Ron "But Wait!" Popeil is a multimillionaire. Over the last 40 years his products have pulled in more than $1 billions at retail. He was voted by Self magazine readers as one of the 25 people who have changed the way we eat, drink and think about food. And he's still going strong, his latest product, the Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ--which he invented--going out the door by the thousands every week.
Born in 1935, he was for all practical purposes orphaned three years later when his parents divorced and he and his brother were shunted to a boarding school in upstate New York. The one memory of this period is of a Christmas when parents were taking their children home for the holidays. Ron peered through a window at the long, straight road leading to the school, hoping to see his father's car approach. It never did.
"I used to drum up the business and show how easy it was to sell my father's product," Ron says. "The stores would jump on the bandwagon and order product from him."
The turning point in Ron's life came when he took a walk down Chicago's Maxwell Street one day. As he recalls in his autobiography, The Greatest Salesman of the Century:
"So I gathered up some kitchen products from my father's factory--he sold them to me at wholesale, so he made a full profit--and went down on a Sunday to give it a try. I pushed. I yelled. I hawked. And it worked. 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.
When he wasn't selling on Maxwell Street, he was demonstrating and selling his father's products (and some made by other manufacturers) just inside the front door of Woolworth's flagship store, "Woolworth's No. 1," in Chicago. Among his wares were food choppers, shoeshine spray and plastic plant kits. His deal with the manager of that store was simple: In return for demonstration space, the store received 20 percent of the gross. This was another gold mine for Ron. At Woolworth's alone he was making $1,000 a week at a time when the average salary was $500 a month.
As an independent contractor, Ron was able to get out of Woolworth's in the summer and work the fair circuit. This was another lucrative sales venue for him. More important, he learned salesmanship lessons that he would later put to use in his television commercials. By demonstrating his products in front of real live people who asked silly questions and broached objections, he was able to learn what the silly questions and objections were and build the answers and counter-arguments into his pitch.
For example, he says, "Before I went on TV with the Chop-O-Matic [precursor to the famous Veg-O-Matic], I spent several weeks selling the product at Woolworth's. After several days of demonstrating the product, I learned what features consumers were particularly interested in and what kind of questions they would ask."
Popeil found he could produce a 60-second commercial for $500 at WFLA, a Tampa, Fla. television station, and did so. Actually, he produced four commercials--30 seconds, 60 seconds, 90 seconds and 120, a habit he got into over the years with all his short-form advertising.
"We always had a philosophy that, whether we need it or not, [we] do a two-minute commercial," he says. "Even in those days, two minutes was hard to come by, but we always did all of them at one time for economic reasons."
His first television product was the Ronco Spray Gun. The spray gun was one of the few products Popeil has sold over the years that wasn't invented by either his father or himself. Basically, it was a garden hose nozzle with a chamber in the handle for tablets of soap or wax or weed killer or fertilizer or insecticide or.... "Of course, the tablets would run out," he says, "and I was in the razor blade business, the business of selling tablets." A real plus for any product.
Success or not, Popeil was still selling in person at fairs and in the stores. It took some time for him to wean himself away from those venues. By the early '60s he was selling products exclusively over television. He and his father became wealthy from sales of kitchen gadgets that have become household words: Dial-O-Matic, Veg-O-Matic, Mince-O-Matic. In 1964, Ronco pulled in $200,000 in sales. In 1968, the company's revenues were $8.8 million.
Popeil is one of those rare survivors who's built up and amazing fortune, lost it and made a remarkable comeback. The story goes a little something like this. The decade of the 1960s was the Golden Age of initial public offerings. Ronco Teleproducts (just "Ronco"--"Ron's Company" wasn't expressive enough) got on that train in 1969. Popeil's personal net worth went up by more than a million dollars overnight.
The company continued doing business as usual throughout the '70s and early '80s. Then disaster struck. An Illinois bank keeled over, and Ronco's bank didn't want to follow suit, so it called in all the company's notes. Ronco couldn't cover them, so the bank took over the company's assets. Now Popeil didn't have a company or any products to sell through that company.
But he did have his personal fortune. When the bank prepared to auction off Ronco, he offered $2 million to buy it back. The bank said, "Thanks, but no thanks," and held its auction. The aggregate bid came to $1.2 million. The bank said, "Uh, Ron, does your offer still stand?" It did, and he bought his company back and put it back on its feet.
At 52, Popeil went into semi-retirement and left most of the arduous operating tasks of Ronco to others. He kept his hand in, however, and invented the Electric Food Dehydrator. This product brought him back into more active marketing in 1991, when Fingerhut asked him to help sell it.
Today Popeil is still somewhat semi-retired, and he's still on the Mirage board, but he does find time to indulge in his favorite passtime of fishing. Whenever he can, he takes his boat, called Popeil Pocket Fisherman, from its slip at Oxnard, Calif. and goes after the big ones off the Ventura County shoreline. "The water's clean," he explains, "and I only attempt to catch fish I can eat." Beyond that, "You get away from the phone, and it's something I enjoy a great deal."
Ronco, now based in Chatsworth, Calif., is more than just Ronco. "We have a bunch of companies," Ron says. "We have Ronco Inventions, Popeil Inventions.... We really play on both names. It would be foolish not to." Altogether, these companies have 165 people on the payroll, people who run the business and help him get new ideas off the ground.
From the book "But Wait! There's More!: The Irresistible Appeal and Speil of Ronco and Popeil"
by Tim Samuelson, Hardcover, 128 pages, Rizzoli; (May 2002)