A noodle raft is the best means of transportation when crossing the big blue... pool.
A noodle raft is the best means of transportation when crossing the big blue... pool. - 
Listen To The Story

Steve Hartman is the CEO and president of Industrial Thermal Polymers, but he's got another claim to fam: He's the guy who first decided that colorful foam tubes make a pretty fun pool toy.

Hartman invented the pool noodle three decades ago when he first went into business with his dad in Toronto, Canada.  

"We're going to make backer rod," his dad said. Steve's follow-up question: What's a backer rod?

Steve's dad told him backer rods are used in anything with expansion joints - high-rises, roads, ramps, runways - you peel away the caulk or tar and there's a foam rod in there to seal it. The Hartmans would make those foam rods.

"We always had these foam rods (lying around)," Hartman says. "They were gray and 9-footers and it seemed like every time we jumped in the pool, we were playing with these things."

So Hartman mixed up a batch with color and tried to sell them to a few of the local pool supply stores. There was just one problem: What do you do with these things?

"We said, 'Well, you float around with them, you hit your brother with them.' It was a tough sell," Hartman says. 

For over a year Hartman peddled his noodles, but no one was biting. Since he made no sales, he figured why patent the thing?

But then a funny thing happened. Canadian Tire, a company that sells all kinds of stuff, bought a batch of the noodles and priced them low enough to draw folks in. 

"People would walk by them and see these bright colored foam rods and they weren't sure what to do with them.But the price was right, so they would grab a couple and try them out," Hartman says.

The noodle took off slowly for awhile. But these days it's a staple of pools, docks and beaches everywhere. Hartman says his company sells between 6 and 8 million of them a year. Even though he can't ward off imitators, Hartman estimates that Industrial Thermal Polymers produces around half of North America's noodle supply.

And best of all? He no longer needs to tell people what to do with them. There are plenty of other places to find that information.

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.

Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal