Ron Purer at 37 is head of American Electric Corp., the largest privately owned home appliance company in the U.S., and for the past 19 years he has been a quadriplegic with virtually no use of either his arms or legs. He meets both facts head-on.
“Look,” he says, “there are hundreds of paralyzed people. What makes me different is that I’m paralyzed in a highly competitive and rough business.” Ron adds, “The word crippled is all wrong; that implies being stopped. Handicapped is okay, because the best horses are handicapped: They carry the most weight.”
Purer’s company is widely known for having taken on the trendy French food processor Cuisinart two years ago with its own version, the American Food Processor. It sells for $59.95. Purer also manufactures grills and slow cookers and claims 20 percent of the hair-blower market. Recently he introduced the Great American Green Machine (for drying lettuce) and Great American Dessert Machine (an ice-cream maker). Company sales in 1978 will top $25 million.
Born in Cleveland, Ron moved to Los Angeles’ Bel Air section after his wealthy father sold his electronics firm. What Purer now calls “the accident” occurred when he was a freshman at UCLA and out testing his new TR4 convertible with a fraternity brother. As they pulled over to the side of a freeway to change drivers, a tailgating car slammed into them at 60 mph. The friend, a compact football player, escaped serious injury, but Ron, a gangling 6’4″, suffered a broken neck.
At first doctors told him he would recover fully, but after three years in hospitals (Ron estimates it cost more than $1,000 a day) the best they could do was train muscles in both arms to turn his wrists. Ron was in Europe in 1964 in hopes of finding a cure when his father telephoned to say he had just bought a small appliance manufacturing company. Would Ron help run it? He seized the opportunity.
“Once I knew I wasn’t going to die,” Ron says, “I realized the most debilitating thing was not having anything to do.” He has kept busy. In 1972 he formed American Electric, which has 400 employees. (“We brainstormed the name,” Ron says. “It exemplifies my feeling that the business of America is business, and it’s easy to pronounce and spell.”)
His success is based on underselling the competition. “I always want to have the lowest-priced product on the market, or I won’t make it,” he explains. At his desk he wears a lightweight headset that plugs into the telephone, and he likes to handle customer calls personally. “We have to pay attention,” he explains. “We’re not GE with service centers all over. If a product isn’t working properly, we send a new one. It’s cheaper than repairing it.”
Ron’s wife, Linda, 32, was his secretary before their marriage in 1969. They dated for two years, although Ron swears he fell in love “two minutes after I met her.” His family adores Linda, but his mother is upset that they refuse to have children.
Linda jokes, “I have nothing to say in the matter,” then admits it is a joint decision. Ron could physically sire children, but is adamant: “Being paralyzed, I couldn’t give my child complete dedication, and it would be hard for a kid growing up with a parent who’s handicapped.”
Last May Ron and Linda moved into a $690,000 Beverly Hills house, and for an extra $35,000 have added a sliding ceiling over the swimming pool. “Everyone should have a big, flashy house once,” says Ron, who has a male attendant during the day to help him in and out of the pool, dress him and drive him to work.
“The handicapped have always had an image problem,” Purer admits. “An 8-year-old girl with polio is cute, but not a 30-year-old man in a wheelchair.” He senses that since Vietnam attitudes are changing. “There’s a quiet revolution going on among the handicapped,” he says. “Once the barriers are taken down, nothing will stop them.”