Popeil, Ronald M.
Popeil, Ronald M.
Ronco Inventions, LLC
Infomercial legend Ron Popeil has pervaded pop culture in the more than 35 years that television viewers have watched him hawk products of his own invention. He founded Ronco Inc., an operation run virtually single–handedly by the charismatic Popeil, who invents, markets, and serves as the consummate pitchman for such well–known products as the Veg–O–Matic, the Pocket Fisherman, Mr. Microphone, and the infamous GLH Formula Number 9 Hair System, a "spray–on toupee." Arising from humble beginnings, the entrepreneur has sold more than $1 billion of his gadgets and become a cult icon in the process.
Ronald Popeil lives in Beverly Hills with his fourth wife, Robin, whom he married in 1995, and has four daughters: Kathryn, Shannon, Lauren, and Contessa. He enjoys fishing on his boat, the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, and, not surprisingly, spending time cooking. Popeil serves on the board of directors of Mirage Resorts with close friend and inspiration, chairman Steve Wynn.
Born in Chicago in 1935, he was raised by his paternal grandparents after his parents Samuel and Julia divorced when he was four. Ron and his older brother Jerry were sent to a boarding school in upstate New York. In what Popeil described as an unhappy childhood, he recalls seeing his mother only once at the school and never seeing his father until moving to Chicago at age 13. When he was seven years old, his grandparents, Isadore and Mary, took the brothers from boarding school and brought them to their home in Florida. "I grew up in my grandmother's kitchen, always watching her cook," Popeil told People Weekly. Life at his grandparents was not always happy, however, as his grandfather often doled out harsh and undeserved punishment. Even with a home life that was lacking and the legacy of his father's abandonment, Popeil refused to hold a grudge. Looking back on his own business success, he still credits his father among his two inspirations. "My father was all business," he simply told the New Yorker. "I didn't know him personally."
Popeil's knack for invention came from a long line of entrepreneurs and salesmen. His father, Samuel Jacob Popeil, or S.J., as he was called, started out working for his uncle Nathan Morris, a kitchen–gadget entrepreneur who sold Acme Metal products on the New Jersey board-walk, employing several other family members to do the same. Nathan's company, N.K. Morris, sold such products as the Morris Metric Slicer and the KwiKi–Pi. After his apprenticeship on the Atlantic coast, S.J. started a Chicago–based company, Popeil Brothers, which produced the Dial–O–Matic, Chop–O–Matic, and, in 1960, the slicer/dicer Veg–O–Matic. The Morris–Popeil family were famous in their day for their inventions and marketing savvy, as well as their fierce competition with one another—S.J. sued his uncle in 1958 over the Roto–Chop, which Popeil claimed was very similar to his Chop–O–Matic.
At the age of 13, Ron was sent to work in the Popeil Brothers factory on weekends, when his father wasn't there. When he started selling his father's products at Chicago's Maxwell Street Flea Market, he was struck by revelation. "I saw all these people selling products, 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," Popeil wrote in his autobiography, The Salesman of the Century.
Popeil was a natural salesman, sometimes earning $500 in a single day, more money than he had ever seen. Ron, in his late teens, began selling at state and county fairs during the mid–1950s. Soon after, he bargained for a demonstration space at the Chicago Woolworth's—the nation's top–grossing branch. With his good looks and polished performance, Popeil's demonstrations of the Dial–O–Matic and Chop–O–Matic brought in big money, and soon he was earning more than the store's manager, making $1,000 a week. Popeil's friend Mel Korey told the New Yorker, "He was mesmerizing. There were secretaries who would take their lunch break at Woolworth's to watch him because he was so good–looking. He would go into the turn [the end of the pitch and the start of the solicitation for money], and people would just come running." Popeil soon enjoyed the fruits of his success, sporting a new Rolex watch and dining at Chicago's finest restaurants. In 1955, after attending one year at the University of Illinois, Popeil dropped out to devote himself full–time to his budding sales career.
Standing in front of a crowd selling the Veg–O–Matic, Ronald Popeil realized the potential of the simple yet ingenious and effective device. The machine, which went through pounds of produce per minute, needed a much wider audience and different format to fully demonstrate its ability. Intrigued by the rising medium of television, Popeil teamed up with his college buddy Mel Korey to form Ronco in 1964. Their first order of business was to film a $500 commercial for the Veg–O–Matic. The partners bought a several week run for the two–minute ad at a local television station. The gamble paid off, as stores that stocked the Veg–O–Matic were selling out and reordering plenty more. Television and Popeil's products emerged as a perfect match. Soon Ron began selling his products exclusively on television without the use of a script, relying on the skills honed from years of live practice.
Popeil then turned to marketing another product, The Ronco Spray Gun, a nozzle that fit over a garden hose to disseminate fertilizer, insecticide, and the like. As that product began selling well, Ronco generated $200,000 in sales in its first year alone. By 1968, the company had blossomed into a multi–million dollar enterprise, making $8.8 million in revenue from a diverse array of products: Chop–O–Matic, the Smokeless Ashtray, the Pocket Fisherman, Mr. Microphone, Inside the Eggshell Egg Scrambler, Popeil's Pasta & Sausage Maker, GLH Formula Number 9 Hair System, and rhinestone and stud setters for jeans. Ronco Inc. went public the following year.
