Go Inside an Inventor’s Restless Mind

UPDATED: September 4, 2014
PUBLISHED: September 4, 2014

Ray Davis has fashioned a storybook career out of hard work, a knack for solving problems and his habit of listening closely to others.

The 71-year-old holds about 80 patents, and through his Dallas-based company ADCO Industries has designed and sold millions of products that have allowed businesses to improve safety standards and boost profits. Among those products are 35 types of box cutters and the Sit and Shop retail cart—introduced in 1984, long before the Americans with Disabilities Act. All of these inventions began with a client and a need, with Davis applying his dogged inventiveness and drive to come up with a solution.

Along the way he forged trusted relationships with powerful, savvy people like Wal-Mart patriarch Sam Walton, which helped when he set out on his own in the 1970s.

Davis’s mind never stops: A member of his executive team explains, “You have to be careful what you say around here, because Ray will go and not sleep for the next three nights developing a solution.”

Davis recently spent some time with SUCCESS to talk about his entrepreneurial journey, problem-solving and the importance of loving the work we do.

Q: You were helping Wal-Mart with store openings when Sam Walton made a special request of you. How did the Sit and Shop cart come about?

A: His daughter had been in a bad car crash down in Mexico. But he wanted her to be able to continue to travel to store openings with him. He asked me to go out and find some type of sit-down cart for people who need assistance walking around in one of the stores. I couldn’t find anything like that. So I sat down and figured out the Sit and Shop. That probably remains the most public product I’ve ever made—more than 2 million people every day get in and out of one of my chairs in a retail store.

Q: What personal experiences led to your long connection with box-cutting tools?

A: I was cutting in a store aisle and somebody pushed a shopping cart into me. It left a pretty good scar on my arm, and I bled quite a bit. But it was never life-threatening.

Later I witnessed an accident in Louisiana that still bothers me today. A young woman—a new mother, just 19—was cutting open a box, and she placed the cutting tool into the pocket of her pants. When she tried to take the cutter from her pocket, she sliced her leg, hitting an artery. I stayed with her, trying to stop the bleeding, but she nearly bled to death. The EMTs saved her life. That accident steeled me to action.

This happened in 1978, and it took me several years to develop something I could manufacture myself. I patented it in 1980, and that first box cutter I came up with [built with a spring-loaded safety guard] is still being sold. And believe it or not, nobody I know of has ever cut himself or herself with that cutter!

Q: Do you have a formal process for problem-solving? And can your outlook be learned, or is it inherent to you?

A: I will pick a particular problem that is not unique to one person but might have a marketable solution to it—make this, and 1,000 or hundreds of thousands of people will buy it. I try to learn the source of the  problem….

I think it can be learned. But, No. 1, you need to know that the business you’re going into is what you want to do, because it’s like getting married—you can’t just partially get married. You have to make a commitment in soul, and body, and energy—everything. You eat, sleep and drink what you’re doing if you really want to be successful. Because there are going to be so many obstacles, things that you didn’t think of, that will get in the way. And if you let them stop you, you’ll fail. So if you can’t get in the door one way, go to the back door. Do whatever you have to do. Don’t give up.

Q: What is the key to success then?

A: Pure determination. People appreciate and hear in your voice that you know what you’re talking about if you’re confident about what you’re doing. And if you’re not, you can’t fake that. Either it comes across or it doesn’t.

It’s kind of like the adrenaline that you get when fear hits you. They say it can help people pick up things that they couldn’t normally. An entrepreneur has that adrenaline going all the time.

Q: What advice do you offer to entrepreneurs?

A: Make sure you know everything there is to know about what you’re going to do and write down your goals. Make sure that you know what success is for you. Don’t just go out there and say, ‘Well, I want to make money,’ or ‘I want to do this.’ Write, ‘I want to sell 10 million of these. I want to sell 5 million of those. And I want to do it by such and such a time.’ And then make it happen. Go out and make it happen. If you don’t set goals for what you want to achieve, how do you know when you’ve gotten to where you want to be?