Notorious Hawaiian Tropic founder and University of Tennessee grad Ron Rice dies at age 81

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Ron Rice’s recipe for global notoriety and untold riches began with a $4 garbage can and broken broom handle for stirring when he was a fresh graduate from the University of Tennessee.

The concoction he settled on, over 50 years ago, would become Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion and, through Rice’s tireless promotional efforts, eventually made Rice’s Ormond Beach home a party destination for a worldwide Who’s Who of the rich and famous.

Rice, struggling with declining health in recent months, died Thursday in that 12,000-square-foot beachfront home. He was 81.

"He showed us how to promote your product, but also have a great time while doing it," said Linda Kramer, a longtime Hawaiian Tropic associate who remained as one of two on the Rice payroll until the end.

You could tell a rags-to-riches tale of a poor boy, from a dirt-poor family in the mountains of Asheville, N.C., who’d grow up to become rich and famous.

Or a kid who first saw the Atlantic Ocean on a family vacation, immediately grew wide-eyed and vowed to someday return and never leave.

Ron Rice, founder of Hawaiian Tropic, started his suntan oil business by mixing his formulas in a trash can. Rice had grown the company to a $70 million business when this photo was taken on July 18, 1981.
Ron Rice, founder of Hawaiian Tropic, started his suntan oil business by mixing his formulas in a trash can. Rice had grown the company to a $70 million business when this photo was taken on July 18, 1981.

Or a summertime lifeguard in his adopted Daytona Beach, straight out of the University of Tennessee, who saw countless bottles of Coppertone suntan lotion and thought, “I can do that!”

Or a struggling local high school science teacher who used his basic chemistry knowledge to strike gold.

Ron Rice was all of them.

“It’s almost right out of the Mark Twain stories,” said long-ago marketing partner Allan Cohen. “Here’s this kid in the Carolina mountains, running around barefoot, selling Christmas wreaths, working hard like his father taught him. In many ways, I think he was the original Jed Clampett.”

Instead of bubbling crude — “Texas tea” —  for Ron Rice it all started with some mineral oil, coconut oil, some extracts, some this, some that — “a little ABC with XYZ,” he once explained. He hired a pair of 11-year-old kids to fill the first bottles of his lotion, one bottle at a time, from that garbage can.

Before long, his eight-year career as a local school teacher and assistant football coach was over.

“I didn’t think it’d go anywhere at first,” he once said. “I just thought it’d be something fun to do in the summertime.”

Rice originally called it Tropic Tan, but soon learned that name already belonged to someone else, so he went with Hawaiian Tropic, bottled and sold it himself, then sold some more, and some more, eventually landed a distributor, and within a decade was well on his way to building a worldwide brand.

“We were making money hand over fist,” Rice said a few years ago. “We didn’t know what to do with it.”

A job with perks

Rice was an early participant in what would become known as guerilla marketing — getting a product’s name in the mainstream through a variety of promotional methods, some of them unconventional.

Ron Rice prepares for the inaugural beauty pageant for his sun care products company Havana Sun from his home in Ormond Beach, Fla.
Ron Rice prepares for the inaugural beauty pageant for his sun care products company Havana Sun from his home in Ormond Beach, Fla.

It worked, as Hawaiian Tropic became a mainstay on the shelves in drug stores, grocery stores and T-shirt shops the world over — a far cry from the surfside vendors who first agreed to sell his wares on the World’s Most Famous Beach.

Eventually, he fully cashed in.

In 2007, roughly four decades after filling his first garbage can with tanning oil, Rice sold the Ormond Beach-based company for $83 million. But not before putting together several lifetimes-worth of jet-setting fun and games, including his annual Miss Hawaiian Tropic contests (from 1983-2010), which began in Daytona Beach before going nationwide and around the globe.

“I came into the company when it was already well established,” said Kramer, who was Rice’s promotions director from 1985 through the 2007 sale. “That was when Ron could move away from the hustling — getting the product into stores — to start concentrating on promoting it, finding new things. He really embraced the promoting. The pageants were his big thing.”

Rice and Hawaiian Tropic became synonymous with his big roster of young women who traveled to major international events and promoted the product. Kramer choreographed those outings and remembers it as a mix of much work but much fun.

Ron Rice was sometimes referred to as the Hugh Hefner of suntan oils.
Ron Rice was sometimes referred to as the Hugh Hefner of suntan oils.

“I think Ron found the things he enjoyed and found a way to put himself in that sphere,” she said. "Somehow he always managed to find himself there.

“We would have a great time. The girls, they’d just walk into an event and everybody was like, ‘Oh, my, it’s the Hawaiian Tropic girls!’ ”

A few years ago, Rice stated the obvious: “The perks that came along with it all were amazing.”

Fast times

Among the celebrity judges Rice courted during the pageant’s run was a future United States president, Donald Trump, who met his second wife, Marla Maples, when she was a Miss Hawaiian Tropic contestant. Trump’s relationship with Rice and Rice's annual event was also seen as the impetus for Trump’s later purchase of the Miss Universe franchise.

The initial pageant took place at the Plaza Hotel, one of a few Daytona-area hotels owned by Allan Cohen’s family.

