Ron Popeil was born in 1935 to Samuel Jacob Popeil, who was also an inventor and pitchman and worked with family members who had been in the same sort of business for decades. S.J. had been an apprentice to his uncle Nathan Morris, who sold kitchen gadgets on New Jersey beach boardwalks and other locations. S.J. grew up to found Popeil Brothers, which competed with Morris' company and eventually sold Popeil inventions to department stores. It was S.J. who invented the Veg-O-Matic food slicer which his son would later sell.

S.J. and his wife divorced when their son Ron was three and he and his brother were sent off to a New York boarding school. S.J.'s father took the boys into their Florida home four years later, but treated them harshly. In his teens, the family went to go live near his father in Chicago, which was no picnic either. Ron worked in the Popeil brothers factory in his teens, and eventually started buying their products wholesale (no price break for family) and going out to sell them himself by demonstrating them to store buyers and flea market customers. He became an incredible showman from this practice, one of the most persuasive demonstators of how a product works and how easy it would be for the customer to use.

In 1964 he formed Ronco with Mel Korey, and they came up with the idea of selling products on television, showing one demonstration to a huge number of viewers instead of the limited number who could see it in person. Their $500 commercials for his father's Veg-O-Matic and other products were a gamble that paid off hugely. They were never scripted, just the pitches that had been refined by in-person demonstrations already done.

Ronco became huge and Popeil invented more products to sell; he has generally preferred to develop his own ideas with his friends who work in the company, such as Alan Backus. Developing their own allows them to fiddle around to get exactly what Popeil wants. "Roderick Dorman, Ron's patent attorney, says that when he went over to {Ron's home in} Coldwater Canyon he often saw five or six prototypes {of the Showtime rotisserie oven} on the kitchen counter, lined up in a row. Ron would have a chicken in each of them, so that he could compare the consistency of the flesh and the browning of the skin, and wonder if, say, there was a way to rotate a shish kebab as it approached the heating element so that the inner side of the kebab would get as brown as the outer part. By the time Ron finished, the Showtime prompted no fewer than two dozen patent applications." (Gladwell.com)

Ronco had trouble in the 1980s due to a bank calling in its loans to the company. Since the company could not cover them, the bank took over and tried to auction off the assets; Ron spent $2 million of his personal fortune buying back the company. After getting the company running again, Ron went into semi-retirement for a while but in the 1990s has become active again in inventing and promoting his products, appearing on QVC doing live pitches persuasive enough to sell nearly a million dollars of Showtime Rotisserie Ovens in an hour. Perhaps he really deserves the title given to the book he wrote with Jefferson Graham: The Salesman of the Century.

Sources: http://www.gladwell.com/2000_10_30_a_pitchman.htm http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventors/popeil.htm

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