Hawaiian Tropic Founder Ron Rice to Visit UT, Receive Alumni Award

ron-riceHawaiian Tropic Founder Ron Rice, a 1964 UT alumnus, returns to campus this week to talk to students, meet with alumni and receive an Accomplished Alumni Award.

Rice began his career as an entrepreneur at age five, when his father would drive him from their mountaintop cabin near Asheville, North Carolina, to a roadside stand at the base of the mountain, where he sold apples, grapes, nuts, honey, and apple cider plus wreaths at Christmastime. After earning his geography degree at UT in 1964, Rice worked as a high school chemistry teacher and football coach for seven years, supplementing his income by lifeguarding in the summers.

Rice’s life changed on a free trip to Hawaii, where he saw women on the beach using natural oils to protect their skin. He decided to create a product that would allow him and others to get a tan like native Hawaiians. He borrowed $500 from his father and set up a business in his garage. He mixed coconut, avocado, kukui, and other secret natural oils in a garbage can, bottled the formula, and set out to sell it.

Ron-trashcanDuring his visit to campus, Rice will talk to students in chemistry, physics, geography, and business, offering advice gleaned from his career.

Rice said marketing Hawaiian Tropic took ingenuity and elbow grease.

“I had an old Ford Mustang convertible that the salt air had just eaten apart. I drove to pool decks and lifeguard stands and sold my original suntan product. I was obsessed,” Rice says. The natural tanning formula was a new concept and the product caught on immediately.

When it came time to hire a staff and sales force, Rice looked to his old teaching, lifeguard, and football buddies. He sent this modified super sales team to various parts of the world and pioneered a new model of product promotion.

“We sponsored everything you could think of,” he says. “We were in NASCAR racing for ten years, and Paul Newman drove the winning Hawaiian Tropic Porsche at the 24 Hours of LeMans in France. We were involved in hang-gliding, surfing, skydiving, water skiing, snow skiing, tennis tournaments, and on and on.”

The Miss Hawaiian Tropic International Pageant furthered the product’s popularity.

By 2006, Hawaiian Tropic was the second-largest sun care company in the world, with sales topping $110 million.

In April 2007, Rice sold the company for $83 million to Playtex Products Inc., which then sold it to Energizer Corporation.

“The happiest day of my life was when I was able to pay my father back the $500 he loaned me and thank him for believing in me.”

The garbage can used to mix his first batch is now silver-plated and stands in Rice’s living room in Daytona Beach. In memory of his father, he had his home built with North Carolina gray fieldstone trucked down from the mountains to Florida.

Today, Rice travels more than 250 days a year to various celebrity and charity events, including Grand Prix races (where Hawaiian Tropic sponsors several cars), Miss Hawaiian Tropic International pageants, and the Cannes Film Festival.

Media availability: Rice will be available to chat with the media at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, November 20, prior to his 5:00 p.m. meeting with students. The availability will be in the West Club, on the fourth floor of Neyland Stadium. Enter through Gate 19. For planning purposes, please let us know if you plan to attend. Contact Amy Blakely at 865-974-5034 or ablakely@utk.edu.

C O N T A C T:

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)

Brooks Clark (865-310-1277, nclark5@utk.edu)