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Founder of Ronco Teleproducts Inc.
“My philosophy is, When you snooze, you lose. If you have a great idea, at least take the chance and put your best foot forward.”-Ron Popeil
Does QVC president Doug Briggs have a shrine to Ron Popeil in his bedroom? Does USA Networks CEO Barry Diller send Popeil a “thank you” card every time his Home Shopping Network racks up another $100 million in sales? If not, they should, because without Popeil, they might not exist. By combining the harried hawking of 19th century fair barkers with the emerging medium of television, Popeil invented the infomercial and set the wheels in motion for the modern $2.5 million home shopping industry.
Popeil is the Horatio Alger of the television age-a self-made millionaire who started with next to nothing. Born on May 3, 1935, in the Bronx, New York, Popeil’s childhood was anything but idyllic. At age 3, his parents divorced and abandoned him. Exiled to an upstate New York boarding school, he didn’t see them for years.
When Popeil was about 8, his paternal grandparents took him in, but life with them wasn’t much better. The couple fought constantly and showed him little affection. It wasn’t until they moved from Miami to Chicago-where his father manufactured kitchenware-that Popeil found salvation. When he was 16, he discovered a place where he could break away from his bleak childhood-Chicago’s infamous Maxwell Street.
The gritty equivalent of a modern-day flea market, Maxwell Street was a dirty avenue in a bad neighborhood, where a rough-and-tumble collection of street vendors sold clothes, kitchen products and knickknacks, and thieves unloaded hubcaps, radios and other stolen merchandise.
When Popeil saw all those people selling products and pocketing cash, the proverbial light bulb went on in his head. “I can do what they’re doing,” he thought. “But I can do it better.” Gathering up some kitchen products from his father’s factory, Popeil headed to Maxwell Street to give it a try. “I pushed. I yelled. I hawked. And it worked,” he recalls in his autobiography, The Salesman of the Century. “I was stuffing money into my pockets, more money than I had ever seen in my life. I didn’t have to be poor the rest of my life. Through sales, I could escape from poverty and the miserable existence I had with my grandparents. I had lived for 16 years in homes without love, and now I had finally found a form of affection, and a human connection, through sales.”
For the next few years, Popeil would rise before dawn, procure bushels of cabbages, potatoes, radishes and carrots to use for his demonstrations, and set up his table on Maxwell Street and at fairs and shows around Chicago. Barking from atop a Pepsi crate, he sliced and diced while honing his routine. And people bought his gadgets-some weeks he made as much as $500.
Popeil used part of his earnings to enroll in the University of Illinois. But after a year and a half of attending classes, he decided college wasn’t for him. Leaving the university behind, Popeil decided to move his act indoors. He cut a deal with the manager of a Chicago Woolworth’s to let him push his products in the store for a piece of the action. Popeil hawked a variety of products, most of which he purchased from his father, including shoeshine sprays, plastic plant kits and food slicers. Working six days a week selling products manufactured by his father as well as other suppliers, the natural-born pitchman was raking in upwards of $1,000 per week at a time when the average monthly salary was $500.
Popeil was still demonstrating products at Woolworth’s when he made his first venture into TV marketing. He immediately recognized the tremendous potential of the new medium and began looking for ways to take full advantage of it. His main problem was money. Television commercials were expensive to produce and air, and Popeil simply didn’t have the funding. Then, in 1963, a friend told him of a TV station in Tampa that would let him make a commercial for $550. To Popeil, that was just a half-week’s pay, and he figured he had nothing to lose. All he needed was a product.
For his TV debut, Popeil wanted an item that was new and different. None of his father’s products filled the bill, so he scoured the market for new items. During his search, a friend told Popeil about a high-pressure hose nozzle he felt was the perfect product for a TV pitch. By inserting different tablets (made of detergent, car wax, fertilizer or weed killer) between the hose and the nozzle, you could wash and wax your car, fertilize your lawn and kill weeds. “It was a better mousetrap,” Popeil reveals in his autobiography. “It was a great product to begin my TV career with, because everyone could use it.”
