When Bob Abplanalp was a boy, he used to go black fishing in Long Island Sound. Other kids might wear themselves out chasing fiddler crabs for bait, but Abplanalp got a better idea from his father. At low tide he sank a row of tin cans in the mud and herded the crabs toward them. Crabs fell in by the dozens.
Ingenuity runs in the family, and Bob picked up a good share of it. Faced with a challenge nowadays, ideas light up in his head, not so much like the bulb in the funnies but more like an exploding theater marquee. He holds more than 100 patents, and 20 years ago he invented the first reliable aerosol valve, the gismo that goes "sssssst" on top of a pressurized can. The company that this single invention started, Precision Valve Corporation of Yonkers, N.Y., now manufactures more than half the aerosol valves used in the world. Not many inventors make money on their brainchildren, but Abplanalp has more than made up for the unfortunate saps who have failed. He is the sole owner of Precision Valve, and last year the company grossed more than $50 million.
With no stockholders due an accounting, Abplanalp has been able to do as he pleases with the profits, and as a result Precision Valve has flipped over fish. By way of example, subsidiaries of the company run a unique trout fishing preserve and hatchery in the Catskills, are planning to raise and market hitherto expensive tropical marine fish for home aquarists and own almost a dozen islands in the northern Bahamas, including Walker's Cay, one of the finest big game fishing camps in the world.
Now 47, Abplanalp is a burly 6-footer built along the lines of a beer hall bouncer. His manner is affable and down to earth, and his employees call him Bob. His idea of a good time is to spend the day fishing and the evening playing poker with friends, such as Joe Trombetta. an old schoolmate who is a vice-president of Precision Valve, and Bill Ruppel, a former mate on Abplanalp's sport-fisherman who now runs the trout operation. One of Abplanalp's closest friends is President Nixon, who sometimes vacations at Grand Cay, seven miles from Walker's. Abplanalp, who acquired Grand Cay on a long term lease, has enlarged a house there for the President's use, but he makes it a rule not to discuss his friendship with Nixon because, he says, the President has a right to personal privacy.
Of Swiss extraction, he was born and raised in the Bronx. His father Hans, known as Pop around Precision Valve, was a machinist. After settling in the U.S. he began fishing in Long Island Sound and often took his son along. At home Pop spent hour upon hour teaching Bob all there was to know about machine tools. '"When I was 7. I knew how to run a lathe," Abplanalp says. "My father and I took care of all the household repairs." Pop earned a comfortable living, and Bob went to Fordham Prep, a Jesuit school, and then to Villanova to study engineering. He stayed only two years, returning to the Bronx, not unhappily, to open his own machine shop, R. H. Abplanalp & Co.
World War II had just started and, as Abplanalp jokes, "I thought I was going to be a war profiteer." Before the profits started rolling in, Pearl Harbor was bombed and he spent three years in the Army where he served with a railroad battalion in France.
After the war Abplanalp went back to his machine shop and all but starved for the next several years. "There were many weeks when I was lucky to take $10 out of the operation." he says. "There were times when I wished I could have gotten the hell out and found a job." He hung on by making all kinds of parts for a variety of machinery, ranging from lace knitting looms to electronic gear. Then one June afternoon in 1949 his luck took a turn.
A washing machine customer, John J. Baessler, stopped by with a problem. He had started distributing a line of aerosol products, which were new at the time, but buyers complained that the valves leaked. Baessler wondered if they could not be made reliable. "After we talked for several hours," Abplanalp recalls, "I said, 'Leave all the stuff here and I'll look at it.' I did and I got absorbed in the problem." For three months Abplanalp devoted himself to aerosol valves. He dissected them to find out why and how they leaked. Having his own machine shop gave him a great advantage. He was able to design a new part, cut it himself and test it immediately. If it did not work, he tried another approach. Baessler introduced Abplanalp to Fred Lodes, who was working for a chemical company, and Lodes gave him a crash course in the chemistry and physics of aerosol containers. By September 1949, Abplanalp had invented a new and dependable valve, made of seven simple metal, plastic and rubber parts, for which he was later granted U.S. patent #2,631,814. That same month, Abplanalp, Baessler and Lodes formed the Precision Valve Corporation as equal partners. Sales were meteoric, and Abplanalp was eventually able to buy out his partners by 1962. Precision Valve now has 2,000 employees, plants in Yonkers and Chicago, additional plants in Mexico, Canada, France, Argentina, Japan, West Germany, South Africa and Australia and a licensee in Great Britain.
Precision Valve's entry into the world of fish came more or less by accident four years ago when a company attorney urged Abplanalp to buy an Adirondack estate on Tupper Lake that belonged to another client. Abplanalp bought the place with the idea of using it as a retreat for Precision Valve employees or customers. Then he wondered if trout could not be raised there. He formed a subsidiary, Adirondack Fisheries, but for various reasons no trout were ever raised there. Instead, two years ago Adirondack Fisheries acquired a privately owned trout hatchery at Eldred in the Catskill Mountains.
The hatchery was enlarged, and public fishing ponds, now stocked with brook, brown, golden, rainbow and tiger trout, were dug. Admission is 50�, with an additional charge of $2 a pound for each trout caught. A fisherman may sell his catch back to the preserve for $1 a pound or trade his fish for smoked trout. No fishing license is required, and there is no closed season. A snack bar and a picnic grove are on the premises, and attendants are on hand to teach youngsters the art of fly casting.