* Job: President of Viatek Consumer Products Group
* Age: 47
* Education: A native of New Jersey, he graduated from the University of Central Florida
* Career: Lentine and his affiliated companies have been developing and inventing products since 1992. He began promoting his products on television in 1996, including on HSN, the Shopping Channel Canada, QVC, USA, QVC UK, QVC Germany, and Shop TV Japan. He moved his business to Chattanooga in 2011.
* Distinctions: He has filed for or got more than 100 patents
* Personal: He and his wife, Kelli, have three sons
You may not know the name Lou Lentine or the company he founded, Viatek Consumer Products Group. But there's a good chance you own some of his merchandise.
Maybe all the cords from your TV and sound system are plugged into the Quirky Pivot Power, a bendable power strip and surge protector.
Maybe you've washed your car with the Mighty Blaster Fireman's Nozzle, which can supercharge the stream of an ordinary garden hose.
Maybe you clean your floors with a Hurricane Spin Mop, known for the centrifugal spinning bucket that keeps the microfiber mop (and your hands) out of dirty water.
The source of those products and dozens more is Viatek, which has been headquartered in Chattanooga's Bonny Oaks Industrial and Office Park since 2011.
The driving force behind Viatek is Lentine, 47, an inventor and entrepreneur. The New Jersey native has been producing and developing products for more than 25 years — and tinkering since childhood.
"I was always taking apart things and putting them back together as a kid," he says. "If it was a radio, bike, motorcycle, etc., I always wanted to figure out how it worked and how to make it better."
Childhood also foreshadowed another evolving trait, he adds. "My mom said I also always remembered every TV commercial jingle and, when grocery shopping, would sing them to her."
That affinity for television advertising would serve him well when he began pitching his products on shopping networks HSN and QVC.
"I started selling on HSN back in 1996," he recalls. "I was 25 years old and wore fake glasses to try to look older. I was well-received on air because I was not only the inventor but also the expert for the item."
Lentine has filed or is named as the inventor on more than 100 granted or pending patents, he says. He keeps a watchful eye on trending products and will move on to the next idea when an item doesn't gain traction.
"It takes several losers to come up with a winner," he says. "But I have had losers become winners years later."
A small Bluetooth speaker was a failure before advances in smartphones, he cites as an example.
"Years later we brought it back to the market, and we sold many thousands," he says. "Sometimes you think you have come up with the next Night Stars, and unfortunately the consumers don't react."
Night Stars is Lentine's biggest success to date, totaling more than a billion dollars in retail sales, he says.
The idea took root after Lentine's father took a spill on a ladder while hanging Christmas lights in 2010. The next year, Lentine's wife, Kelli, insisted that their decorating would be done by professionals to keep Lentine off the roof. The $2,000 bill for that service compelled the inventor to look for an alternative.
Instead of bulbs, he would use a small laser projector, with a lens that would split a single point of light into thousands. Rather than strings of lights along the eaves, the laser points would instantly decorate the entire surface of a house with shimmering twinkles.
Night Stars was introduced on HSN in 2014. Lentine recalls standing in the green room backstage when the product launched, watching screens that monitor phone and web orders.
"Within minutes, we had thousands of people on the line and were selling $25,000 every minute," he says. "I knew we had a home run."
He later would partner with TeleBrands and AJ Khubani, the company and man behind the "As Seen on TV" label. A switch from metal to plastic casings and the use of Telebrand's resources to buy components in bulk lowered the price. In 2015, Night Stars returned, rebranded as Star Shower.
"We sold out by Black Friday," Khubani told NPR in a 2016 interview. "People were buying them at $40 and reselling them on Amazon for over $100. That's how popular they were."
Night Stars is one of several "big winners" in the last five years, Lentine says, including Quirky Pivot Power, Hurricane Spin Mop (10 million units), Ped Egg Power (10 million units), Mighty Blaster, Mighty Jump Car Starter and the new Flex Bike, which is projected to sell 60 million units in 2019. Earlier successes include the Mosquito Trap and Shake Flashlight.
"We have also had many hits internationally that didn't sell well in the USA," he says. "Sometimes a product will be a huge hit internationally but fail miserably in the USA.
"A good lesson for inventors," he calls it. "They need to look at other markets before they give up on their idea. You never know."
In addition to his own pursuits, Lentine is supportive of other innovators, including students at his alma mater, the University of Central Florida.
He also is "heavily involved" with efforts by HSN and QVC that champion emerging entrepreneurs.
"We've heard pitches by more than a thousand inventors in just the last year," he says. "I speak about how to manufacture your product and get it to market during the days of education. Then we do a five-minute pitch day, where hundreds of inventors pitch their items. It is unreal. We have licensed several inventions from these pitch days, and several items will be launched in the next year."
He's also part of Quirky.com, which he describes as "an invention platform where millions of inventors submit ideas and collaborate on the inventions together." The Quirky team is located in New York City, and sales are managed in Viatek's Chattanooga office.
In addition to Night Stars, Quirky, Hurricane and Mighty Jump, Viatek's brands include Echelon Fitness, Q-Beam flashlights, Fit Nation Fitness, Bob Vila Products and Seon Camera Drone.
"We also make over 200 private-label products for retailers and distributors around the globe," he says.
Echelon, his latest launch, centers on a high-tech stationary bike and its signature software. Classes are shown live or on demand to customers around the globe from the Echelon Studio, which opened in November at the Chattanooga Choo Choo complex with a visit from celebrity fitness expert Denise Austin. The spin studio is the first dedicated physical space Lentine has had to promote a product.
Viatek has offices in China, Hong Kong and Orlando, Florida, making Lentine a frequent flier from home base in Chattanooga.
"I travel over 200,000 miles a year on Delta alone," he says. "I travel to Japan and Asia at least three or four times a year. Plus, I usually visit Europe at least once a year to visit our partners and customers."
His day usually starts around 5 a.m., when he begins going through the hundreds of emails he gets overnight. If he's in the office, he's typically scheduled for meetings with heads of departments and phone calls with inventors, celebrity endorsers and retailers.
"I never have time for lunch," he says.
"He has big ideas and moves at the speed of light," says Jessica Hunt Holloway, vice president of television shopping.
A Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences graduate, Holloway earned a degree in fine art from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and was working in the restaurant industry when she answered a job posting on Craigslist. Lentine hired her as his executive assistant in 2011.
"I started out managing his calendar and whatever else he threw at me," she says, recalling her frantic first day facing 300 unanswered emails, with no idea what the proper responses should be, and her boss in a rush to the airport.
"I got to know the ins and outs of the company, everything from packing things in the warehouse when we were shorthanded to planning the company Christmas party," she says.
She moved up to marketing manager over the graphic-design team before being promoted to vice president in 2016.
"He's an inventor at heart," she says of Lentine. "He's always trying to anticipate what the next great thing will be. Especially in an innovative products field, if you can't be first to the game, then you have to step back and look at it. You have to think about, if these are trending, how do we make ours better? How do we give our iteration of competitive products an edge?"
"My mind never rests," he says. "I am always looking at a problem or a task and trying to figure out how can that be done better."
Lentine won't divulge the company's profitability but says "our numbers have increased tremendously after moving to Chattanooga, over 50 times. Our team in Chattanooga has been extremely instrumental in our success."
In addition to 60-plus employees here, the company has remote employees in Canada, New York, California and Illinois, and more at the offices in Florida and Asia.
Lentine calls himself a "serial entrepreneur at heart" and says without Viatek, he would still own "some type of business. Could be in construction, a dry cleaner, convenience store or renting golf carts. Anywhere I could be a part of building a company and a dream."