Ron "But Wait!" Popeil is a multimillionaire. Over the last 40 years his products
have pulled in more than $1 billion 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.
It wasn't always this way, however. Like many a self-made man, Ron Popeil
didn't have a childhood. At least not the kind of childhood remembered wistfully as so
many of us do when the rigors and responsibilities of adulthood weigh a few hundred pounds
more than usual. He says he has blotted most of it from memory.
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
When he was seven, his paternal grandparents rescued Ron and
his brother from the school and took them to their home in Florida. It wasn't much of a
rescue. His grandfather, a Polish immigrant, was dour and sour without any redeeming human
qualities. At 16, Ron decided to elect the lesser of two evils and went to Chicago to live
with his father, Samuel J. Popeil.
Samuel Popeil was an inventor who sold his inventions to the
major stores of the time: Sears, Woolworth's and the like. Ron's job was to help him in
that endeavor by demonstrating the products to customers in the stores. The purpose was to
persuade the store owners, managers and buyers that customers wanted Popeil gadgets.
"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:
"Maxwell Street was a Chicago tourist attraction, as
well as a place to sell goods.... The first time I went there the proverbial light bulb
went on over my head. I saw all these people selling product, pocketing money, making
sales, and my mind went racing. I can do what they're doing, I thought. But 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 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.
Note that Ron's father didn't give the boy a break on prices.
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
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
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
Working Woolworth's, Maxwell Street and the fairs, Popeil was
raking in huge amounts of money. But he got to wondering how long it could last. His
entire income was dependent on him selling day after day. What if--God forbid!--something
happened to prevent him from pitching products at Woolworth's? A long-term illness, maybe.
What then? Back to poverty.
His success as an in-person pitchman was at its zenith in the
mid-'50s. To extend the metaphor, television was just starting its rise to stellar
heights. Ron was intrigued by the medium. "In those days," he says, "you
could advertise empty boxes on TV and sell them."
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.
Although the commercial was produced in Florida, Popeil ran
the spot on small stations in Illinois and Wisconsin, near Chicago, to save on shipping
costs. 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, and
this product would also institute a practice Ron has continued to this day: the unscripted
presentation. Because he had demonstrated this product at Woolworth's and had refined the
pitch, Popeil didn't write a script for the commercial. As he 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 need a script?" Of all his father's
products sold over television, this was the greatest success.
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
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.
During his semi-retirement Popeil was asked to join the board
of directors of Mirage Resorts by the chairman, Stephen Wynn, who is one of his heroes.
"Steve Wynn is truly a marketing genius," Ron says. "I don't know of too
many other marketers who would fit in his shoes."
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
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.
Quality 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. I'm willing to make a
serious investment in an idea and take two to two and one-half years of my life to create
it, to get behind it and understand it and take it to the marketplace."