James and George TerBush, owners of the Elverson Puzzle Co. Inc.
Brothers make upscale puzzles
THE MERCURY Monday, Oct. 8, 2001
By JOE HOLWAGER
Special to The Mercury
Elverson - Did you ever wonder about the diabolical minds that go into the making of those
upscale puzzles? You know, the kinds that are sold in specialty stores where young people
and adults shop for something out of the ordinary, a toy packing a challenge? The latest
Rubik's Cube perhaps? Well, meet the brothers TerBush: George, 41, and James, 43. They
are creators and manufacturers of a puzzle line that includes Jacob's Revenge, Log Stacker,
Anti-Gravity Ball & Chain, and the soon-to-be-released R.G.B. Round Up: quality-crafted
keepsakes, ranging in price between $10 and $18. They also market a slot-machine card
George and James TerBush pride themselves on building truly challenging puzzles and, no,
they don't have devil horns, the way you may picture them upon failing to solve one of their
puzzles. They are congenial and relatively laid back.
In 1994, they walked into a Lewes, Del., store that sold a variety of puzzles, mechanical and
jigsaw. They were intrigued by the mechanical puzzles, drawn by the tactile and mental
challenge that they posed. Someone, they realized, had put something of themselves into
designing and manufacturing these puzzles. "This was like a revelation that someone made
it his occupation to design and manufacture a product containing a mystery for others to
solve," said George. In 1995, they launched The Elverson Puzzle Co. Inc., with one product,
Jacob's Revenge, a corked bottle with a wooden stick and ball in it. You're challenged to get
the ball into the bottle's neck without removing the cork or — in the case of extreme failure
— crashing it to smithereens.
Their decision to launch a company
with a single, untested product was
a tough one, said George. They
were used to working long hours and
meeting deadlines in the computer
industry, but now they also had a
dream: With hard work and skillful
marketing, perhaps Jacob's Revenge
or another puzzle of theirs, yet to be
designed, would be the next Rubik's
"It's a dream for every puzzle maker
to come up with the next Rubik's
Cube," said George. Still sold widely
today after more than 25 years from
its introduction, Rubik's Cube was
voted the "fad" of the 20th century,
according to one poll.1982 one in
every three American homes had at
lease one of the cubes, which
consists of 26 small, colored,
James holding a Jacob's Revenge Puzzle
In the beginning reality was considerably different from the dream. They began by marketing
through a mailing to hundreds of stores that included puzzles among their inventory. They
offered a free sample to each store as an incentive to buy more of the puzzles. Although
customer response was encouraging, considering the mailing had been unsolicited and to a
mass market, it was not enough to base a business on. Far from it. "The first year was a
disaster," James recalled. When the outlook seemed especially dark, a neighboring
businesswoman showed an interest in Jacob's Revenge and helped restore their confidence.
They approached Darlene Yoder, the proprietor of a restaurant and gift shop in nearby New
Holland, PA, with the idea of selling the puzzle in her store. To their surprise, Yoder not only
bought 12 Jacob's Revenges on the spot but also ordered another dozen within a few days.
"If it weren't for her, there wouldn't have been an Elverson Puzzle Co.," said George.
The next sign in their favor came from the Cracker Barrel chain of home-style restaurants that
were becoming a refuge for weary interstate highway drivers. Cracker Barrel not only sold a
menu of country cooking. It offered a large room of merchandise that customers could look
over while waiting for their tables. Some items, such as games and puzzles, had a natural
appeal to families confined to an automobile for hours on end.
In 1995 Cracker Barrel placed an order for 3,000 Jacob's Revenges to stock 250 stores. The
TerBushes, who had virtually no stock on hand, were suddenly forced to deal with new
realities of running a small business. Cracker Barrel had negotiated an aggressive purchase
price for the puzzles and an aggressive delivery date of 30 days out. Additionally, the
puzzles had to be delivered with sales displays. The brothers' earlier experience toiling in the
computer industry paid off. "We were used to deadlines," said James. "We knew it'd take
long hours to pull it off and we did it."
George and James TerBush were
used to working long hours and
meeting deadlines, but now they
also had a dream: With hard work
and skillful marketing, perhaps
Jacob's Revenge or another puzzle
of theirs, yet to be designed, would
be the next Rubik's Cube.
After Cracker Barrel, they began connecting with other chain stores, including The Museum
Company, Wizards of the Coast, and The Store of Knowledge. The Internet opened up
another important sales avenue for them. Customers can reach them directly at
Elverson puzzles are now available to customers throughout much of the world, and the
product offering has been expanding at a rate averaging about one new puzzle per year.
Although the brothers decline to discuss sales in specific terms, they report that the
business has grown to shipping of tens of thousands of units annually and it yields them a
The brothers grew up in Lansdowne in Delaware County and became entrepreneurs at an
early age. While only 10 and 12 years old, they made small novelty candles (frogs, turtles,
and owls) and sold them to their classmates and church congregation.
They bought rubber molds in which to make the candles, and purchased their raw materials
(wax and wick) in bulk to keep unit costs down. "Our quality standards even back then, were
pretty high," George recalled.
They were caught up in the computer industry from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. George
spent much of that time in the engineering department of Commodore Computers in West
Chester, PA, and both brothers did engineering work for Great Valley Products, a King of
Prussia company that designed peripheral components for Commodore computers, including
audio and video enhancement products. Today, these components and many additional
enhancements are incorporated into computers when they are shipped from the factory. "The
computer industry as we knew it then was extremely competitive and the market life for new
products and enhancements was very short," recalled James.
"Here," George said, referring to their new lives as puzzle makers, "We have the unique
opportunity to develop simple products that require clever solutions."
The brothers divide their corporate duties with George taking responsibility for marketing the
puzzles and James on the creative end of designing and perfecting new puzzles.
Their future success depends upon not only on introducing new puzzles that have an ever-
greater mass appeal but also in securing the most cost effective mode of manufacturing.
"It's a constant struggle to keep costs low and find new sales outlets," George said. Long
gone are the days in which they can give themselves over totally to assembling puzzles and
meet a crash deadline. They have given the assembly of the Log Stacker puzzle to Ken-
Crest Co., a Pottstown production center for people with developmental disabilities.
The future now is thinking of puzzles that other manufacturers can help produce for us" said
James. "This shift in focus will permit us to spend more time on the creative end of things."
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