Yair Greenberg and his Monteverde Selfie
I Don’t BY LAURA CHANDLER
air Greenberg doesn’t know off the top of his head how many patents he holds. We counted, and there are eight, but there are far more innovations attributable to him than there are patents. The founder and guiding force behind Yafa has made a career out of imagining things that don’t exist yet and actually creating them—gifts that are possessed by only a very few people. And he is still creating after nearly four decades in the business that he and his wife, Fay, established in 1978, naming it with the first two letters from each of their first names. From the original business, which was a distributorship for an Italian brand, Yafa has grown into a multi-brand com-
pany based in Canoga Park, California, with 60 employees and its own production facility in China. Monteverde and Conklin are Greenberg’s own brands—he originated Monteverde in 1999 and bought Conklin in 2009—and the company is also the North American distributor for the Italian brands Delta, Stipula, and Napkin, as well as Schmidt refills. Earlier this year, Yafa added the handsome new Hugo Boss writing instruments to his North American distribution roster. Yafa is extremely positive about the success of Hugo Boss in the United States, says Greenberg, adding that the world-famous brand emphasizes the common ground that art and fashion share with respect to design, aesthetics, and creativity. In short, it “appeals to the young and the young at heart.”
Interiors of the Yafa manufacturing facility in China; the OneTouch Stylus, MSRP $30
While Greenberg continues to produce new collections of traditional writing instruments in the Monteverde and Conklin brands—he introduced 13 new collections at Paperworld in Frankfurt early this year—for the past several years he has also been devoting a good bit of time to conceptualizing and creating the next big thing. “Lately I am trying to combine technology with pens— this is my hobby now,” he laughs. His experimentation is carried out through the Monteverde brand, and the most recent product of this kind is the Selfie, a ballpoint with a stylus for use on touchscreen devices that is also capable of, well, taking selfies. Another recent ballpoint, the Power Bank, doubles as an emergency recharger. More about those later, but if they sound like gimmicks to you, Greenberg would not disagree. The whole idea is to get writing instruments of some kind into the hands of the young, and Greenberg doesn’t care if it takes a bit of gadgetry to do it. Greenberg’s first innovation that combined technology with a standard writing instrument—and the one he considers most significant—came with the OneTouch Stylus, the first pen ever made with a stylus for touchscreen devices. The first generation of the OneTouch debuted in 2011.
Greenberg’s inspiration for the OneTouch came from two observations: first, that people’s hands are always full—juggling keys, luggage, groceries, and wallets. And while their hands are full, they are also trying to use a smartphone for texting, hitting the wrong keys because the keypad is so small or the user has long fingernails. The OneTouch, a click-action ballpoint with a stylus, was designed to answer both those problems. Another major innovation came earlier with Greenberg’s Mega Ink Ball—the first rollerball that could be bottle filled—introduced in 2005. The OneTouch Engage would later combine the OneTouch and Ink Ball technologies to produce a capless rollerball that could be bottle filled and also had a stylus. But let’s get back to the two newest creations. Enter the Power Bank pen at $50, a price that belies the four years of R&D it took to create it. The Power Bank carries a powerful 400mAh battery that can be used to recharge a phone or a tablet in an emergency. Most of the R&D efforts were focused on getting the battery small enough for a normal sized pen to contain it, but it is still a large pen, and heavy toward the cap, where the battery is housed. The Power Bank comes with everything you need, including connecting cables in a 51
The first prototype of the Power Bank and the final product, shown at approximately actual size.
