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The Surprising Lives of Famous Pitchmen: Ron Popeil


Selling kitchen gadgets was his ticket out of poverty, and his bid for "affection and human connection."

As the creator the Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ, Dial-O-Matic, Inside-The-Shell Egg Scrambler, and -- but wait there's more -- the Showtime Six Star Plus 25 Knife Set and the Solid Flavor Injector, the much parodied Ron "Ronco" Popeil has redefined late-night TV commerce and made billions in retail sales.

But his route to the top was not without detours. Although he came from a line of inventors and salesmen, he also had to fend for himself and fight his way into a tough trade. Along the way, he became more financially successful than any other gadget pitchman and inventor who preceded him.

Creating, designing, patenting, and shilling merchandise takes tremendous dedication, a knack for performing, and some business acumen. Fortunately, all of the above ran in Popeil's genes. When his great uncle Nathan Morris arrived in America in the 1880s, he worked the Atlantic City boardwalk and traveled throughout the East Coast selling kitchen gadgets. He later started his own manufacturing company and created items such as the Morris Metric Slicer.

His two sons joined him, as did his brother. Morris' nephew Samuel Jacob Popeil, who went by S.J., served as an apprentice. S.J. moved to Chicago, where he founded Popeil Brothers and created the Chop-O-Matic, Veg-O-Matic, and Popeil Pocket Fisherman. One would expect that S.J. would have taken his only living son, Ron, under his wing. Instead, Ron faced a Dickensian childhood.

Born in New York in 1935, Ron Popeil's parents divorced when he was three years old. They went their separate ways and abandoned Ron and his older brother Jerry, who spent the next three years in foster care together in upstate New York. Jerry then died young.

When Ron was six years old he moved in with an aunt for two and a half years in Florida and then moved again to Chicago, this time to stay with his paternal grandparents, first generation Polish immigrants, who, according to Ron, were abusive and neglectful. Ron had to fend for himself. He did work at his father's company, albeit only on weekends, when his father wasn't around. (His father was an unusual man by all accounts. For example, after finding out that his second ex-wife had tried to have him murdered, S.J. re-married the woman, according to a profile of the Popeil clan by The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell).

Luckily, in 1951, the young Popeil found his way to Chicago's Maxwell Street, where the city's street salesmen hawked wares to tourists. Popeil bought a bunch of his dad's gadgets for full price, and then went out and successfully sold them. Since S.J. was already selling his inventions to national chain stores like Sears (SHLD), Walgreen's (WAG), and Woolworth's, his son also decided to try and boost sales by setting up in-store product demos within the large shops. The only break S.J. gave his son was credit.

By this point, nothing could stop the young Popeil. His sales pitch was spectacular and convincing. He not only sold to customers, but also to the store owners and workers. In Popeil's autobiography, The Salesman of the Century (Dell, 1996), he writes, "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."

Popeil made $1,000 a week, where the average salesperson earned $500 a month. Once he went into business for himself, his father shut him out completely, though Popeil continued to sell his father's inventions.

In the 1950s, Popeil discovered -- and exploited -- the selling power of television. When TV ads were still new to audiences, and people held respect for the faces who appeared on their screen, "you could advertise empty boxes... and sell them," he once said. He shrewdly milked his first commercial, for an insecticide, for all he could, and edited down one long commercial taping into four spots. He had one ad that ran for two minutes, another for 90 seconds, a third for a minute, and a fourth for half a minute.

A decade later Popeil was able to stop doing trade shows and in-store demos, selling gadgets directly in television advertisements that appeared on stations near Chicago. He invented the Veg-O-Matic in 1965; it could slice an entire cucumber or onion at once. From there, he went on to develop and sell more of his own popular kitchen items.

There was one low point in Popeil's reign: He briefly lost his company in the early 1980s when the Chicago bank that had loaned him money began to falter. But the tides soon turned and Popeil not only bought his company back from the bank, but helped the bank stay afloat by paying more than necessary in the deal.

In his early 50s, Ron retired from the day-to-day oversight of the company. On his fourth marriage and living with his wife and two of his five daughters in Beverly Hills, he also became an avid, if not obsessive, fisherman, with a boat in Alaska and one in California. His company, Ronco Acquisition Corporation, known as Ronco, moved to New York. He still appears on QVC from time to time.

A self-made man -- a walking and talking, or in his case, inventing and selling, three-dimensional Horatio Alger -- Ron's dexterity as a design engineer and business guru transformed the selling trade. You can't sell or buy on eBay (EBAY), Craigslist, or even a lemonade stand without wondering, wait is there more?

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