In 2002, George Foreman was in Memphis working as a boxing commentator for Home Box Office Inc. when he ran into a group of preschoolers walking down the street. Their teacher explained to the children that Foreman had won the gold medal in heavyweight boxing at the 1968 Olympic Games. One little boy refused to believe it. "That's the cooking man!" shouted the tot, referring to the former boxer's promotions of his George Foreman grill. Says Foreman, laughing at the memory: "They don't even know me as the champion anymore."
That's a bittersweet reality for the 55-year-old athlete-turned-entrepreneur. Foreman loves to be recognized for his gold medal and his other boxing triumphs: defeating Joe Frazier in 1973 to become heavyweight champion of the world, and improbably regaining the title in 1994 from Michael Moore at the age of 45. But he admits that his second career as a product endorser has brought him more fame, fortune, and personal satisfaction than he dreamed possible.
As he lounged recently in a New York hotel room, Foreman was surrounded by reminders of his growing empire. A copy of his new cookbook, George Foreman's Indoor Grilling Made Easy, rested on the coffee table. He was decked out in a brown silk shirt from the George Foreman Signature Collection -- a clothing line that has been flying off the racks at the Casual Male Big & Tall retail chain ever since Foreman started advertising it in March. His latest grill, called the Next Grilleration, hit store shelves in time for the busy holiday season. And with the help of a group of Chicago-area entrepreneurs, he launched a line of cleaning solutions called George Foreman's Knock-Out. The products are billed as safe for the environment, but Foreman clearly is the main selling point: His smiling face appears on every bottle, making him look strikingly like Mr. Clean. "I love selling," Foreman declares.
Skeptics caution that if Foreman tries to conquer too many different product categories, he'll end up losing much of his selling punch. But when Foreman looks at his scorecard, he's not worried. Indeed, while many athletes have made millions promoting products in TV ads, Foreman is one of the rare jocks to slap his name on a panoply of non-sports-related products and actually get consumers to buy them. George Foreman is more than a name -- it's a full-blown brand. The George Foreman Grill's manufacturer, Salton Inc. (SFP ), has sold 55 million grills since launching the product in 1995.
Marketing experts say Foreman's connection with consumers comes not from his achievements in the ring, but rather from his own remarkable personal transformation. Gone is the sullen, nasty boxer who showed up to fight Muhammad Ali in the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" with a menacing German shepherd by his side. Foreman, who says he had a religious awakening in 1977, has since morphed into an ordained minister and cuddly father of 10. It's just the underdog story that makes people want to pull out their pocketbooks. "He's got that button-nosed, twinkly-eyed thing going on," says Suzan Nanfeldt, a marketing consultant in Leonia, N.J. "He has a Santa Claus quality that's incredibly appealing."
Lucrative, too. Foreman won't say how much he has made as a product endorser, but he doesn't dispute a published estimate that his lifetime earnings are about $240 million -- three times what he earned in the ring. In 1999, Salton bought the rights to use his name and selling skills in perpetuity for $127.5 million in cash and $10 million in stock. It stands as one of the biggest endorsement deals for any athlete. And in retrospect, it looks brilliant. Under the original '95 deal, Foreman had a right to about 40% of the profits from the grills, which range in price from $20 to $150. At the height of its success, Foreman received $4.5 million a month in payouts, says Salton CEO Leonhard Dreimann. But in the past few years, consumers have put off replacing their old Foreman grills, and Salton has struggled: It reported a loss of $3.2 million on sales of $274 million in its most recent quarter.
Foreman's role in managing his brand involves much more than lending his toothy grin to packages and ads. He sorts through as many as 20 endorsement offers a week with the help of two of his sons, George Jr. and George III, who have taken on much of the responsibility in managing the Foreman brand. He tries all potential new products -- gathering approvals from his wife and children -- before allowing his name on anything. John Bellamy, CEO of Knockout Group Inc., says Foreman went so far as to put an ethics clause in Knockout's contract prohibiting it from selling the company to anyone involved in alcohol, tobacco, pornography, or gambling. Foreman doesn't want his businesses to conflict with the traditional religious values that he preaches four times a week at his church in Houston. "The most important thing to him is his image," Bellamy says.
The risk, however, is that Foreman's image may be spread too thin. In 2002 he contracted with an entrepreneur in Omaha to launch a line of meat products and other foods. Now Foreman is fighting to unwind that contract. He says in court filings the company, named George Foreman Foods, introduced products he didn't approve, such as coffee and "old frozen meat products." Foreman and his lawyer declined to comment. Larry Humberstone, president of George Foreman Foods, says he acted within the constraints of the contract, and "we were very careful to validate the quality of the products." Nevertheless, George Foreman Foods has filed for bankruptcy protection.
Brand consultants say the biggest risk Foreman is taking is pitching products that veer away from his "cooking man" persona. Obviously, grills fit, says New England Consulting Group founder Gary M. Stibel: "He looks like he grilled 1,000 burgers last night." But cleaning products? Stibel and other experts wonder if Foreman has the credibility to duke it out in a category dominated by huge companies with multibillion-dollar marketing budgets. "It's a lot tougher to compete with Procter & Gamble (PG ) than it is with Weber," Stibel says.
Foreman discovered his talent for selling while in the midst of a boxing comeback at age 40. Relegated to fighting palookas in tiny towns, he was asked to tape a 10-second promotion for a local TV station in Florida. He grabbed the microphone, he recalls, and screamed: "I'm going to show the whole world that age 40 is not a death sentence! Watch me!" The fight sold out in seconds, and Foreman was asked to do another promo the next day -- this time for 20 seconds. "That was selling," he says.
Foreman says he would love to fight again. But he would have to drop 25 pounds and squeeze in grueling 15-hour workouts between his preaching, advertising tapings, and personal appearances. "I just haven't been able to find that time," he says. "Too many promotions." To the growing legion of businesses that are counting on his goofy grin and magnetic personality to sell their products, George Foreman will always be the world heavyweight champion of pitchmen.
By Arlene Weintraub in New York