In The News

The evolution of the salesman

This story originally appeared in the Plan it Northwest!

“In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative original thinker unless you can also sell what you create. Management cannot be expected to recognize a good idea unless it is presented to them by a good salesman.”

– David Ogilvy, British advertising executive

UNION – Before Ron Popiel began selling The Pocket Fisherman and Mr. Microphones, Ron Solberg was selling brooms, brushes and personal care products door-to-door in and around his hometown of Mankato, Minn.

“My dad worked as a field manager for Fuller Brush and I got a job summers going door-to-door and from farm-to-farm selling Fuller brushes,” Solberg said. “What we sought were $100 days. We got about 40 percent of that. Back in the 60s that was a lot of money.”

Solberg admitted there were times, after having “a lot of doors slammed in my face,” when he sought comfort from his dad – who put him back on track.

“There is a formula you go by: 10 to 12 hours in town. If you go fewer you are selling too much toothpaste and brushes,” Solberg said.

Solberg became a high school English and journalism teacher, but he never lost his passion for selling.

In 2002, Chicago’s Newberry Library contacted Solberg to write lesson plans on a Chicago turn-of-the-century labor movement. The fledgling author, not all that surprisingly, gravitated toward something in his comfort zone: Retailing and traveling sales. After all, Chicago has been an important center for merchandising and retail activity.

Solberg will touch on that pedigree during “Those Magnificent ‘Whizbang’ Traveling Salesmen of Illinois” at 3 p.m. March 31 at the McHenry County Historical Society Museum, 6422 Main St. in Union. Solberg, 73, of Downers Grove, will bring a salesman’s sample case full of items, plus copies of his 2008 book: “The Whizbangs of Oohs and Ahs – America’s Salesmen: Their Lore, Lives and Laughs.”

A $10 donation is requested at the door. A grant from the Illinois Humanities Council made the program possible.

Solberg moved to the Chicago area and did marketing for The Million Dollar Round Table, an association of insurance executives, and Institute of Real Estate Management.

“I rubbed shoulders with some of the finest salesmen in the world,” Solberg said.

He now applies the lessons he learned back then at the Science & Arts Academy in Des Plaines, where Solberg teaches global studies to gifted children. He also is working to develop an electronic textbook about Illinois history.

Fuller Brush Co., founded in 1906, has not fared as well; filing for bankruptcy in 2012. But that does not mean the the end of the age of traveling salesmen. Rather, Solberg said, the pitch has evolved. It comes into living rooms as television “infomercials” and Girl Scouts peddling cookies.

Other programs in the series include:

• “Roadside History of Illinois,” 7 p.m. April 7. Presented by Stan “Tex” Banash of Norwood Park. The book covers the history of the state from the Ice Age to the present.

• “Behind the Badge,” 7 p.m. April 21. Take a look behind the Dick Tracy comic strip with its technical adviser AMTRAK Police Sgt. Jim Doherty. Information: 815-923-2267

• Kurt Begalka is the McHenry County Historical Society administrator.