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Mr. Gadget

December 09, 2007|Andy Meisler | Andy Meisler is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

The setup: You're an average affluent American enjoying the fruits of your labor. One day--on account of flood, fire, civil disturbance, power grid overload, whatever--the electricity is cut off to your house. All your lights fail, and every one of your major appliances reverts to inanimate metal or plastic. Similarly disabled are your Ultreo Ultrasound Toothbrush, Tourmaline Ionic Hair Dryer, Sound Soother 20 clock radio, Ultimate Human Touch Robotic Massage Chair, Bright as Day Power-Port Desk Lamp, Pyramat Wireless Gaming PC Gaming Chair 2.1, iTower Omega Stereo Speaker System With Universal Dock for iPod, Shake 'N Take Personal Smoothie Maker and Ionic Breeze QUADRA Silent Air Purifier with Ionic Breeze Silent Electronic Propulsion.

The pitch: Why not be ready for anything with your own 3,000-watt generator?

Not your run-of-the-mill gasoline-powered unit--the type that spews fumes, makes a godawful racket and has to sit in the yard, announcing its noisy, polluting presence to your teeth-gnashing neighbors--but a silent, portable, emission-free hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered power plant that sits serenely in your living room, pumping out 10 hours of squeaky-clean power per cell and making your home an inexplicable island of brightness in your otherwise darkness-cloaked neighborhood! And how about giving Mom, who lives in hurricane-prone Florida, her own unit as a holiday gift? And another one for Uncle Dan, whose power was out for four days during last summer's SoCal power crisis?

"And wouldn't it be neat," says Richard J. Thalheimer, leaning forward in his booth at the Spitfire Grill at Santa Monica Airport, "to have the world's first hydrogen-powered-fuel-cell-no-emissions-generating generator?" He adds happily that he's made contact with its inventor, begun a relationship, and if he can persuade the guy to get the retail price down to $1,000--about the same as a gas-powered generator--he might be the first to sell one.

If Thalheimer's name doesn't ring a bell, you might recognize his unlined face, crown of thinning curly hair and bright, white, wide-mouthed smile. He's the guy in the countless catalogs and late-night infomercials. That's because he's the founder and longtime chief executive of Sharper Image, the nationwide purveyor of upscale gadgetry that's had a profound effect on America's annual frenzy of discretionary gift-giving.

He's flown his single-engine Cessna 182, equipped with enough electronic navigation and communication equipment for a Boeing 737, from Marin County to discuss his future plans. Before settling in on this beautiful Saturday in October, Thalheimer (pronounced Tall-heimer) has changed his seat to maximize the feng shui and announced to his lunch companion that this very day is his 591/2 birthday. But surprise: His plans don't include Sharper Image, from which he was abruptly ejected late last year--in an episode that has semitragic and semicomic aspects--by a cabal of deep-pocketed "activist" shareholders. The mighty wrath of Consumer Reports magazine also figured strongly in his downfall.

Instead he's currently preoccupied with www.richard, a tiny retail website--three full-time employees, including himself--that he launched in the preceding months. He figures he'll sell "a few" Sharper-esque products this fiscal year and be back in the game a year from now.

It's a shocking change from Thalheimer's previous pre-holiday seasons. At its height, Sharper Image had almost 200 retail outlets, more than 4,000 employees and about $760 million in yearly sales. But as Thalheimer traces a Cobb salad-length history of his old company, it comes across less as a well-oiled retail machine and more as a publicly traded crapshoot in which fourth-quarter sales of Thalheimer-approved blockbuster products were crucial. Holiday sales accounted for 40% of Sharper's income; the other three quarters inevitably were unprofitable.

These special products, Thalheimer says, were ones that he either developed in-house or had an exclusive license to sell. "We created a Broadway musical," says Thalheimer. "[We] had all the dancers in the chorus filled in, but we were missing the star and the main plot."

These superstars, accompanied by their own promotional plot points, had names: Turbo-Groomer, the Razor and, most portentously--as you'll see later--the Ionic Breeze. As those items went, so went Sharper Image. Thus this ultimate holiday eye-opener: After the company jettisoned Thalheimer, its financials fell faster than a pair of dead Duracells rattling down a garbage chute. Thalheimer is either gracious or clever enough not to mention this when asked how he's holding up these days.

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