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Saturday, February 1, 2003

Opportunity Knocks Late

America's Business Landscape Blooms with People Who Hit Their Stride After 50

Larry Schweikart teaches history at the University of Dayton.

Perhaps it is the emphasis on youth in marketing and advertising—aside from a few prescription-drug commercials these days—that creates the impression that the rich are all young or have their career paths set by age 30. In fact, however, America’s business landscape blooms with people who didn’t hit their stride until they reached 50. Opportunity sometimes knocks later rather than sooner, but as the following examples show, what is important is whether or not you are ready to open the door.

John K. Hanson (born 1913), who was a furniture dealer after World War II in Forest City, Iowa, came up with the concept often associated with older people, the Winnebago motor home. He once accepted livestock in payment for couches and tables, even drawing the attention of Time magazine in 1947. Concerned his little town might be shriveling with the decline of family farming, Hanson pondered ways to save the town. Rather than run to the government for aid, Hanson noticed (ironically, also in Time) an article about the camping and trailer boom in California. After researching the project in person, he convinced more than 200 local townspeople to invest $50,000 in a corporation to manufacture travel trailers for a California company.

That venture failed, however, not long after the first trailer came off the assembly line. Hanson, convinced that the outdoors movement was a trend, bought out some investors and encouraged others to stay in and give the project another try. At Winnebago Industries he copied Alfred Sloan’s model at General Motors: have plenty of variety in cost, luxury, and accessories. After ten years the company had 20 models of campers and mobile homes, all making use of Hanson’s innovative foam-rubber cushions and mattresses that made the units more comfortable and thus more profitable. He also introduced the “unbalanced panel,” in which plywood and aluminum sandwiched a layer of Styrofoam insulation, which proved lighter and cheaper than existing “balanced” panels.

By 1965 Winnebago reached $2.8 million in sales, offered stock to the public, and soon became the first exclusively recreational vehicle firm listed on the New York Stock Exchange. After retiring, Hanson watched Winnebago stock slide from over $80 to a low of $1.75 in 1979. Coming out of retirement at age 65, Hanson brought the company back to profitability, although it was difficult. He had to fire more than 3,200 employees: “I came in like Wyatt Earp. I just lined ‘em up and shot ‘em down.”1 But he saved the company, and for the second time, saved the town. Reflecting back on whether he could have started Winnebago at an earlier age, he concluded there was no way. He did not have the experience or knowledge.

A more colorful and bombastic figure, Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum experienced success even later in life. Barnum (born 1810) was a natural salesman, who loved a practical joke. A prankster as a child, he once pushed a scam too far when he had a friend spread the word around town that he was an escaped killer. A mob nearly lynched him. But this, and other experiences, convinced Barnum of the incredible power of hype—that publicity could sell anything. In 1835, he managed the American Museum, where he displayed a woman he claimed was 165 years old, and when public interest declined, he wrote articles to the local papers under pseudonyms accusing him—Barnum—of fraud regarding the exhibit, and attendance again soared. Although he never admitted it, one of his main attractions at the museum was the “Feejee Mermaid,” a creature that Barnum had apparently sewn together from a monkey’s head and a large fish’s tail.

No matter what the exhibit, though, Barnum learned that if you promoted it with “the largest” or “greatest,” or “most spectacular,” people would come to see it. But he also knew which acts sold, bringing the famous Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” to America for a tour. Typically, Barnum’s promotional skills produced a crowd of 30,000 to greet her.

Barnum went bankrupt in 1855 after getting involved with a clock-making company in which he was himself swindled. Embarrassed at being out-hustled, he rebuilt his fortune around exhibits of wild animals and birds. Collaborating with a circus group, Barnum conceived of the notion of moving the animals from town to town by railroad, although he still was not showing a profit. In 1880, however, he encountered the London Circus, run by James Bailey. They merged, with Barnum handling the promotion. Thus it was not until P.T. Barnum was 70 that the famous Barnum and Bailey Circus became a solid business.2

Fast Food at Fifty

Someone almost as well-known as Barnum, McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, likewise did not come into his own until middle age. Kroc was a 52 year-old Dixie Cup salesman when he learned of a new product called the Multimixer, which mixed several milkshakes at once. When Kroc quit his paper-cup job to sell Multimixers, he became acquainted with Mac and Dick McDonald in San Bernadino, California. He observed their fast-food operation firsthand in 1954 and was amazed at the assembly-line production. All the operation needed, he thought, was his Multimixers. Working out a deal with the brothers for the name, Kroc opened his first location in Des Plaines, Illinois, and after more than a year, he had enough money to open other locations. Within five years Kroc, well past the mid-century mark, had 200 restaurants. Within another seven years the company would open 100 new stores per year.3

Less well known, but nearly as successful, were two other middle-aged masters of sales, Lowell Paxson (born 1934) and Roy Speer (born 1932), co-founders of the Home Shopping Network in 1982. Paxson had owned an AM radio station in Clearwater, Florida, but found FM radio stealing his listeners. He had difficulty selling ad time, so he experimented with selling products directly. Acquiring overstocked products from local merchants, he premiered a show called “Suncoast Bargainers.” After cable television penetrated the market, he decided to make the move to TV, where people could see the goods.

