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Serial entrepreneur's roller coaster life on way back up with new microwave design

Phil Davis with the iWavecube, the world's first portable, personal microwave. Photos Jamie Janos
Phil Davis with the iWavecube, the world's first portable, personal microwave. Photos Jamie Janos

"Sometimes in life we run into buzz saws," says entrepreneur Phil Davis. "Kirk Wright was mine."

Davis is referring to former hedge fund manager Kirk Wright, who in 2008 was found guilty of numerous counts of fraud after swindling investors out of more than $150 million. Days after his conviction, Wright committed suicide in jail.

But it wasn't cash that Wright stole from Davis it was his reputation. After visiting Davis's thriving chicken-and-waffles restaurant, Wright agreed to partner with him on a larger second location in downtown Cleveland. In a humiliating fall from grace, Davis was forced out of his own restaurant after Wright publicly alleged that he was fraudulently diverting money. It wasn't long before both restaurants were shuttered and Davis's reputation was left in tatters.

Sadly for Davis, the deception behind Wright's actions and statements would not be revealed until much later. By then, the damage had been done.

"I had trouble even finding a job as an assistant manager," recalls Davis. "People wanted nothing to do with Phil Davis."

Davis's fall was a lengthy one. His popular soul food restaurant, Phil the Fire, turned him into a local celebrity, garnering full-color features in area magazines and newspapers. The concept was one that he methodically cultivated over a four-year period, graduating from occasional catered events, to weekly brunches in a rented church basement, then finally to his first real restaurant. Davis's original location was nearing $1 million is sales annually when it became a casualty of the larger financial tragedy.

Davis has tasted success before, only to have it snatched away by forces out of his control. Prior entrepreneurial inspirations of his have not only become commercial realities, they became commercial triumphs. But so far, none of those hits have turned into home runs. Yet, each and every time, Davis somehow musters the strength to pick himself up, dust himself off, and charge ahead to the next great idea.

"I think we can learn more from failures than we can from successes most of the time," says Davis, in typical glass-is-half-full fashion.

Davis is not a chef by trade. Earning his undergraduate degree from Stanford University and an MBA from the University of Virginia, Davis landed a lucrative position in Boston with Ocean Spray. It was during this period that he was first bitten hard by the entrepreneurial bug. So confident was he in his latest brainstorm an all natural deodorant for preteens that he left his post at Ocean Spray to pursue the idea full time. Fun 'n Fresh was a bona fide hit, landing on the shelves of Kmart, Wal-Mart and Target. The product had a good run, too, until Wal-Mart, the largest purchaser, stopped carrying the item.

Davis's first job after the Kirk Wright fiasco was for UPS loading boxes. The work was back-breaking, leaving the middle-aged Davis feeling like he was back in football practice. He was happy to have the work, but wondered how long his body would last.

"After two days of doing that," Davis recalls, "I looked myself in the mirror and decided that I needed to reinvent myself. I wanted to reclaim my good name, and I wanted to do it right here in my hometown." At various points in his life, Davis lived in California, Virginia and Boston nice places, all of them, he says. But Cleveland is his only true home, and he never once considered starting over elsewhere. "It was imperative that I rise from the very ashes left by the destruction of my name."

Davis's big "ah-ha" moment struck him, like they so often do, while he was in the bathroom. Preparing to shave, he wanted a hot towel for his face. Rather than have to run to the kitchen, he thought how nice it would be to have a microwave in the lavatory. Soon other uses began popping up, from hot oil treatments for hair to warming massage oils for the body. "And then I thought, if it makes sense for the bathroom, why not the office? Where else might a small microwave be useful? It was then that I knew I had a great idea."

Still working for UPS, then as a sales rep, Davis furiously researched the technology behind microwaves. Market research was performed and trade shows were attended. Thanks to luck, connections and perseverance, Davis secured a Chinese firm to design and manufacture his invention. The iWavecube became the world's first portable, personal microwave.

Measuring just 10 inches by 10 inches by 12 inches, the iWavecube is a natural for boats, RVs, college dorms and everywhere else space and convenience are in demand. Educators appreciate not having to trudge down to the teachers' lounge for a cup of tea, and new moms have found that warming baby bottles in the nursery beats making a beeline to the kitchen. Every day, Davis learned of creative new uses for his product.

Word spread, slowly at first. But when Sharper Image agreed to purchase 10,000 units before the holiday season, Davis believed he was on the verge of something huge. When Linens 'n Things signed on as another client, he knew it. When both retailers shut down all their stores before a single order was ever filled, Davis was back at square one. Buoyed by praise from national magazines and television personalities, Davis simply moved the entire operation online. At sites such as iWavecube and Amazon, customers can purchase personal-size microwaves in assorted gumball colors.

Next up for Davis is a major push into European and Asian markets. With a little penetration, the product might tip and become the "next big thing" in personal electronics. But regardless what happens with the iWavecube, Davis already has his sights on the next venture: a revival of Phil the Fire restaurant.

"Life is short," he says. "I still have a passion for food. And people still have great memories of their visits to Phil the Fire."

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