variety of sizes for various devices. It charges up quickly (I use the USB in my computer), and power can be stored in it for months. To use the Power Bank to recharge another device, one simply removes the cap and connects the pen to the device that needs to be charged. The ballpoint operates with a twist mechanism, activated by turning the writing end of the pen. Although the weight is concentrated toward the back of the pen, I found it quite comfortable to write with. Most recently, the Selfie ballpoint with stylus, also priced at $50, arrived in stores after two years of development. The Selfie device is best described as a remote control that operates the camera on your phone. After it is charged up, it can be wirelessly paired with your phone (iOS or Android) through a Bluetooth connection. Then, all you have to do is position the phone and click a button on the Selfie when you are ready to take the picture. Its advantages? First, 52
people find it fascinating, and secondly, it really does take a better selfie because you don’t have to hold the phone awkwardly in front of you. Incidentally, the Selfie won third prize for Most Innovative Product in the 2015 Electronics Retail Summit, which encompasses all types of consumer electronics. In addition, Monteverde products have twice won PW Readers’ Choice Awards for innovation: one in 2004 for the Diva, a pen that operates like a woman’s lipstick, with a nib that extends and retracts by turning the barrel, and again in 2007 for the Ink Ball technology. Is an inventor born or made? Greenberg isn’t sure. He calls his talent for innovation a gift from God, and he counts himself extremely lucky. Born in Israel a few years before statehood in 1948 to two “wonderful parents,” he and his older brother remember a happy childhood, despite the tumultuous times. Greenberg served in the Israeli army three years and became an officer, but after his service he came to
the United States to study business administration, a degree that wasn’t available in Israel. His MBA is one of his most prized achievements. He received his first fountain pen, a Parker, as a bar mitzvah gift from family members in London. He asked one of his teachers to show him how to use it, and a lifelong love affair with fountain pens began. Greenberg recalls that as a college student in the late 1960s, he was the only one in his classes writing with a nice fountain pen instead of a stick ballpoint. “The military taught me management, discipline, endurance, and something else that still running in my veins, and that is never to use the word no,” Greenberg says firmly. “I don’t take no—it’s part of my makeup.” And if you should ever overhear him saying “no mayo,” bear in mind that he most likely isn’t talking about a hamburger. The Chinese word for no (méiyŏu) is pronounced mayo. Five employees at the Canoga Park home base speak Chinese, and
Yafa management staff, clockwise from upper left—Ken Jones, Mark Kinseth, Sandrine Hedrick, Anita Sebetic, Jessie Chen, Niv Avidan, and Ross Cameron
Greenberg frequently visits Yafa’s Chinese factory. Whenever he hears the word méiyŏu, Greenberg’s immediate response is “no mayo!” No is simply not allowed. And that mindset has served him well. “My most important influences were my parents, the army, and the fact that I was an immigrant—that gave me extra incentive to succeed,” says Greenberg. “This country has been very good to me and I am grateful.” His international status no doubt was also instrumental in Yafa’s early foray into exporting, and the company now exports to 40 countries. He is reasonably optimistic about the stability of the writing instruments industry in the United States, but points to the significant growth of the industry in other countries as proof of the need to think globally: there are 23 Monteverde boutiques in China. Now a youthful 70-something, Greenberg says that succession is on his mind a great deal. Fay, who
worked ten years with Yair before establishing her own career, is now retired and the Greenbergs maintain strong ties in Israel, where their son, a doctor, lives with his family. Two daughters and their husbands live in the United States, and one of the sons-in-law, Niv Avidan, works alongside Greenberg at Yafa. Perhaps one of the Greenbergs’ six grandchildren will eventually carry the torch, but in the meantime, Yair is not worried. “I have an amazing management team. I get new ideas all day long from Ken Jones, vice president of sales; Mark Kinseth, director of corporate development; Sandrine Hedrick, in charge of the export business; Ross Cameron, national sales manager of fine pens; and Niv, as executive vice president. Jessie Chen started as my assistant and now she is in charge of Yafaline, Yafa’s promotional products branch. Anita Sebetic is the general manager of mass market accounts. I run the company as a democracy of
ideas, and I do what I do for my 60 people. I love them,” he says simply. Until such time as Greenberg opts to exercise his succession plan, there is plenty to keep his creative juices flowing. He is revamping the Conklin brand and he has four exciting and divergent pen brands to distribute. And there is always Monteverde, which means green mountain—the same as Greenberg— a true reflection of its originator’s inventive mind. Visit yafa.com.
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