Toys for Big Kids – Chicago Tribune

Behind Richard Thalheimer’s office desk is a suit of armor. A shelf displays 40 model cars. Nearby waits a $499 Nautilus abdominal machine, a $199 Mitsubishi golf trainer and a $179 infrared pistol that shoots light at an electronic target.

Thalheimer, 37, is an overgrown kid. And, a success because of it. He’s ridden to riches by catering to “the little boys” inside big spenders.

As president of The Sharper Image – a catalog and 14-store chain that sells glitzy gadgets and gizmos to adults – Thalheimer has taken his childhood world of fantasy into the executive suite.

“Before we came along, nowhere in the marketplace were men provided the fun of toys they knew as boys,” he says.

Who’s turned on by the high tech toys Sharper Image sells?

“Men and women who, after working hard all day, look forward to escaping to a world of adult toys,” Thalheimer says. “Our products are rewards, a pat on the back.”

Seventy percent of his customers are male, 25-55, with incomes of $35,000 to $50,000.

Thalheimer got hooked on toys in his native Little Rock, Ark, where his father managed a department store toy section.

Criticized by grade-school teachers for asking too many questions in class, he ultimately found a place for his “curious mind” at Yak University. After many twists and turns, selling encyclopedias door-to-door and earning a law degree in San Francisco, he ran an office-supply business that he renamed The Sharper Image in 1973.

“I knew I was on the verge of something bigger that would need a slick name.”

In 1977. Thalheimer began peddling a $29 digital stopwatch in Runner’s World magazine. He reinvested his $200 profit in another ad, and the profits have never stopped. The firm is expected to top $100 million in sales in 1986.

Thalheimer, whose annual salary is $200,000 plus, is his own best customer. At his home, all the light switches have been replaced with sound-activated AudioLites. There’s also a $249 telephone, camouflaged as a duck decoy.

In the exercise room: a $4,000 Universal professional home gym. The master bedroom: a $129 sound conditioner that generates sounds of nature – even a gushing waterfall. Wife Elyse, the Sharper Image personnel director, enjoys a $1,595 massage table in her study.

The Sharper Image is a “lifestyle,” says Thalheimer. Thalheimer works 9-to-5 now, but “thinks” about his business 18 hours a day. “Sometimes correct decisions come while you’re away from the office.”

“I’m a person who loves business, loves toys and realizes there has to be a balance between work and play.”

Toys for Big Kids – Chicago Tribune

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