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Business Observer Friday, May 5, 2017 3 years ago

Birth of a salesman

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Is there anything Anthony Sullivan can't sell? Probably not.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Talk about being born to sell.

When infomercial star Anthony Sullivan was 10, living in Devon, England, his parents listed the family house for sale.

But the real estate agent was a no-show one afternoon when another family arrived for a tour.

Sullivan took charge. He gave the family a tour. He pointed out some features of the house, chatted about his personal favorite parts and smoothly answered questions. The prospective buyers loved the Sullivan family home.

“And,” says Sullivan, “they bought it.”

Sullivan has since been on a four-decade whirlwind of a career, with a but-wait-there's-more focal point around the sales pitch.

He's hawked all kinds of household products, everything from OxiClean stain remover to Swivel Sweepers. He starred on the Discovery Channel TV show “Pitchmen,” alongside his late business partner, Billy Mays. He makes regular appearances on HSN, the St. Petersburg-based online and TV retail sales network. A trim and fit triathlete and swimmer, Sullivan even once tied on a pair of ice skates and did a commercial promoting Tampa Bay Lightning ticket packages.

And there really is more: The crux of his day-to-day business is run out of Sullivan Studios in Clearwater. The high-end studio is an infomercial home-base for Sullivan's products and business partners. Brands including Publix, NutriSystem, Crock-Pot and Arm & Hammer film commercials there. “Business is great,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan, 48, says he's invested at least $4 million in the studio in build-out, expansion and renovations in the past few years. His firm has 20 employees and can reach 120 subcontractors for particular jobs. “People do ramshackle and half-ass studios,” says Sullivan. “I wanted to do it right. I believe this is the best studio in Florida.”

Sullivan recently sat down with the Business Observer to talk about everything from his tough start in the business to his close friendship with Mays. Edited excerpts follow.

Get to it: Sullivan got into pitching products mostly by accident, when, just after high school, he filled in for a buddy in the U.K. and worked in a stall at an old-style English market. Sullivan was amazed at how some salesmen made the fast-talking sales pitch seem so effortless. He asked someone selling Washmatik car wash systems for help getting started. Just like when he sold the family, home Sullivan was a natural. “In one hour I sold seven Washmatiks,” Sullivan says. “This guy was blown away.

Coming to America: Sullivan says he made a lot of money at street fairs, “more than I ever made in my life.” Then he saw an infomercial from the U.S. and he was hooked. His next destination: Hollywood. “I was like 'this is it,” Sullivan says. “It was like a jockey seeing the Kentucky Derby for the first time or a cyclist seeing the Tour de France for the first time.”

Stubborn Englishman: Sullivan struggled at first. He borrowed a friend's car to get around, and crashed at another friend's apartment. When that ran its course, he couch surfed around. “Somehow,” he says, “I was going to make it on TV.”

Road trip: He found work with a traveling sales team that sold Smart Mops. The team went from California to Florida, in a van, working at home shows and in parking lots. In St. Petersburg, Sullivan discovered HSN. That was in 1993, and again he was smitten. Sullivan met with an HSN talent scout, and worked his way into an audition. “I thought I was ready,” he says. “But I was terrible at first on the air. I was like a deer in a headlights.”

Cleaned up: HSN wanted to add home products to its lineup, and Sullivan won a gig for the Smart Mop, a mop with an easy twist and absorbent cloth. The then 23-year-old, despite his nerves, killed it. HSN sold 5,000 mops in 18 minutes. Sullivan parlayed that into a long relationship with the network. “I worked my ass off at HSN,” Sullivan says. “I made friends with everyone. Anyone who had a product that was struggling, I said, 'I'll sell it for you.'”

Floor supply: One of Sullivan's early lessons at HSN was in how to choose products to sell. If a potential customer can't figure it out quickly, and it can't help someone do something easier or better or faster, then Sullivan punts. “People ask me all the time why do I sell mops?” Sullivan says. “I tell them because there is an endless supply of people who want a better way to mop the floor.”

I'm Billy Mays: At first Sullivan says he and Mays were, at best, “frenemies” who tolerated each other. It was like two boxers circling a ring, Sullivan says. They were the two biggest stars at HSN, so they saw each other a lot. Mays, recalls Sullivan, would call the Brit the “grifter from London.” Sullivan would bust Mays right back.

The friendship blossomed when the pair began to pitch products together. “It just worked,” Sullivan says. “When Billy and I were together, it was like making great music.”

Mays died in June 2009, at 50 years old. The loss crushed Sullivan, who says he thinks about Mays often, eight years later. “I lost my best friend. That was a really shitty six months,” he says. “When Billy died everything just fell apart for me.”

Sales men: Sullivan's sales pitch heroes include self-help guru Tony Robbins and Ron Popeil — the infomercial pioneer behind the “Set it and forget it!” tagline for the Showtime Rotisserie oven. Popeil is credited with helping turn the phrase “But wait, there's more,” into infomercial gold. Sullivan also admires prominent preacher, televangelist and self-help author Joel Osteen. “Joel's a great pitchman,” says Sullivan. “He's selling Jesus and he's doing a great job of it.”

WATER WORLD

Infomercial entrepreneur Anthony Sullivan spent most of April pitching his wettest product ever: the pool.

Through a series of marketing initiatives, Sullivan teamed up with U.S. Masters Swimming, a Sarasota-based nonprofit advocacy group, to encourage more adults to get in a pool.

Sullivan — what else? — taped a commercial that promotes the fitness, health and social benefits of swimming, in which he calls the sport “the greatest workout of them all!” Sullivan also recently become one of 800 nationwide certified U.S. Masters Swimming coaches trained in techniques best suited for adult learners. Sullivan's spots corresponded with April's Adult Learn-to-Swim month designation.

Sullivan swam competitively as a child in England, then got burned out. He returned to the sport, obsessively, four years ago. He now swims five to six days a week, for at least 10 hours total, longer if he's prepping for a meet or triathlon. In one of his more recent events, the USMS Nationals in 2016, Sullivan was top 10 finalist.

Swimming, says Sullivan, 48, is not only a great physical workout, but it's also his tranquility. “I will flush my day out in the pool,” he says. “You can't use a cell phone. No one is bugging you. When I get in and get out, I'm two different people.”

Sullivan, who says he adheres to the South Beach diet — high protein, good carbs and sometimes a red velvet cupcake — holds one swim accomplishment in the highest regard: the English Channel. The endeavor is on his maybe-bucket list. “That's a lonely 12 hours, man,” Sullivan says. “That's not something I want to try and fail.”

RIGHT PITCH

Right pitch

With more than 30 years making sales pitches, Anthony Sullivan says the differentiating factor between good and bad salespeople isn't usually talent.

It's desire.

“More people can sell than they think they can,” says Sullivan, founder of Clearwater-based Sullivan Studios. “If you can find something your are passionate about, you can sell it.”

Sullivan's tips for getting better at the sales pitch, past passion, include:

• Sincerity: Don't waste time with a big, dramatic close. The close is woven into the pitch, says Sullivan, if you are selling something the customer wants.

• Choose well: “Hook yourself up with a product you love,” says Sullivan. “Find something you can represent and get behind.”

• Funny guy: A warm smile and an engaging sense of humor builds camaraderie and helps people relax. “If I'm doing my job as a salesman,” Sullivan says, “if I have got you excited about the product, then you can't wait to give me your money.”

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