Sunday, January 18, 1998
Frozen in time
Slush Puppie still hot after 27 years

BY GUY BOULTON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

radcliff
CEO Will Radcliff stands by a wooden Slush Puppie carving in the company's offices..
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
Will Radcliff grew up in a west side duplex that his parents rented for $19 a month. He can remember them counting out the bills when they paid the landlord.

Years later, before the age of 40, he would pay $1 million in cash for his first Learjet.

Mr. Radcliff now drives a Mercedes S500 that bears the license plate "1 SLUSH." He owns a Beechcraft King Air and Cessna Cardinal aircraft as well as his second Learjet. He owns a 4,000-acre ranch in Florida. And, last month, he gave $1 million to Franciscan Health System of the Ohio Valley.

The principal source of this wealth is a Cincinnati-based company by the name of Slush Puppie Corp.

Laugh at the name if you want, but Slush Puppie's products are sold in 62 countries. The company generates revenue of more than $30 million a year. It owns a 125,000-square-foot bottling plant in Columbus, Miss. And in the past 27 years, Slush Puppie has distributed, by Mr. Radcliff's estimate, more than 650,000 machines that dispense the semi-frozen, flavored concoction for which the company is named.

Did you know
Slush puppie
  • Slush Puppies are sold in more than 60 nations, including Iceland. The company granted distributorships for Zimbabwe, Zambia and Kenya last week.

  • The treats started with five flavors - cherry, grape, orange, lemon-lime and blue raspberry. It now sports 32 flavors; the newest is peach.

  • Blue raspberry remains the most unusual Slush Puppie flavor. The most exotic may be strawberry kiwi.
  • Mr. Radcliff, 57, also has moved on to other business ventures. He owns Lanikai Frozen Cocktails International Ltd., which sells mixed drinks ranging from the basic frozen daiquiri to a cordial named the piranha. His Learjet and Beech turboprop now make up a charter business, Jet Air Inc.

    And he is developing an industrial park on 29 undeveloped acres in Lower Price Hill, where Slush Puppie tentatively plans to build a 38,000-square-foot headquarters.

    But Slush Puppie remains top dog.

    The company didn't invent slush drinks. It just recognized their potential.

    Discovery of the machine

    In 1970, Mr. Radcliff came up a slush machine at a trade show in Chicago. The machine had been on the market since the 1950s, but slush drinks had never caught on.

    Mr. Radcliff, 30 years old at the time, was intrigued by the product.

    "I saw there was nothing being done to make it take off," Mr. Radcliff said, adding later, "There was no magic, as I say."

    The slush machine was made by Stoelting Inc., based in Kiel, Wis. The company, which also made freezers for soft-serve ice cream and other products, did not have promotional materials, flavors or even a name for the product.

    That would come from Mr. Radcliff's mother, Thelma, and sister Phyllis. One night, the two sat on the front porch with a six pack of Burger beer and wrote down possible names on a brown shopping bag. They liked three more than the others. One of the three was Slush Puppie.

    The company was capitalized for $970.

    "People say, 'Why $970?' and I say, 'Because that's all I had,' " Mr. Radcliff said.

    That would soon change. Mr. Radcliff's first successful business venture was peanuts - the hot peanuts, sold by weight, that once were a common fixture on store counter tops. Setting up a distribution network for a peanut company, he had been so successful that the company could not keep up with the demand.

    The company asked him to take some time off, Mr. Radcliff said. That's how he ended up at the Chicago trade show.

    Within a few years, his annual income from the peanut company reached six figures. By then, Mr. Radcliff was focused on Slush Puppie. But he had learned an important lesson: Find a business that generates ongoing revenue - or, as he puts it, "an income today as a result of efforts yesterday."

    That's the case with Slush Puppie and Lanikai Frozen Cocktails. When he wakes up at 3 a.m., Mr. Radcliff said, he knows that someone, somewhere, is drinking a cocktail made with a Lanikai mix.

    The trick, of course, is reaching that point.

    Mr. Radcliff tried to appeal to all of the senses - the touch of the ice, the smell and taste of the flavoring, the sound of the slush hitting the cup.

    "Believe it or not, we have people who buy it because they say they love to hear that ice hit the cup," he said.

    He sensed that he had a winner.

    "I could sell a drink for 10 cents and make 7 cents, and the drink was of such quality and uniqueness (that) they come back for another," Mr. Radcliff said.

    Fine-tuning distribution

    Most convenience stores at the time were independently owned. Sales had to be made one at a time. In 1971, Mr. Radcliff bought controlling interest in a tobacco and candy distributor, gaining a sales force and a customer list for Slush Puppie Corp.

    Two years later, he set up an exhibit at a trade show for tobacco distributors. With their profit margins dwindling, they were looking for new products. Seven agreed to become distributors. One, in Boston, would soon order three trailers of slush freezers. "And we were off and running," Mr. Radcliff said.

    John Stoelting, president of Stoelting Inc., which initially made all of the company's slush machines, said Slush Puppie was the first to put together an entire package - good flavors, good promotional materials and a good distribution network.

