For Chuck Mellon and his brother Bob, the road to riches was a dirt-bike trail in California's Sierra National Forest. The brothers were joy-riding in December 1994, when Chuck hit an icy spot. He got up unscathed—save for some holes in the sleeve of his sweatshirt, which he discovered when his thumb poked through one. Then he realized something else. "I noticed, huh, that's warm," says the now-former electrician. That simple hot flash sparked a multimillion-dollar business.
Chuck had tumbled onto the inspiration for Handcuffs, fleece sweatshirts whose extra-long cuffs, with thumbhole, roll down to create instant fingerless gloves. When the inveterate tinkerer first shared his notion with friends, he says, he got the classic eyeroll signifying, "Oh, Chuck and his harebrained ideas." Then he had some of the shirts made up—and sold 1,200 in 30 clays from a stand at a mall in Fresno, Calif., where both brothers live with their families. (Chuck, 40, and wife Janet, a homemaker, have three children; Bob, 38, and Joan, a medical transcriptionist, have two.)
This year, after striking deals with J.C. Penney and Foot Locker, the brothers expect to move $10 million of the shirts. "Though I think there's a bit of a fashion in the newness of this," says Bob, a tile contractor turned marketing manager, "somebody up in North Dakota right now is still just trying to stay warm."
Other buyers want to be cool. The patented shirts are getting a thumbs-up from wearers ranging from skateboarders to pro wrestlers to Garth Brooks. "One of my favorite sayings is, 'The difference between insanity and genius is the amount of success you have,' " says Chuck. And the amount of success they have? "At times, it's surreal."
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