Paxson found his business and management skills wanting in some areas, so he looked for a partner. He found Roy Speer, a man nearly his own age. The two opened Vision Cable System in Clearwater to carry the Home Shopping Channel. Initially only 200,000 cable subscribers saw the show. Still, the duo had nearly $900,000 in sales after a year. They looked for an opportunity to go national, and in 1985, the Home Shopping Network began broadcasting 24 hours a day, earning $6 million in six months. Demand was so great that a year later, they started HSN2, a second network featuring more upscale, name-brand merchandise such as Gucci and Yamaha. Although the “rocket ride” that the two men experienced slowed in the late 1980s, when Sears and J. C. Penney started direct sales on cable, the success of Paxson and Speer seemed to confirm the adage that life begins at 50.4

Tonic and Soft Water

Probably few entrepreneurs had as hard a road to hoe as Lydia Pinkham, a housewife whose husband, Isaac, was in a wheelchair and who had five children to feed. The Panic of 1873 had pushed the Pinkhams into abject poverty, and out of desperation Lydia began selling a vegetable compound for “female complaints”—a term that covered a number of discomforts related to women’s anatomy. Manufacturing the tonic in her basement, she sent her two sons to sell and distribute the product, using their wages to purchase supplies. Husband Isaac wrote copy and stuffed envelopes. The family’s break came when an ad placed in the Boston Herald brought in large orders. By that time, Lydia was 60 and had her own image placed on the bottles. A new ad campaign, using streetcar signs, magazines, and bottles, made Lydia Pinkham a household name. Her share of misery did not end, though, as both sons died of tuberculosis, at which time Pinkham, then nearing 70, sold the business.5

Emmett Culligan was certainly younger than Lydia Pinkham when he invented his water-softener equipment in the early 1920s, but he did not make a go of his business until he was close to 50. In business terms, though, he had already lived two lifetimes. Culligan had been worth $200,000 at age 28 when the value of his lands plummeted and forced him to move home with his mother. Meanwhile, he had experimented with a filter that removed hard minerals from water using a natural greensand called zeolite. Borrowing a bag of the sand, he experimented until he perfected the device. Opening a new firm in St. Paul in 1924, Culligan immediately got into patent squabbles and found himself broke again. After resolving the dispute, he continued to believe in the water filter and concluded that he merely had to find a way to bring the price down to see heavy sales.

Culligan also understood that no matter how good the product was, it would not just “sell itself.” Creating the right type of sales force was key. Ready to try again in the middle of the Great Depression, Culligan opened a new company in Northbrook, Illinois. Using new machinery, he got the price down, but the sales gimmick that proved successful was a guarantee that the customer could cancel service anytime. Continuing to sell during World War II, by V-E day, Culligan had nearly half a million subscribers. Previously he had hired salesmen to copy the tactics of vacuum-cleaner salesmen or the famous “Fuller Brush Man.” But by the 1950s times had changed, and Culligan altered his approach. An ad company in 1959 came up with the famous line, “Hey, Culligan Man,” which characterized all the company’s promotions. By the early 1960s, sales had doubled, and Emmett Culligan, having made his fortune after he was 50, retired before he lost another.6

Mary Kay

Opportunity is no respecter of persons or circumstances. Consider Mary Kay Ash (born 1915), whose life resembled a movie, something like The First Wives’ Club. Supporting her husband by selling cleaning supplies and conducting in-home demonstrations, Ash attained a top position and a good salary in a direct-sales organization. She was repeatedly passed over for promotions, however, even after outperforming male counterparts. Then, having gotten her husband’s company off the ground, she found herself served with divorce papers. Already in her late 40s with a family to support, she took more sales positions, until she encountered a woman who had developed her own skin products. Purchasing these, Ash started her own company in 1963 under the name Beauty by Mary Kay. She conceived the sales tactic in which a woman would host an in-home beauty show, or party, for her friends in return for certain rewards. Most of Ash’s sales force were women—many in the same position as she had been—and she emphasized incentives as a means to boost sales. Although she gave out bonuses, vacations, and other prizes, the most famous of her incentives was a car. At first she gave away pink Buick Regals, but eventually upgraded the prize to the famous Mary Kay pink Cadillac.

By the late 1980s Mary Kay had 120,000 employees and had established itself as one of the leading cosmetics/beauty companies in the world. When she died in 2001, Mary Kay had created an empire, all of it after age 50.7

If the stories of these eight individuals tell us anything, it is that opportunity knocks, although sometimes later rather than sooner. The key is to be ready to open the door. More important, though, most of these successful entrepreneurs failed and struggled, some of them for decades, before finally landing on the product or service that made them famous. Resilience, determination, and a refusal to view age, poor health, marital status, or any other circumstance as an impediment moved these men and women to the forefront of their businesses.


  1. Quoted in Joseph J. Fucini and Suzy Fucini, Experience, Inc. (New York: Free Press, 1987), p. 64.
  2. Phineas T. Barnum, Struggles and Triumphs, or, Forty Years’ Recollections of P.T. Barnum (Buffalo, N.Y.: Courier Company, 1878), and Irving Wallace, The Fabulous Showman: The Life and Times of P. T. Barnum (New York: Knopf, 1939).
  3. Ray Kroc and Robert Anderson, Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1977).
  4. See Fucini and Fucini, pp. 89–95.
  5. Robert Sobel and David B. Sicilia, The Entrepreneurs: An American Adventure (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), pp. 193–96.
  6. Emmett Culligan, “Softeners Rented,” Business Week, December 28, 1946, p. 21, and Joseph J. Fucini and Suzy Fucini, Entrepreneurs: The Men and Women Behind Famous Brand Names and How They Made It (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985), pp. 99–101.
  7. See P. Rosenfield, “The Beautiful Make-Up of Mary Kay,” Saturday Evening Post, October 1981, pp. 58–63, and Larry Schweikart, Entrepreneurial Adventure: A History of Business in the United States (Ft. Worth, Tex.: Harcourt, 2000), pp. 504–505.

  • Larry Earl Schweikart is an American historian and professor of history at the University of Dayton. He is the author of more than a dozen books; his best known popular book is A Patriot's History of the United States.