Popeil bought a small quantity of the product from its Chicago-based manufacturer, named it the Ronco Spray Gun (Ronco is short for Ron’s Company-the name he chose for his fledgling venture), and began advertising it on TV stations throughout the Midwest. Popeil wrote, directed and starred in the commercial himself, then aired it during whatever unsold time he could buy cheaply from local TV stations. In so doing, he wrote the first chapter in the history of direct-response television sales.
As Popeil had predicted, the Ronco Spray Gun was a tremendous success. Upon seeing his son’s achievement, Popeil’s father asked him to sell a revolutionary new food slicer he’d developed called the Chop-O-Matic. Popeil agreed, and once again he wrote, directed and starred in his own commercial. Like the Ronco Spray Gun, the Ronco Chop-O-Matic was an immediate hit. The Chop-O-Matic was the biggest success Popeil’s father had ever realized, selling thousands of units. Flush with newfound dollars, the elder Popeil started dreaming up Chop-O-Matic sequels and eventually came up with the product that would make Ronco a household name-the Veg-O-Matic.
Thanks mostly to the Veg-O-Matic, Ronco’s annual sales skyrocketed from $200,000 to $8.8 million in just four years. Popeil decided it was time to take his company public and asked investment firm Shearson Hammill to underwrite the initial public offering. Shearson Hammill agreed, but suggested that Popeil change the name of his company. “Ronco, they said, didn’t really say anything about who we were,” Popeil explains in Salesman of the Century. “They wanted a name that was descriptive of what we did. So we became Ronco Teleproducts Inc.”
When the offering went through in August 1969, Popeil became a multimillionaire overnight, and a direct-response TV marketing dynasty was born. Over the next 20 years, Popeil would introduce late-night TV viewers to a bewildering array of “miracle” products, ranging from the Dial-O-Matic and the Buttoneer to the Pocket Fisherman and Mr. Microphone, many of which he invented or helped design himself. Ronco stock soared up the NYSE, and Popeil, whom, as one reporter quipped, could sell fingernail polish to the Venus De Milo, became a jet-setting millionaire.
By the 1980s, Popeil had sold records, choppers, slicers, dicers, hosiery, pottery, candle kits and much more. But dark days lay ahead for the Hemmingway of home shopping. In 1984, Ronco (but not Popeil) was forced into bankruptcy when a bank called in a loan unexpectedly and seized the company’s inventory. Popeil, demoralized but undaunted, bought back the inventory, rolled up his sleeves and returned to the county-fair circuit. For a time, his blip vanished from the radar.
In 1989, Popeil launched his television comeback, blitzing cable stations with infomercials for a product he dreamed up a decade earlier-a food dehydrator. The Einstein of the infomercial proved his genius once again. In one year, he sold more than $150 million worth of dehydrators. Back on top, Popeil followed with GLH-9 (spray-on hair), a pasta maker and a sausage maker.
After 40-odd years of selling everything from tapeless tape measures and bottle and jar cutters to rhinestone-stud setters, Popeil has hawked just about every kind of gadget imaginable. And with sales of his latest project du jour, the Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ, going strong, Popeil promises to remain TV’s top salesperson well into the next millennium. In fact, although he has often talked about retiring, he concedes that he probably never will. “You’re always going to see Ronco or Popeil in the marketplace,” he says. “I’ll never stop.”
Popeil credits much of his success to his philosophy that all Ronco products must abide by two rules: 1) the product must be needed by lots of people; and 2) the product has to solve a problem. The philosophy seems to work. Since he began pitching products in the late 1950s, Popeil has had only three flops: the Inside Outside Window Washer (which tends to plummet to the ground), the poorly named Hold-Up (an adhesive that allows you to hang things on the wall without using a nail), and a combination coffee pot/steam iron called the Prescolator.
Ronco’s Greatest Hits
|PRODUCT UNITS SOLD||SOLD||TOTAL SALES|
|Food Dehydrator||2.10 million||$150 million|
|Veg-O-Matic||8 million||$80 million|
|Pasta Machine||0.45 million||$76 million|
|Pocket Fisherman||1.25 million||$25 million|
|GLH-9 (spray-on hair)||1 million||$20 million|
|Mr. Microphone||1 million||$20 million|
|Source: Ronco Teleproducts Inc.||*Estimated|