ROSS — Richard Thalheimer of Ross never says quit.
When the board of the Sharper Image retail chain he created in 1977 ousted him, Thalheimer left with $31 million and started Richard/Solo, an online merchandise sales operation based in Greenbrae.
And he means to keep the business out of the hands of the investors and financiers who forced him out of Sharper Image in September 2006 when sales began to slump.
But by February 2008, the company filed for bankruptcy, saying it had $251 million in assets and $199 million in debt. "It was somewhat satisfying to see their incompetence revealed," Thalheimer said while sipping an iced coffee in a San Anselmo cafe the other day.
He said he realized that what he had started as an entrepreneurial venture became a corporate program.
Once out of the firm, "I was freed up from doing things I didn't like to do," Thalheimer said. "I love designing products and marketing. I can't stand boring meetings."
Efforts to reach a representative of Sharper Image were fruitless.
Thalheimer, 60, is a Yale-educated native of Arkansas who started Sharper Image as a quirky catalog business that sold jogging watches. He built it into a 190-store chain known for high-tech gadgets and other novelties.
In its heyday, Sharper Image had an invention studio in Novato that employed 15 and was granted about 300 patents.
At Richard/Solo, Thalheimer sells gizmos and gadgets on RichardSolo.com. It is solely an Internet business, unlike Sharper Image, which also relied on store, catalog and broadcast retailing.
His first big break came in January 2007, when he discovered a battery back-up device at a trade show in Hong Kong. He arranged an exclusive distribution arrangement with the manufacturer, designed the packaging, and began selling the appliance in August 2007, generating about $100,000 in sales that year.
In 2008, he said sales were puttering along until he decided to place ads in magazines the same month that Apple chose to launch its 3G iPhone — with its notoriously weak battery life. Sales of his $49 backup battery soared.
"It took off and now it's a $4 million business," Thalheimer said. "I started from scratch and have not put a lot of money into it."
Thalheimer's business employs about eight people who work primarily from their homes. Manufacturing is done in China.
His online catalog has about 60 items, many along the lines of Sharper Image. There are $1,300 scooters and an assortment of gear including pogo sticks, slot machines, a Pop-O-Matic Juke Box and Popcorn Maker, and the three-in-one groomer with a nose hair attachment.
There are no Ionic Breeze gizmos, the Sharper Image's signature air purifier plugged by Thalheimer in television ads. The device was derided by Consumer Reports as ineffective. Sharper Image sued, but lost the case and wound up paying $525,000 in costs and attorney fees. Sharper Image blamed its demise in part on the Ionic Breeze debacle.
As in the 1970s, the timing could be right for Richard/Solo because despite the sagging economy, online shopping is expected to grow. According to Shop.org., a division of the National Retail Federation, Internet retail will increase 17 percent this year to $204 billion.
Joe Williams, who worked for Sharper Image for almost 22 years and was most recently chief security officer and executive vice president in San Francisco, worked closely with Thalheimer.
"He was the heart and soul of the Sharper Image," Williams said. "He always valued the opinion of those around him and involved people at every level in the many business decisions at hand. We felt like part owners of the company."
He said after Thalheimer left, executives and sales associates no longer had the dedication to continue.
"Richard has always had a rare talent of knowing what will sell, and what customers want," Williams said. "This is not something money can buy."
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