Ron “Ronco” Popeil is one of America’s unique inventors. Over the past 40 years, his products have pulled in more than $2 billion in sales. Ron 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. One of his latest inventions, the Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ, is selling by the thousands every week. It wasn’t always this way, however. Like many a self-made man, Ron Popeil didn’t have a normal childhood, at least not the kind of childhood enjoyed by a lot of us. In fact, he says, he has blotted most of it from his memory.
Born in 1935, Ron and his 17-month older brother, Jerry, were shuffled off to a foster home in upstate New York between the ages of three and four when his parents were divorced. Ron remembers during Christmas time when other parents arrived at the foster home to pick up their children for the holidays. Ron would stand in the middle of the street and look down what seemed to be an endless road waiting to see his mother or father’s car approach. It never did.
Before he was seven, his grandparents rescued Ron and his brother from the foster home and took them to their aunt’s home in Florida for about 2½ years. But it was a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” His grandfather, a Polish immigrant, was dour and sour without any redeeming human qualities. At the age of 10 Ron’s grandparents moved to Chicago and he and his brother moved with them. Six years later Ron would move and go on his own.
Ron’s father, Samuel Popeil was an inventor who sold his inventions thru major department stores and chain stores throughout the U.S. including Sears, Walgreen’s, and Woolworth’s. Ron’s role was to help his father in that endeavor by demonstrating the products in those kinds of stores. His purpose was to persuade the store owners, managers, and buyers that customers would purchase these unique inventions in large quantities. “I used to drum up business for my father’s company by showing how easy it was to sell his products,” Ron says. “Because sales were significant the stores would jump on the bandwagon and order more product from his father.”
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 Salesman of the Century, “ Maxwell Street was a Chicago tourist attraction as well as a place to sell all sorts of goods. The first time I went there the proverbial light bulb went on in my head. I saw all these people selling products, making sales, pocketing money, and my mind went racing. I can do what they’re doing, I thought, but I think I can do it better than they can.
“So, I gathered up some kitchen products from my father’s factory, he sold them to me at a wholesale price so he made a full profit, and I went down to Maxwell Street on a Sunday to give it a try. I talked, 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 selling 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 finally found a form of affection and human connection through sales.
Note that Ron’s father didn’t give his son a price break on his purchases. Samuel J. Popeil was a hard working man who expected everyone around him to work just as hard and to take the same financial risks he was taking. This was okay with Ron. He didn’t expect any special treatment and he didn’t need any for he found he was a natural born salesman.
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 in Chicago. Among his wares were food choppers, shoeshine spray and plastic plant kits. Ron’s deal with the manager of that store was simple. In return for demonstration space, the store received 20% of all the money he took in. 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.
During the summer months, Ron was able to get out of Woolworth’s and Maxwell Street and work the State Fair circuit. As well as being another lucrative sales venue, it also, perhaps more importantly, taught him salesmanship lessons that he would later put to use in his TV commercials. By demonstrating his products in front of masses 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 presentation. 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.”
By now Popeil was raking in lots of money. But, he got to wonder how long it could last. His entire income was dependent on him selling day after day. What if something happened to prevent him from pitching products at Woolworth’s, Maxwell Street, or the fair circuit? A long-term illness, maybe. What then? Back to poverty?
His success as an in-person pitchman was at its height in the mid 50’s. Coincidentally, television was just starting its rise to stellar heights and Ron was intrigued by the medium. “In those days,” he says, “you could advertise empty boxes on TV and sell them. But, we all know only undertakers can sell empty boxes and get away with it.”
Popeil found he could produce a 60-second commercial for $500 at WFLA, a Tampa, FL television station, and did so. Actually, Ron would produce four commercials from one. From the two minute came the 90 second, the 60 second and the 30 second, 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 minute time was hard to come by, but we always did all of them at one time for financial reasons.
Ron’s first TV 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 gun-shaped garden hose nozzle with a chamber in the handle for tablets of soap, wax, weed killer, fertilizer, insecticide, or…. “Of course, sooner or later, the tablets would run out,” he says, “and I was per se in the razor blade business, the business of selling tablets.”
Although the commercial was produced in Florida, Popeil ran the spot on small stations in Illinois and Wisconsin, near Chicago, because the retail stores carrying Ron’s products were in those TV markets. The commercial was a great success and Popeil was on his way to being one of the first people other than a network president to make millions of dollars from the medium.
From the Ronco Spray Gun, Popeil moved on to using television to market several of his father’s inventions. The first of these was the Chop-O-Matic. This product would institute a practice Ron has continued to this day – the un-scripted presentation. Because Ron had demonstrated this product at Woolworth’s, Maxwell State, as well as the State Fairs, Ron had refined the pitch. Popeil didn’t write a script for the commercial. As Ron says, “Why bother? If I’ve been chopping away for 10 hours a day, giving the same pitch over and over again refining it a little bit each time, why would I ever need a script?”
By the early 60’s Ron was selling products exclusively over television. Ron and his father became wealthy from sales of kitchen gadgets that have become household words: Dial-O-Matic, Veg-O-Matic, Mince-O-Matic, Pocket Fisherman. In 1964 through TV Ronco pulled in $200,000 in sales. In 1968, the company’s revenues were $8.8 million. But, now he used less of his father’s products and more of his own.
The company continued doing business on TV throughout the 70’s and early 80’s. Then, disaster struck. A Chicago bank keeled over and Ronco’s bank didn’t want to follow suit. So, the bank called in all the company’s I.O.U’s. Ronco couldn’t cover them because of the specific time period the bank wanted their money back. So, the bank took over the company’s assets which consisted of products as well as accounts receivables. Now, Popeil didn’t have control but he did have his personal fortune intact. When the bank prepared to auction off Ronco’s assets, Ron offered the bank $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?” Ron said it did and he bought his company back for $2 million and put it back on its feet. Ron could have legally offered $1 more than the auction price but chose to keep his word with the bank.
At 52, Popeil went into semi-retirement and left most of the arduous operating tasks of Ronco to others. He still created product for the company. One of the products bought in the banker’s auction was Ron’s Electric Food Dehydrator. This product brought him back into more active marketing in 1990 when Fingerhut asked him to help sell it through an infomercial. Ron agreed to work with Fingerhut on the project but, because of some internal problems, they subsequently backed out of the deal at which time Ron decided to do the infomercial himself.
Today Popeil is still going strong but he does find time to indulge in his favorite pastime, fishing. Whenever he can, Ron takes out one of his two fishing boats, one is called Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman I and the other is called Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman II. One is kept in California and the other is kept in Alaska. “The water’s clean,” he explains, “and I only attempt to catch fish I can eat. I just love fishing and, yes, I really do love and use my Pocket Fisherman.”
Ronco/Popeil, now based in Chatsworth, CA, is more than just the Ronco Company. “We have a bunch of companies,” Ron says. “We have Ronco Inventions, Popeil Inventions, R.P. Productions, Castle Advertising, etc…We advertise and promote all of our names. In marketing it would be foolish not to.” Altogether, these companies have 180 people on the payroll. Quality now is one reason Popeil prefers to sell only items he has developed. “I’m an inventor first and a marketer second,” he says. “Other people in our business take the spaghetti approach. They throw a lot of stuff against the wall and hope something sticks. The failure rate is dependent solely on what you’re throwing up against the wall. I don’t operate that way. If I believe in a product idea, I’ll put my time, money, and marketing skills behind it. It might take two-and-a-half years of my life to create, product and sell. But, I enjoy every minute of it!