    "They're a good sales organization," he said.

    Slush Puppie also put together a network in which everyone makes money - convenience stores, distributors, Slush Puppie and the makers of slush machines.

    "That's vital," Mr. Radcliff said. "Everybody has to make money, and the consumer has to get a good buy."

    Sales doubled every year - and, in 1977, driven by the company's distributor in England, sales quadrupled.

    "When you get that kind of growth, it's like hitting a home run before you get up to the plate," Mr. Radcliff said. "You don't have to dig in. You don't have to swing."

    Internation phenomenon

    The international market, for instance, developed almost on its own.

    Slush Puppie's Australian distributor once worked for its Canadian distributor. Its Greek distributor asked for a distributorship after owning a grocery store in Canada. Its South African distributor did the same after owning a grocery store in England. And its Saudi Arabian distributor learned about the company while auditing the books of the British distributor, a public company, and taking note of its profit margins.

    Slush Puppie now has more than 160 distributors in the United States and Canada. It has an additional 65 worldwide. And it has 21 licensed plants throughout the world, excluding the company's plant in Mississippi.

    Mr. Radcliff likens a distribution network to a "vital vein or artery."

    The U.S. distributors buy the basic product and cups from Slush Puppie. The international distributors indirectly pay a royalty when they buy the basic product from the licensed plants.

    Near the desk in Mr. Radcliff's office is a Waterford crystal statue of the Slush Puppie logo. It was given to Mr. Radcliff by the company's distributors for Slush Puppie's 25th anniversary. The plaque reads: "Will, If it ain't fun, the hell with it. Thanks for 25 years of fun."

    The plaque parrots one of his favorite sayings.

    "It doesn't always work that way all the time," Mr. Radcliff said. "But that's what we shoot for."

    By 1979, at the age of 39, Mr. Radcliff could afford his first Learjet. His accountant went crazy, noting the expense could not be justified. Mr. Radcliff told him that you can never use the words "jet" and "justify" in the same sentence.

    But the jet helped him build a distribution network quickly. "You could do four in a day instead of one in four days," he said. "Plus, when you arrive, they know you are a little serious about coming."

    39 rivals disappeared

    Mr. Radcliff can make Slush Puppie's success seem effortless. But establishing a product is the first step. The second step is maintaining the product's position in the marketplace.

    He can name 39 competitors, Mr. Radcliff said, that sold slush products and are no longer in business.

    You sense that behind Slush Puppie's 27-year run is a shrewd businessman - someone who knows how to recognize an opportunity and knows how to make money.

    Slush Puppie bought its Mississippi bottling plant, for instance, by buying the assets of a bankrupt bottling company for $2.5 million in 1996. It then sold some of the equipment for $700,000, sold $450,000 in inventory and collected about $1.3 million out of $1.7 million in receivables.

    Mr. Radcliff also knows his business in surprising detail, down to specific numbers.

    "That's what pays the bills," he said.

    When he looked at the drawings of the planned health and fitness center at Franciscan Hospital-Western Hills, Mr. Radcliff noticed the size of the conference room and asked if it would ever be filled, said Chris West, president and chief executive of Franciscan. The room, too big, was redesigned.

    Mr. Radcliff also noticed the drawing's scale was wrong.

    The building for the health and fitness center will be named the Thelma Radcliff Building, after Mr. Radcliff's mother, who worked 27 years at the former St. Francis Hospital as a nurse's aide and in other jobs.

    "I've never gone into an important meeting where he doesn't have his notes ready," said Jerry Lerner, chairman of Crane Connectors and a business partner of Mr. Radcliff's. "They may be on a 3-by-5 index card that he pulls out of his shirt pocket, but he's always prepared."

    Mr. Radcliff also has an innate curiosity, Mr. Lerner added. He likes to understand how things work, from machinery to flavoring. And he likes to tinker - a trait that befits someone who has restored and owns a 1976 Cadillac convertible, a 1969 Jaguar XKE and a 1957 BMW Isetta.

    He has tried to retire twice, and was unsuccessful both times. The first came was in 1985 after buying ranch in Florida.

    "I was told by a friend I didn't know a cow from a bull," he recalled. "I said, 'You're right. But the bulls seem to know the difference.' "

    The second try came in 1996.

    It could be his last. Slush Puppie's sales continue to grow - albeit at a slower pace, Mr. Radcliff said. But the company continues to expand its distribution network and product line.

    Trying to get into schools

    Slush Puppie also makes the cocktail mixes for Lanikai Frozen Cocktails. The business, bought in 1986, accounts for about $4.5 million of Slush Puppie's revenue. And it's trying to win acceptance at schools for VitaPup, a slush drink that's 50 percent juice.

    "That was a big thing for our business, because it used to be we could say goodbye in September and not come back until April," Mr. Radcliff said.

    There's also the industrial park in Lower Price Hill. Other business ventures probably will come along. And there's the sense that Mr. Radcliff probably would have been a successful businessman even if he didn't start Slush Puppie.

    He doesn't dispute that. And the source of his skill at making money is understandable.

    "It's probably not having any for a long time," he said.