Rags to Riches Series, Part 1: Ron Popeil by Liz Isaacs

Rags to Riches Series, Part 1: Ron Popeil

Father of the infomercial Ron Popeil is considered one of the greatest modern day US inventors and salesmen. It seems like whatever he wants to sell, the American public will rush to buy. From rotisserie barbeques and electric food dehydrators to spray guns and pocket fishing rods, his Ronco/Popeil products have grossed over $1 billion in sales.

by Liz Isaacs
updated June 19, 2014 · 7 min read

Father of the infomercial Ron Popeil is considered one of the greatest modern day US inventors and salesmen. It seems like whatever he wants to sell, the American public will rush to buy. From rotisserie barbeques and electric food dehydrators to spray guns and pocket fishing rods, his Ronco/Popeil products have grossed over $1 billion in sales.

How did he get there? How did the Chicago-born Ronald M. Popeil come to revolutionize television marketing and convince us we needed to dehydrate food? Popeil lived a rags-to-riches story that's a TV movie waiting to happen. If you think you can imagine what inspired him, in the classic words of Ron Popeil, "but wait, there's more."

The Beginning

Popeil came from very humble beginnings. Born in 1935 to a long line of inventors and salesman, Popeil's first stroke of bad luck hit at the age of three when his parents divorced. Ron and his brother Jerry were abandoned and subsequently carted off to an upstate New York foster home. While in school, Popeil's father had nothing to do with his children, but at least they knew where he was - the boys' mother disappeared completely. After a time, Ron and Jerry's paternal grandfather came to the rescue, or so they thought, and moved the brothers to Florida.

In 1948, Ron was 13 and realizing that his Florida rescue was not working out - his grandfather proved to be brutally abusive. Choosing bad over worse, a brave Popeil headed back to Chicago to reconnect with his father.

Working for Dad

Samuel "S.J." Popeil, Ron's father, was an inventor and a pitchman who owned and ran Popeil Brothers, a manufacturer of household and kitchen gadgets. Notably, the Popeil Brothers factory made the Chop-O-Matic, the gadget we would all come to know as the famous Veg-O-Matic. S.J. found, in his son, what all businessmen can use: a coworker.

S.J. molded Ron into a salesman. Soon, Ron was selling Popeil products in Sears, Woolworth's and other department stores. S.J. handled persuading businesses to carry their products while Ron took care of the in-store product demonstrations, convincing buyers that Popeil products were what they wanted and needed.

Ron's life was not a warm, family-centered, welcoming one. He worked hard for his father and lived on canned salmon and white bread, but never ceased trying to better his situation. On weekends, he'd spend hours at his father's factory, tinkering with different inventions.

The Fateful Day

One day, Ron got the fateful idea that changed his life, forever. Walking through the packed, bustling markets on Maxwell Street in Chicago, Popeil watched the other vendors hawking their goods and had an epiphany. He knew he could do it better. He just needed the goods.

Ron convinced S.J. to sell him some kitchen gadgets wholesale. Since Ron owned the merchandise, he could turn around and sell it for his own profit. It was on Maxwell Street that Ron sold his own goods for the first time.

Ron was a natural.

A true master salesman was born. He made so much money that day that he made a vow that he'd never be poor and hungry again. Sales provided Ron with a financial way out of poverty. Plus, being a salesman provided the human contact sorely lacking in his own family.

Things Are Looking Up

Even after his own Maxwell Street success, Ron still had to work for dad. He demonstrated and sold his father's wares at the Chicago Woolworth's, the #1 store in the US. There, he had another idea.

Ron made a deal with the owner of Woolworth's. In exchange for demo space, Ron would give the store 20 percent his Ron's gross sales. Smart for the owner, smart for Ron - this way he could sell a variety of products, however he wanted, and he did. In fact, the system proved more successful than he could have imagined. In a time when the average monthly salary was $500, Popeil averaged $1000 - a week.

