Company: Ronco Corp. (sold in 2005)
Born: New York City, 1935
Education: Six months at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
Career Turning Point: In 1967, a friend told him he should take his company public. Popeil's response: "What's that?" Ronco appeared on the American Stock Exchange in 1969.
Most Influential People: Casino developer Steve Wynn. Also, his father Samuel Popeil, an inventor who developed the Veg-O-Matic and Popeil's Pocket Fisherman.
Personal: Fourth marriage; five daughters, ranging in age from 6 to 49
Hobby: Cooking and fishing
Ron Popeil started selling gadgets at street markets but graduated to TV commercials soon after founding Ronco Corp. in 1964. He appeared in the ads without a script, demonstrating the products and delivering the pitches he had perfected while working the crowds. His ads created a direct-response vernacular with such phrases as "slices and dices," "but wait there's more!" and "operators are standing by." Early successes such as the Veg-O-Matic food-chopping machine eventually gave way to more expensive products such as food dehydrators and rotisserie cookers. In 2005, Popeil sold Ronco Corp. for $55 million; two years later it declared bankruptcy. In August, investment firm Marlin Equity Partners bought it for $6.5 million. Popeil spoke with the Business Journal in the living room of his Beverly Hills home. When a cooking timer sounded during the interview he retrieved a turkey from a prototype fryer in his kitchen-laboratory. Popeil said the turkey fryer, set to sell on airwaves in 2008, will be the last invention of his career.
Question: Can you talk about your famous products, starting with the Pocket Fisherman?
Answer: I have a fishing boat in Ketchikan, Alaska, named Popeil's Pocket Fisherman. Do I use it up there? Yes. Have I caught fish? A lot of fish. Salmon? Well, wait a second. I nailed a salmon with that Pocket Fisherman, a king salmon. It flew out of my hand shortly after the fish bit the hook. Somewhere out of Ketchikan there's a salmon dragging a Popeil's Pocket Fisherman around.
Q: It doesn't work for salmon?
A: But for small fish 8 to 10 pounds, bass Pocket Fisherman was one of the greatest inventions on the planet.
A: Way ahead of its time. It was the predecessor of the Cuisinart. In its day, it did a great job. In today's world no one would buy it. There are too many products that work faster and easier.
Q: About the Ronco bankruptcy, does it bother you what happened to your namesake company?
A: Of course, it has to bother you. To have a company that you created, and then sell the assets including your name and face for a lot of money, you would hope the new owners would be successful. But they took it in another direction that I couldn't control.
Q: Are you still connected to them?
A: I'm only a consultant.
Q: What about your final invention the turkey fryer?
A: I'm going to produce the tooling, the prototype and the infomercial, then sell the whole project lock, stock and barrel to someone with enough money so they won't put us in a position where they produce an inferior product.
Q: Would you sell it to Ronco?
A: If they have the funds, they're the most likely buyer. It makes sense since they have my other infomercials selling their product. Otherwise, people would see me on TV and try to call, but there are two companies selling my products, and both would get calls intended for the other. So it would make sense for Ronco to own it, just to keep the confusion down.
Q: I've heard experts say the day of the garage inventor is over. Innovation belongs to universities and corporations with huge R & D; budgets. Do you buy that?
A: No. The American inventor, the amateur inventor, is out there inventing products and getting ripped off by these companies that say "send us your ideas and we'll help you sell it." It is a total rip-off in my opinion. The only people who make money are the people who ask for your invention.
Q: In your career, what was your funniest invention? What was your biggest disappointment?
A: The funniest was a disappointment called the Inside the Eggshell Egg Scrambler. It homogenized the white and yolk into a perfect yellow cream. No slime.
Q: Why didn't people buy it?
A: It was too funny, too cute, too off-the-wall. And unless you used it, you couldn't tell the benefit of it.
Q: That was the disappointment?
A: But I made up for it with the publicity. Every news show had me on it. David Letterman had me. Larry King for an hour.
Q: But what about the biggest disappointment? I'm sure you pursued inventions that never made it.
A: I worked on a pizza-maker for a long time. I was trying to make one that would cook a big pizza. But in moving in that direction, I was hindered by other people's patents. It was never completed because I couldn't resolve all the marketing problems.
Q: Are you an inventor or a marketer?
A: I'm an inventor before I'm a marketer. There are a lot of great marketers in the world. I pride myself that I'm one of the few people who invents products and markets them.
Q: But there's an inventing personally and a marketing personality.
A: And they're completely different.
Q: So what happened with you?
A: My father was an inventor and I was the marketer of his inventions. Then I stopped marketing my father's products and started creating my own.
Q: Explain your relationship with your father.
A: Never close. I hardly ever saw him. It was all business. There was no love.
