FIRST ALERT RINGS UP HUGE MARKET SHARE WITH CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTOR

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Marketing the fear factor is proving profitable for First Alert, the nation's leading maker of carbon monoxide detectors.

The September death of tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis from the odorless toxic gas sent the Aurora, Ill.-based company's stock up 21.6% in a week to $32 a share. The company went public in March at $17.

In addition to publicity surrounding Mr. Gerulaitis' death, the industry is growing as communities like Chicago, the first major city in the U.S., mandate installation of carbon monoxide detectors. Pittsburgh is considering such a requirement.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has recommended detectors in all houses nationwide, and is lobbying for the installation of detectors in residential construction.

Marketing the fear factor has been the company's approach since early in the decade, said Richard Timmons, VP-marketing. A recent print and TV campaign from Lois/USA, Chicago, features snapshots of people killed by carbon monoxide. Copy warns: "Get the new First Alert home carbon monoxide detector before it's too late."

Mr. Timmons said the thinking behind the campaign was that the more consumers know "the more apt they are to want to protect themselves."

First Alert licensed the technology for its carbon monoxide detectors and began producing the product in September 1993. The company sold 300,000 units last year, at a wholesale price of roughly $30 each. This year, it expects to sell 1.5 million units in the U.S.

In the carbon monoxide detector category, First Alert's biggest competitor is American Sensors of Toronto, a smaller company with higher prices. First Alert has at least 75% of the marketplace.

It isn't the first time First Alert has benefited from tragedy. In the 1970s and early '80s, several fires at large hotels-including the MGM Grand in Las Vegas-helped spur consumers to install smoke alarms. First Alert has 80% of the smoke alarm retail market.

Since 1988, the company has tied in on promotional programs with McDonald's Corp., the Fire Safety Administration and the National Safe Kids Campaign. In December, it will distribute "Home Safe & Sound," a 44-page holiday safety insert in Better Homes & Gardens. Similar four-page advertorials from Lois/USA are appearing in October's Better Homes & Gardens, December's Ladies' Home Journal and February's Traditional Home.

H. Lee Murphy of Crain's Chicago Business contributed to this story.

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