Popeil became a late–night television regular, pitching Ronco's gadgets throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. His products became familiar symbols of American ingenuity, and his memorable commercials became fair game for mockery among comedians and talk–show hosts. Proof of his status as a pop icon, Popeil himself was spoofed by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live, demonstrating a "Bass–O–Matic" complete with Popelian catch phrases like, "It slices! It dices!" and "But wait! There's more!" This sort of publicity didn't tarnish Popeil's image nor hurt sales; in fact, it only added to his products' popularity. Not all of his products were successful, however. Cellutrol failed to rid the user of cellulite, and the Inside–Outside Window Washer failed to work outside. Yet these were only occasional failures in an overall booming business.
In 1984 Ronco was forced into liquidation when nervous creditors called in the company's notes. Strapped to find a buyer, Popeil himself bought the rights to Ronco's products at auction from the bank for $2 million of his personal fortune. The transaction left him disillusioned about running the company, however, so he passed the daily operation of Ronco to others and retreated to his home laboratory to test new inventions.
Another turning point for Ronco also occurred that year. The Federal Communications Commission softened limit lengths on television commercials, giving rise to the half–hour infomercial. With the dawn of the 1990s, Popeil was back on television with his new Ronco Food Dehydrator, which made the country look at beef jerky in a whole new way. The infomercial format was perfect for the pitchman. As in his early days of selling, Popeil had an audience to interact with as well as the opportunity to fully explain and demonstrate each detail of the product, his specialty.
With the rise of the Internet, Popeil continued to inspire and intrigue the public via several websites devoted to him by fans who either idolized or reviled him. One rabid Popeil fan website raves, "The sound of his voice is harmonious. His face is not beautiful in the way the conventional people consider beauty. It is the contorted face of genius. Years of torment at the hands of critics have hardened his features and made him statue–like. He is more than a man, he is part god. Hercules has nothing on him."
In the 1990s Popeil teamed up with the home shopping television network QVC, selling the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ and the New and Improved Popeil Automatic Pasta and Sausage Maker, among other products. In 2000 Ronco posted $250 million in sales.
Chronology: Ronald M. Popeil
1955: Dropped out of college for a full–time sales career.
1960: Ron's father invented The Veg–O–Matic.
1964: Formed Ronco Inc.
1968: Ronco posted $8.8 million in sales.
1969: Ronco went public.
1984: Purchased Ronco after its liquidation.
1990: Began selling products on infomercials.
1995: Published autobiography, The Salesman of theCentury.
Despite all of his success, Popeil remained driven, and when not selling his products, was hard at work formulating new ones, such as a countertop meat smoker and an automatic bread–and–batter machine in the works in early 2001. Although Ronco had some 200 employees, Popeil was still very involved in all aspects of his products. He invented, tested, and was responsible for the research and development of all products, as well as overseeing the packaging, manufacturing, sales, and marketing aspects of the business. He conceived of his own commercials and wrote them, in addition to starring in them. "I'm different than most people and most companies in a lot of ways," Popeil said to Sales & Marketing Management. "In the development of products, companies throw a lot of ideas up against the wall. That is, they'll work on a hundred different projects and hope one will work. I don't waste my time or money. I work on one project at a time. I have total focus on that one thing—and I come up with winner after winner. Then I take the product from start to finish."
Social and Economic Impact
Part inventor, part television pitchman, Ronald Popeil is an American pop culture icon. With the dozens of everyday gadgets he invented and sold on television, Popeil changed the retail world with the unique way he presented his products and the catchy, omni–present commercials he created. In and of themselves, the products were not particularly socially relevant or life–changing, but as an entire line of products, together with their inventor and chief promoter Popeil, they came to represent good ol' American ingenuity. Demonstrating capitalism at its most basic level, Popeil built his fortune—literally—with his own two hands, a good idea, and a can–do attitude from the beginning and throughout good times and bad. "This is the ultimate late 20th–century guy," remarked Robert Thompson, associate professor of television at Syracuse University, in NewStandard. "What Henry Ford was to industrial strength and genius, Ron Popeil is to the next generation of American ingenuity. He's figured out the very complex negotiations that go on between what American culture produces and how we consume it. People 100 years from now are going to be writing dissertations on him."
Sources of Information
Contact at: Ronco Inventions, LLC
21344 Superior St.
Chatsworth, CA 91311
Business Phone: (818)775–4602
Donoho, Ron. "One–Man Show." Sales & Marketing Management, June 2001, 36.
Gladwell, Malcolm. "The Pitchman: Ron Popeil and the Conquest of the American Kitchen." New Yorker, 30 October 2000.
Gliatto, Tom. "He Yells! He Sells! Amazing! Pitchman Ron Popeil Strikes Gold with His Spray–On Toupee." People Weekly, 3 May 1993, 154.
"Inventor Profile: Ron Popeil." The Great Idea Finder. 30 April 2000. Available at http://www.ideafinder.com.
"My Personal Hero: Ron Popeil." October 2001. Available at http://www.worldofchristopher.com.
"Pitcher Perfect: Infomercial King Ron Popeil's Chickens Have Come Home to Roost." People Weekly, 23 October 2000, 125.
Popeil, Ron. The Salesman of the Century. Delacorte Press, 1995.
"Ronco and Ron Popeil." Ronco, Inc., October 2001. Available at http://shop.ronco.com.
"Ronco Inventions, LLC." Hoover's Online, Inc., October 2001. Available at http://www.hoovers.com.
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