ingrid is that you don't have to go in and make up any stories."
Headquartered just outside Chicago in Gilberts, Ill., Thermal Bags by Ingrid has 14 employees and annual sales of a bit more than $2 million. The company produces in the neighborhood of 200,000 sewn bags annually, making it one of the largest in the thermal bag industry.
"Everything we stock we make here," Kosar said. "But sometimes, if it's a custom order and a large quantity where we might need 5,000 bags, we bring them in from overseas. But our customers will know that ahead of time. We don't try and fool anybody."
More than half of Thermal Bag's business is with the pizza industry -- but there are others. Kosar in particular enjoys supplying Meals on Wheels programs with delivery bags.
"There's just a lot of sweet little old ladies and volunteers whose hearts are in the right place," Kosar said. "I always wanted my own business, but I also wanted to do something that helped people in some small way."
All this sits well with Sandidge's sensibilities.
"I do marketing consultations with a lot of companies, and I have a bias to women because they show greater sensitivity to the whole aspect of business," he said. "It's nice to see women who don't just emulate the male approach in the marketplace."
The only thing killer about Ingrid's approach, Sandidge said, is her creative instinct.
"She doesn't think she needs to be a tough business person to be a successful business person," he said. "Over time I've seen her in a lot of different environments. She's quite creative and innovative and she's surrounded herself with some really good people. She's also real good with industry people."
Bill Seliskar, who was Kosar's partner during the company's first six years, said words alone can't define the secret to her success.
"You'd just have to be around that woman to fully understand," he said. "She's just a pleasure to be around. First, she's brilliant. Sometimes I think she's thinking 20 years ahead of time, all the time. And when she presents an idea, she can get everybody in the room excited about it, no matter how far fetched. I've never met another person like that."
No Ordinary Bag
While working as a purchasing agent in 1982, Kosar dreamed of owning her own business. That same year, she and Seliskar met. He owned a company that produced, among other things, corrugated cardboard circles on which pizzas were placed inside delivery boxes.
"People do come and go. But Ingrid's been around a long time and that's because she really cares about her customers and the quality of her product and relationships."
"I was kind of aggravated one day and said, 'If somebody could come up with a bag that releases steam but keeps the heat in without 50 vent holes, they'd really have something,' " Seliskar recalled.
Knowing the idea had merit, Kosar set about inventing such a bag. To get an idea of what sort of performance level it would have to meet, she asked the people at Domino's Pizza. Back then, Kosar said, pizza stores relied on hot boxes, sterno heaters and plastic-formed carriers -- all of which had their drawbacks (including some backseat car fires). Plus, none were cheap.
Domino's told her the ideal bag would keep a pizza 140 degrees or warmer for 45 minutes.
Over the next year and a half, she worked on different bag designs using a variety of insulation materials, smartly applying for patents all the while.
In 1983, Kosar phoned Seliskar with a reminder.
"You remember you told me if I invented a bag you'd help me get started?" she asked.
Seliskar did remember, and he helped finance her company's startup in late 1983. As a partner, he said he got so involved that "I basically went to work for her," becoming the company's top salesperson.
Kosar learned quickly that inventing a product was one thing, but marketing it, manufacturing it and managing the people necessary to make that happen challenged her in ways she never expected.
"I've made every mistake you can think of," she said. "But we had this saying, that 'We're too stupid to quit.' You can't ever consider quitting. You just have to hang in there and trust that everything is going to turn out fine."
As the business grew and orders started flowing in, Kosar began to expand and improve her product line. Always foremost in her mind, quality almost has become a drag on new orders.
"We've had customers who bought bags 10 to 15 years ago, and who call and say, 'Well, we finally need another bag,' " she says. "It almost hurts future orders for us. But that's the way we make them."
Kosar's largest-ever order came from Domino's, which asked her to design a bag that one day would become the company's much ballyhooed Heat Wave product. The 90,000-unit order represented nearly half a year's business for the firm.
Problem is, Domino's hasn't called much lately.
"It's a shame," Kosar said, laughing. "They're (the bags) too durable."
Seliskar left Thermal Bags in 1989 to further Cats Claws, a cat toy manufacturing firm he founded. He and Kosar remain good friends and call each other monthly. And should the feline fun market fizzle, he knows he could still go back and sell for his former partner.
"She was a partner, but she was also an excellent friend," he says. "I know right now that if something happened here with my company, I could go up there and work for Thermal Bags and I could make a hell of a good living.
"There's one thing about quality. You can always sell it. And that's what Ingrid is about."
Adds Sandidge: "She's not so much interested in building a big business as she is in building a good business. Every year it's more competitive. People do come and go. But Ingrid's been around a long time and that's because she really cares about her customers and the quality of her product and relationships."
Owning and running her own business has given Kosar some good memories, like the time a White House chef bought one of her bags at an exhibit in Chicago and left his gold-plated business card with her.
The Women's Business Enterprise National Council recently certified her company as a woman-owned small business, and Thermal Bags once was nominated U.S. exporter of the year.
"That would have been neat to have won; we would have gone to the White House to meet the President," she said.
Most of all, she said, she relishes working with customers she enjoys, like the Meals on Wheels people. But if she had to choose a commercial group she likes the best, it would be pizzeria operators.
"They've always been there for us. They're loyal and they're great to work with."