A young Ron Rice sat in his lifeguard stand looking around the beach, wondering what more he could do with his life. He saw floats, surfboards, umbrellas, and a beachgoer using a bottle of Coppertone.
Coppertone seemed to be the only product of its kind at the time, he said, and the stuff wasn’t all that great. Maybe he — even with his limited knowledge — could do better.
Rice had been working as a chemistry teacher and was trained in college to find oil and uranium. But after graduation, the need for these products had declined. So, what could he do?
“I ended up getting in a different kind of oil business,” he said.
Rice, now 79, became a multimillionaire by creating Hawaiian Tropic suntan oils and lotions, marketed through years of bikini pageants featuring Playboy models and Marla Maples, whom Rice would introduce to her future husband, Donald Trump.
His life has been filled with fast cars, celebrity encounters and “so much money we were rolling in it.”
But before his fame and fortune, Rice was just a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville looking to capitalize on a unique opportunity after flunking out of nearly every school he attended.
“Tennessee gave me more credit than I was really worth,” he told Knox News.
‘I would run like a deer’
Growing up in Asheville, North Carolina, Rice could do only three things: hunt game for Sunday morning meals, play defensive end and build a house.
Before he made his way to the top, Rice climbed from his family’s home on the side of a mountain toward the peak carrying rocks. He would mix mortar during the day to help build his dad’s dream home on top of the mountain.
“I was a mountain boy,” he said. “I would run around the mountain like you wouldn’t believe. I would run like a deer.”
He learned a lot from watching his father, who lived a life dedicated to the company he worked for. Money didn’t matter all that much to him, Rice said.
“His entire life and career was building buildings,” he said. “He just wanted to do what was right. He was too honest — super, super honest. And I learned a lot being around him — watching him being taken advantage of by this, that and the other.”
Attending UT was an opportunity for Rice to build his own life.
“I love Tennessee; I love Knoxville,” he said. “I love everything about it. … I didn’t have any dates in school, or very few at all. I was strictly trying to get my education and get that graduation certificate and get out and get moving.”
The possibility of being drafted in the Vietnam War loomed over him after graduation in 1964. His father always thought Rice would work for a corporation and taught him that the last four years of life are the most productive and prosperous.
Rice certainly didn’t want to waste four years fighting — not unless everyone else was going. So, he decided to go back to school — only this time, to teach chemistry and coach high school football — resulting in a deferment.
‘We were growing like crazy’
Rice ended up teaching and coaching in Florida, where he also was a lifeguard — far away from the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee.
In 1965, after spotting the bottle of Coppertone, a trip to the store started his path to fame and fortune. He picked up a $4 garbage can and a $1 broom, which he broke to use as a stir.
He mixed oil in the can and came up with his own formulas — a little “A, B, C” with “X, Y, Z,” Rice said. He rubbed his concoctions on beachgoers to get a feel for what worked best.
He wasn’t qualified to make lotions but called upon someone who could. And when it came time to apply labels to bottles, 11-year-old kids became incredibly resourceful.
“I paid them big money to do that work because I needed them, and I needed it done quick,” Rice said. “We were growing so fast; we were growing like crazy.”
But what made people flock to this new product? Part of the answer, Rice said, is that he had the right idea at the right time. Plus, there was the pleasant smell and the belief from customers that the oil actually came from Hawaii.
“I knew that whatever I (made) I could sell myself and sell bottle by bottle,” Rice said. “I was a pretty good salesman.”
But he wasn’t the best when it came to patents. In fact, Rice had no clue that his original Tropic Tan name already was registered by a family in New Jersey until an attorney checked into it.
Hawaiian Tropic was the next-best name, Rice thought at the time. Turns out, the name couldn’t have been better.
Starting out in ‘little junky places’
The early Hawaiian Tropic headquarters, if you could even call them that, moved 13 times. The business went from a closet to the bay of a service station — “little junky places,” Rice said.
Rice, who was living off a steady diet of peanut butter and vegetable-bean soup, had other UT graduates supporting him in his endeavor. Eventually, he found his first distributor in Tampa.
