Slide Show >>
Seven years ago, entrepreneur Ron Popeil, the silver-tongued inventor of such iconic products as the Pocket Fisherman and the Food Dehydrator, introduced the Showtime Rotisserie BBQ.
Marketed in the seductive TV infomercial format he pioneered, Popeil demonstrated the durability, versatility, and appeal of the oven -- a contraption equally adept at producing a "scrumptious, flavorful rib roast" as it was a "mouthwatering pork-loin roast" -- before a rapt studio audience (and at-home insomniacs).
HOTTEST SELLER EVER. After prepping a chicken and placing it in the oven, Popeil delivered his next legendary tagline. Like most of his pitches, it blended pithy salesmanship and utter simplicity. And almost immediately, the catchphrase -- "Just set it and forget it" -- entered the pop-culture vernacular.
Indeed, the compact countertop oven (purchased for four easy payments of $39.95, plus tax and shipping) turned into the biggest hit in Popeil's hugely successful home-gadget empire. Since the launch, Popeil says he's sold about 7 million Showtime ovens, generating nearly $1 billion in revenue. "People just love it to such a degree that strangers walk up to me and tell me, 'I love my rotisserie,'" he says.
If ever there were an entrepreneur who defined unbridled passion, Popeil is it. Fueled by a salesman's gift of gab and the innate ability to create broadly appealing products that reinvent or improve upon household products, Popeil has transformed his raw zeal for inventing into one of the most successful entrepreneurial ventures in recent memory.
NOW ON NASDAQ. For more than 40 years, Popeil has sliced, diced, and sold a collection of quirky, unforgettable items (among them, the Buttoneer, Smokeless Ashtray, Mr. Microphone, and the Ronco compilation albums such as Disco Daze and Disco Nites), all of which he estimates has pushed his net worth to "more than $100 million."
In August, the 70-year-old Popeil announced that he had sold Ronco, the Chatworth (Calif.) company that made him a household name, to Fi-Tek VII, a Denver-based holding company, for $55 million. As a result of the acquisition, Ronco became a publicly traded company listed on Nasdaq Over-the-Counter (OTC) Bulletin Board. The newly formulated Ronco retains first right of refusal over any new Popeil inventions.
"We liked the strength of the brand that Ron had built in 40-plus years," says Emerson Martin, managing director at Sanders Morris Harris, the Houston financial services holding company that brokered the deal. It has a grand old name, but one that is not fully exploited in the retail market place." Martin, who also sits on Ronco's new board of directors, says that one of the new management team's main goals is to increase its retail sales.
FRYING HIGH. According to Popeil, the deal frees him up to spend more time with his two youngest daughters (ages 4 and 6) and, he says, "It allows me to work on what I really enjoy, the inventing of new consumer products."
He is already at work on what he expects will be his next blockbuster -- a turkey fryer that he plans to launch early next year. Ever the salesman, he explains: "Nobody has created a fryer that is safe to use. I'm in the process of exhaustive testing. We're talking a turkey fryer that can be used for chicken and fish, and it fries up tempura. It will compete with anything that fries food in the marketplace."
"Ron is one of a kind," says Len Green, CEO of the Green Group, and a professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. "He is different from the rest because he not only invents, but he sells. Most entrepreneurs come up with a concept and then give it to others to manufacture or sell. He's his own best salesman."
UP FROM WOOLWORTH'S. Born to a family of inventor-marketers, Popeil had a hardscrabble childhood. For a time, he and his brother were alone when his parents divorced. At 3 years old, he lived in a New York foster home before his grandparents brought him to live with them in Florida. At 16, he went to work for his father, selling his products at Woolworth's and on the Chicago fair circuit in the 1950s.
Popeil learned the art of the sale during this period. His time with consumers helped him understand what products would click, what features worked, and which ones didn't. He did so well, he says, that his weekly take from his percentage of sales at Woolworth's eventually eclipsed the store managers' monthly salary. So he decided to go out on his own.
Popeil made himself into the entrepreneur for the dawning Media Age. In the 1950s, he began advertising on TV, a move that decades later would later help him usher in the era of the infomercial. One of his first stand-alone commercials was for his Ronco Spray Gun, a gun-shaped garden-hose nozzle with a chamber in the handle for tablets of soap, wax, weed killer, fertilizer, and insecticide. The 60-second spot on a Tampa TV station cost him $550.
MORE THAN IDEAS. "Going on TV allowed me to reach tens of millions of people, and I could make more money then standing for 8 to 12 hours at Woolworth's," he says.
While many entrepreneurs have come up with a best seller, few have created a whole business around that item, let alone come up with more than one success. Popeil has done both -- many times over. "I have an innate talent," he says. "I used to think it was luck, but after one success after another, I realized that I know what is needed in the marketplace. Most people don't understand the market. Most people have no clue. All they know is 'I got an idea, and I need a patent.'"
For example, Popeil came up with Showtime after noticing the popularity of store-bought rotisserie chicken. Years earlier, he created GLH (Good Looking Hair) -- aerosol spray-on "hair" -- after he noticed a thin patch on his own head.
SLIMY EGG WHITES. A hands-on micromanager, Popeil begins his day with a 6:30 a.m. workout, then tinkers in what he calls his testing facility: his Beverly Hills kitchen and garage. He shops at discount warehouse Costco (COST) for most of his supplies. He's never hired a marketing team, and says he puts his touch on everything from the packaging to the infomercial sets.
Popeil's uncanny products are matched perhaps only by his exuberant pitches. For instance, that of the Inside-the-Shell Electric Egg Scrambler: "Gets rid of those slimy egg whites in your scrambled eggs." The GLH infomercial -- "Nine different colors...I use it all the time" -- made Entertainment Weekly's list of TV's 100 best moments.
His TV statements -- "But wait, there's more," "Price so low," and "Operators are standing by" -- have made Popeil and his products synonymous with TV marketing. Popeil insists his catchphrases are unscripted, but says he recognizes when he's uttered a zinger. Then he puts the phrase into heavy rotation.
ONLY HIS OWN. Over the years, however, a few bumps in the road have cropped up. Popeil has had some notable misses, such as a home glass-froster and a compact trash-can that converted into a stool. In 1987, Ronco went bankrupt after it couldn't cover a bank loan. About two years later, Popeil bought his company back and made his big return to TV, re-introducing the hot-selling Food Dehydrator in 1990. His one regret: not inventing Velcro.
Popeil says his recipe for success is simple and extends to entrepreneurs of all kinds. "If you have that passion, it is conveyed through marketing," he says. "People see it. I get up before them and show them something new and wonderful."
But, he, adds: "I don't know if I could sell insurance. It's something that I didn't create. When I create something, I believe in it, and I am very passionate about it." Operators are standing by.