Q: What did he teach you about business?
A: He treated me with respect. He tried to instill in me the "deliver the promise" ideal. Integrity was paramount. That's what I learned from him. He was a smart business guy.
Q: Did you inherit his company?
A: He called me just before he died. He wanted to chat about his will. "Chat" that was his word. He said he wasn't leaving me anything. He left me under $100,000 as long as I agreed not to sue the estate. The amount was inconsequential. He said the reason was that I had more money than he did. He left it all to his wife.
Q: How did your growing-up affect your own family life?
A: I have five girls, ages 6 to 49. I wasn't the best father for the oldest two because I was never around. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give myself a two. For the third daughter, I get a four. But for the last two, 8 and 6 years old, I'm a 10. Since I sold my company, I have the opportunity to spend time with them and be there in the morning before they go to school and in the afternoon when they come home.
Q: Did your family experience influence your inventions? Is that why you feel attracted to kitchen inventions?
A: I had a good business reason. Everybody has a kitchen. If you have a kitchen, you're a candidate for my product. If you create a fishing rod, your marketplace is limited to only people who like to fishing, or gift-giving.
Q: Your products target women.
A: No, not true. If I said, pick out 10 restaurants in hotels, and then asked how many of the top chefs are female and how many male, your mind doesn't go directly to females. It goes males. That's not much different than in the house. With women working, more men are cooking today than ever. And when you think of barbecuing, you think of men.
Q: What was your funniest experience in business?
A: It's not the funniest, but the most embarrassing. I was working at Woolworth's in Chicago, selling a product that shined shoes. It came in an aerosol can and was a clear polish.
Q: What happened?
A: I found a contact to get me into the National Guard Armory in Chicago. I would give a quick demonstration, and afterward the soldiers could buy it for $2. I was raking in the dollars. But that wasn't good enough.
Q: You wanted more quantity?
A: The entire Illinois State National Guard. But I had to meet with the general. I went into his office, grabbed a can and walked around his desk. He had black boots. I sprayed them and they turned white, like white paint. The high humidity that day and the chemicals in the can caused the leather to turn white. So I never sold another can of that stuff again.
Q: What made you a successful inventor?
A: The amateur inventors who try to mimic what I've done, more than 99 percent fail because they didn't use a thought process for marketing. Before I create a product, it has to make sense marketing-wise.
Q: For example?
A: The rotisserie. At retail, it did about $1.3 billion in business. The idea came from visiting supermarkets and the likes of Costco to see people lined up to buy chickens.
Q: Then what?
A: The next thing in marketing is to see what's out there. Who's making rotisseries for the public? I bought a couple. I found there was no product in that category that really delivered the promise. Once you've established that the category is big, and the competition doesn't deliver, there's your market.
Q: You still need to sell the product.
A: You've got to be careful in marketing that the category you've chosen is not too narrow. That's the greatest mistake your readers might encounter. You're going to have to deal with the cost of media newspapers, magazines or TV. If the media cost nothing, then every item you sold would make a profit. You'd have a cost to produce the product and the retail price. You're going to make the difference. It's the media you have to understand.
Q: What's to understand, except that media is expensive?
A: If the product you've chosen carries a narrow audience, then for every thousand people watching the show, only one is a possible customer. You're not going to succeed. You can't pay for the media and that's paramount for success. Just inventing a product doesn't mean you'll make money. The process of marketing has to be thought of before hand.
Q: How do you bankroll these TV campaigns?
A: People think you need millions of dollars for advertising. No, you don't. You can just buy a handful of spots on a weekend across the country. I'm talking about two cable stations and half a dozen local markets where time is relatively inexpensive.
Q: What if the product doesn't sell?
A: Normally, you will find stations where you make money during the test. That's pretty easy keep buying the time. It's a pretty simple business. But most people don't know that once the spot hits on a given station at a given time, the number of orders will duplicate within a small percentage. Next week at that same time, you'll sell about the same number. Either the station will sell you the time at a price so you can make money, or you have to pull your infomercial.
Q: Do you ever sell other people's products?
A: People come to me with their products and ask "Will you sell this for me?" I tell them I don't want to be their partner. Partners are for dancing you learn that in business.
Q: Any more advice about product design?
A: We live in a gift-giving society. You got Christmas, Mother's Day, Father's Day, anniversaries, birthdays, weddings. Wait a second What do you give a newly married couple?
Q: Money? Sign up for a bridal registry?
A: You'd like to give a gift they can use, but don't already have. If I asked you, do you have a deep fryer in your kitchen, I know the answer is no. I can say that affirmatively. Is the answer no?
Q: The answer is no.
A: When most people don't have it, you get an idea how big your market is.
Q: What's your favorite invention, yours or anyone's?
A: Velcro, by far.
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