Rice sent a letter to a Myrtle Beach high school, hoping to reach a football coach interested in working to expand his distribution in the slower summer months. An assistant coach responded, and Rice made the trip to South Carolina.
He showed up to a class taught by the coach, who quickly sent him out the door, fearing he might get in trouble. Rice set out on his own that day, he said, and sold $2,000 worth of products to local stores by the time the final school bell rang.
The coach couldn’t believe Rice’s invoice, but there it was in front of him. He joined the Hawaiian Tropic team and made a whole lot of money, Rice said.
Rice surrounded himself with smart people, he said, including some of the world’s most brilliant minds when it comes to aloe. Those smart people led to smart business, which attracted hard workers.
And, eventually, Rice would surround himself with beautiful women vying to become Hawaiian Tropic models.
‘Making money hand over fist’
Maria Beale Fletcher, the 1962 Miss America, grew up with Rice in Asheville, giving him insight into the pageant world. And when he attended what’s now the University of North Carolina at Asheville before coming to UT, he organized a pageant for a fraternity.
So when he was invited to judge state-level pageants, Rice agreed, providing free products to all of the contestants. At one point, he was spending 14 weekends out of the year judging pageants all over the country.
It got to where he was beginning to lose focus on his company, so he decided to host his own.
“It was magic,” Rice said. “The first group that came in was 120 girls in Daytona Beach, and it was absolutely magic. I had never seen anything like it. We had every horn dog in the world come in and see the pageant.”
The first three years, the pageants ended up costing about $4 million each. But Rice smartened up and focused on advertising with the televised events. He has a philosophy to never spend a penny unless it earns him a return.
The contestants and models pushed the products beyond belief, and the pageants continued for more than 25 years.
“I had unlimited girls … beautiful girls … wanting to be one of our Hawaiian Tropic models,” Rice said. “I had to choose, and they were just throwing themselves at my feet to be one of our models.”
They were considered like Playboy models at the time, Rice said, and some of them crossed between Hugh Hefner’s business and Hawaiian Tropic.
“We were making money hand over fist,” Rice said. “We didn’t know what to do with it.”
‘Going from nowhere to somewhere’
Rice eventually figured out some things he could do with his money: private jets, extravagant homes, epic parties and exotic cars.
The Lamborghini driven by Burt Reynolds in “The Cannonball Run” — that car belonged to Rice.
Going from the mountains of Asheville to a luxurious lifestyle on Daytona Beach was “totally, totally different,” Rice said.
“It was like going from nowhere to somewhere,” he said. “The perks that came along with it all were amazing. I got to meet all the Hollywood celebrities.”
Rice ended up selling the company for $83 million, according to a 2007 article from the Orlando Sentinel. As part of the purchase, Rice said, there was a five-year non-compete clause.
But those five years are up, and Rice is back at it selling suntan products under his new Havana Sun brand. He’s even hired some of his former team members and distributors.
With all his business knowledge, Rice could have started a company selling almost anything else. But suntan products — “that’s what we know,” he said.
“We’ve had 12 years or more to improve the formulas and to make them better.”
‘Nobody could ever beat us’
Rice still comes back to Knoxville from time to time. You can find him at the biggest football weekend of the year — staying in Gatlinburg and eating at Calhoun’s on the River.
Rice gave college football a try at UT but was quickly told by coaches that they needed “someone twice my size and twice my ability.” So, he focused on school during his time here.
“It was a growing up time for me,” he said.
Over the years, Rice said, he was “pretty much caught up in a whirlwind” as his company continued to grow and grow.
His describes his former role in the company as “putting out fires” and, if there weren’t two or three lawsuits against the company at any given time, something just didn’t feel right.
Rice has lived a life many people dream of. Even those who don’t dream of it have to be envious of at least some aspects.
Throughout the wild ride Rice casually calls life, he can recall roughly 30 moments that should have left him dead.
Not only is Rice still living, he’s still working.
“Nobody could ever beat us because they weren’t willing to work that hard,” he said. “I say this: The harder and harder and harder you work, the luckier and luckier and luckier you get.”