Claude Olney achieved the American Dream--the acquisition of vast wealth without a whole lot of labor--by turning his underachieving son into a gold mine. Almost everybody has seen Olney's "infomercial," a thirty-minute television commercial with 1970s sitcom star John Ritter. And almost everybody knows somebody who owns Olney's best-selling video, Where There's a Will There's an A, a collection of simple grade-improvement tips for students. Short of the biggest blockbusters, Olney's taped lecture outsells Hollywood's video releases. Olney wasn't prospecting for his lucky strike back in '82. It came to him in the form of a high school report card.
It all started when young Robert Olney finished at the very top of the bottom half of his graduating class at Gerard High School and missed qualifying for admission into Arizona State University. Claude, a good father and a business professor at ASU, pulled some strings and got the boy admitted anyway. Fearful that Robert would then flunk out of the university--and cause untold amusement among the fellows in the faculty lounge--Claude began researching his very own freshman-at-risk program. He collected every how-to-succeed-in-college book he could find.
"Instead of just giving the books to Robert the way most parents would have done, I started reading them," Olney says. Claude Olney is a do-it-yourself kind of guy. He restores classic cars as a hobby. He has designed and built several houses from the ground up. The books, he discovered, were filled with tons of general information, most of it poorly presented. A few vague tips were recycled again and again. Get plenty of sleep, the books advised. Learn to allocate your time. Make the library your friend. Olney knew this was not the program to inspire his son. "You can imagine giving that kind of information to a poor student," he says. "It just goes right over their heads. In fact, it was going over my head."
So Claude assembled all the existing college-survival wisdom into one easy-to-understand, twenty-point package. He made the program a twenty-pointer because he attended school himself for seven years and had been teaching at ASU for thirteen. Seven and thirteen. Twenty. "If I can't come up with one good point for each of those years," he said to himself, "I should just quit. I don't deserve to be at this university." The program succeeded on a couple of levels. First, Robert Olney made the dean's list his very first semester in college and stayed there until graduating with honors. Second, the twenty steps made Robert Olney's dad quite a bit of money. So far, the Olney Lode has produced many millions of dollars. The vein is rich. The operation will continue for some time to come. Claude Olney isn't very comfortable talking about money. After all, he still shops for clothes at Sears and still seeks out bargain movies. But even a poor student can do this math. "Sales go up every year," says an executive of the company that markets Olney's seminar. "At any given point, you've got 40 million students in America, kindergarten to college. We've sold a million. That means there's 39 million to go.
"We think it'll go on for years."
CLAUDE OLNEY IS an unlikely--but not totally unwilling--celebrity.
A churchgoer, Olney is a gentle, charming man who smiles easily at the many ironies in his life. His voice still carries a Wisconsin-native tang and his ears stick out after a haircut. He could be Gomer Pyle's shy cousin from Milwaukee. Early in his mass-marketing career Olney would sometimes turn on his TV in the middle of the night to see if he was on. After almost four years, the thrill is not gone. A couple of months ago, while doing some weekend shopping at the Biltmore Fashion Park, Olney walked into a department-store electronics section just as one of his infomercials (there have been four so far) began to air on one of the major networks. As John Ritter's face played across 100 different sets, Olney loitered. "I didn't say anything to the clerk," Olney says. "I knew I come in at about fourteen minutes after the start. So I waited around. Finally, just before I'm on I made some comment to the clerk. `Gee, wouldn't it be something to see yourself on all these sets at once. I bet that would feel really weird.'"
Occasionally it feels great. Olney tells the story--which concludes with the clerk's whiplash double-take at the sight of 101 Olneys--with obvious delight. The not-so-nutty professor is recognized constantly in restaurants and airports. "If someone gives me kind of a funny look, I go out of my way to say hello for fear that they think I'm a snob," he says.
Last month William Morrow and Company published Claude Olney's life story, a collection of mildly inspirational anecdotes about how to get ahead in the world. The book's message is that hard work does pay, that sometimes nice guys do finish first. Its title is, The Bucks Start Here: How to Turn Your Hidden Assets Into Money. The cover promises, "The best $16.95 you'll ever spend or your money back."