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EXECUTIVE PACKS PUNCH AT 11 BUSINESS WITH MOTHER BEGAN AS SCHOOL PROJECT

Fred Conners doesn't look like a typical company vice president.

For one thing, he's not even 5 feet tall. For another, he's only 11.

Conners is second in command at Happy Camper Inc., a home-based company that sells insulated cooler-backpacks, lunch boxes, hip bags and can coolers.

Fred and his mother, Shirley, are partners in the business. So far, the company has sold about 237 of the cooler-backpacks through mail order. This spring, the backpacks will be carried by upscale stores and mail-order companies such as AM&A's, L.L. Bean, Crate and Barrel and Hammacher & Schlemmer.

The enterprise started as a school project.

Fred had to invent a product for the Willow Ridge Elementary School "Invention Convention," a school exercise that teaches kids entrepreneurship and inventiveness. The result was a 2-foot-tall backpack with a removable, zippered cooler compartment on the bottom. It sells for $99.95 plus shipping.

"My mom always made me carry things to the beach, . . . and I got sick of it," Fred said, explaining how he got the idea.

His backpack allowed him to put everything he needed in one bag -- food or pop in the cooler part and towels or magazines in the backpack part.

His mother helped him design and sew the first backpack. Then she thought, "Why not set up a company?"

Mom became company president; son vice president.

Ms. Conners also made the pattern for the backpack, applied for a patent, found an American manufacturer who helped design the lunch boxes, hip bags and can coolers, had business cards and stationery printed, placed ads, took orders and is in the process of trademarking the company name.

"I wanted to teach him if you want to try something, go for it," Ms. Conners said. "I wanted to show him that if you do work hard enough, you'll get it."

The most difficult part was finding an American manufacturer.

After researching 15 companies, she discovered Chesal Industries in Milwaukee, which manufactures tube-shaped beverage coolers for golf carts. Chesal supplies the insulated cooler pieces for the backpacks.

It also produces, stores and mails the finished backpacks to customers from its Milwaukee plant.

Ms. Conners handles the order-taking from her Town of Tonawanda home. The insulated cooler section of the backpack is removable and measures 13 by 11 inches. It can hold 18 pop or beer cans. The backpack section is a foot tall.

The project has had its ups and downs. Mother and son borrowed $12,000 in start-up money from friends and family because a bank would not approve a loan for the fledging company.

"But when we're down, something good always happens," Ms. Conners said.

She said the best thing about the project is that she gets to spend time with her son. They both thought up the name and designed the bright, pink triangular logo found on all their products.

The next few months will find the Connerses working on expanding the line into plastic cups and plates, attending trade shows in Boston and Chicago and waiting for the backpacks to appear in local stores this spring.

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