His success continued. When not selling to department stores, Ron was on the summer fair circuit. Traveling gave Ron the opportunity to perfect his sales pitch and hone techniques he would later make famous in infomercials. He'd listen to buyers' questions, perfect his response, and then incorporate the whole conversation into his sales pitch. Plus, talking to buyers firsthand showed him which product features customers really cared about.

The Birth of the Infomercial

In the mid-50's, Popeil realized the main potential of a new medium called television - an infinite audience. A live sales pitch was limited to immediate viewers. But a broadcast version could reach anyone with a television. Wisely, Popeil foresaw the expansion of television and started taking advantage of it early on.

Short commercial timeslots were ideal for Ron. After all, pitching products to live people required a short sales pitch. The first product Popeil sold on TV was the Ronco Spray Gun. From there, he moved on to other products, like the Veg-O-Matic.

After the success of his initial ads, Popeil and his longtime business partner, Mel Korey, took another successful gamble. They expanded their advertising from local TV networks to the national ones. Popeil and Korey were soon selling better ways to do everyday functions to people across the states.

In the early 60's, Popeil stopped making his live pitches in favor of focusing on TV sales. He became the first person to make millions using television as a sales tool. In 1964, Ronco made $200,000 in sales revenues. Four years later, in 1968, company revenues rose to a colossal $8.8 million. Ron was selling fewer of his father's products and a lot more of his own inventions. By 1969, Ron Popeil's personal net worth exceeded a $1 million. Ronco was an overwhelming success.

But Wait, There's More!

In the 70's and 80's, the Ronco business chugged along. A large chunk of the American population were already proud owners of Veg-O-Matics, Dial-O-Matics, Popeil Pocket Fisherman, Mr. Microphone and numerous other products they were sold via TV. Ronco products were household fixtures. Then disaster struck.

After a neighboring bank collapse, Popeil's bank decided to call in all outstanding debts. Ronco couldn't pay. The bank took control of company assets and decided to auction them off. Popeil offered the bank $2 million in personal assets to buy back the company. The bank accepted Popeil's offer when they realized it exceeded the auction value. Ron saved two organizations - his company, Ronco Inventions, and its offshoot, Popeil Inventions.

Set It and Forget It!

In the 1990's, Ron's famous ingenuity struck again - this time at the local Costco. While there, Ron noticed the long lines for the in-store rotisseries. This inspired him to develop his now famous Showtime Rotisserie and Barbeque.

Ron built the first prototype out of a fish tank, motor, heating element, spit rod and various spare parts. Five or six models later, he helped people say good-bye to long rotisserie lines. With the Showtime Rotisserie, you could do it yourself. The appliance could hold a 15 pound turkey, cooking the meat horizontally from the inside as well as the outside. With the help of his patent attorney, Roderick Dorman, Popeil quickly secured at least two dozen patents.

Using his sales experience, Ron began selling the rotisserie with his own personable style. From 1998-2001, selling rotisseries at only $39.95, Popeil made over $1 billion in sales.

A few improvements later, Popeil created a newer version. This one had a digital jog dial and sold for $129.72. He decided to start selling on QVC. The network hoped to sell 37,000 rotisseries in 24 hours for $4.5 million in sales. Sales flew past the goal as the rotisseries earned close to a million in just one hour. Even Ron was astounded.

From there, the rest is history. Popeil has made his fortune inventing products and connecting with millions. He demonstrates how his inventions do what we all want: to make our lives a little better and a little easier, every day.

Are You the Next Ron Popeil?

Much of Ron's success in inventing and advertising came from finding solutions to simple observations. Do you think you have a bright idea for an invention people want?

One good place to start is the website for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office at www.uspto.gov. Their "general questions" section talks about different types of patents and what can be patented. And with the help of LegalZoom, you can quickly secure a provisional patent. Who knows - you might have the next Veg-O-Matic.

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About the Author

Liz Isaacs

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