“The party was inside, the pageant was outside,” Cohen said. “I’ll never forget, we got hit by a water spout. The spout hits and knocks some people over, some people got hurt. And there’s Ron up on the stage, and he won’t stop. And that’s the way he was; he never stopped.

“Always doing big things, promoting. He was amazing. From there, he’d go all over, to Mardi Gras, the Final Four, then end up at the Cannes Film Festival. He traveled 300 days a year.”

Prior to the pageants, Rice was building the brand in more traditional ways, including through motorsports sponsorships.

Rice not only loved high-end personal cars, but sponsored several racing efforts — his most successful NASCAR run came as sponsor of Donnie Allison’s car, owned by Hoss Ellington, in the late 1970s. Allison was driving the No. 1 Hawaiian Tropic Oldsmobile in the ’79 Daytona 500 when he famously wrecked (and later fought) with Cale Yarborough on the final lap.

“I didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with him, but when I did, it was always a positive relationship,” said Allison. “What we had was good. He wasn’t a hands-on sponsor, but when he showed up, boy, everybody knew.

“He was always interested in how the car was running. If he didn’t call me after a race, he’d have somebody else call to see how things were going.”

Rice also put his company name and colors on Billy Meyer’s drag-racer, as well as the 1979 Le Mans runner-up Porsche co-driven by Paul Newman.

As for his personal wheels, Rice owned the Lamborghini driven by Burt Reynolds (who became a close friend) in the 1981 film, Cannonball Run.

In its “civilian” life, that Lamborghini was parked at Rice’s Ormond Beach home, the rambling, art-filled house where he spent the bulk of his adult life. It’s tucked in behind roadside foliage on A1A, across from Oceanside Country Club’s second green, but there were times when it was the center of the party universe.

Locally, the town would buzz for days after word spread about Rice’s most recent blow-out at his beachfront spread, which includes a disco and an indoor-outdoor pool.

The roster of invitees was a wide mix of professional athletes and A-List celebs of the day. Among them: O.J. Simpson, Joe Pesci, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carey, Benny Hill, Jim Kelly, Julio Iglesias, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chris Farley and Leslie Nielsen.

'Never stopped working'

Over the past few years, in an effort to chronicle his amazing life, Rice collaborated with author Jeff Snook on an autobiography, “Great Times and Tan Lines.” Work bogged down at times for various reasons, and up until his final days, Rice was helping sort through photos and writing captions for the book that will now be published posthumously.

“When Ron recently became seriously ill, I realized he probably wouldn’t live long enough to hold his published autobiography in his hands, and that breaks my heart,” Snook said. “It’s hard to believe he’s gone, simply because he was one of the toughest and most resilient guys I ever knew. I will miss him, his huge laugh, his dry sense of humor and our conversations, but I am honored to have had a part in telling his entire story to the public.

“I’ve never met anyone quite like Ron Rice,” Snook added. “To say he was a self-made success is the largest understatement I could ever make. He grew up a poor country boy from Asheville, and started working odd jobs as a child just to make a nickel or two, and it seemed he never stopped working until the day he died.”

In fact, in recent years, after honoring a non-compete clause in the sale of Hawaiian Tropic, Rice started a new suncare line, called Habana Brisa. It has yet to hit the market due to supply-chain issues, but will eventually be manufactured and distributed in Ormond Beach.

Coincidentally, history has repeated itself with this endeavor. The product was originally called Havana Sun, but like “Tropic Tan” five decades earlier, that name was also taken and Habana Brisa was born. History also repeated in terms of Ron Rice’s drive to build a product.

“Even on his deathbed,” Cohen said, “Ron was promoting Habana Brisa.”

Rice was married twice, including a brief second marriage in the early 1990s to Darcy LaPier, an aspiring actress who’d been a Miss Hawaiian Tropic contestant several years earlier. They had one daughter, Sterling. Rice, years later, said he and Darcy rekindled a friendship and remained dear friends thereafter.

Hawaiian Tropic founder Ron Rice on his wedding day in 1990 with then-spouse Darcy LaPier. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in the '60s, he created his first suntan oil inside a trash can in his garage.
Hawaiian Tropic founder Ron Rice on his wedding day in 1990 with then-spouse Darcy LaPier. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in the '60s, he created his first suntan oil inside a trash can in his garage.

Though he counted friends from the south of France to the west side of Manhattan, from Southern California to Honolulu, he claimed to have never, at heart, left the Florida surfline. Or, judging from a Carolina accent that never fully subsided, the hills of Asheville.

“You ask me what it’s like to be Ron Rice,” he once told a TV interviewer. “I used to teach school and I used to make $4,300 a year. Four thousand of that was the teaching part, $300 was the coaching part. I did that for eight years. I could go back to that if I had to, but I’m not saying I want to go back.

“It’s fun and there’s a lot of extra toys involved, and a lot of fun times, and I drink a little better-quality wine, of course, but I’m still a country boy.”

He also recalled the earliest days, when he sat atop a Volusia County lifeguard tower in order to supplement his teaching salary. He saw a lot of Coppertone in those days, and hardly anything else, and a seed was planted.

“I thought, there’s room for another product here,” he said. “Something good can come of this.”

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Hawaiian Tropic founder and University of Tennessee grad Ron Rice dies