A Permanent Contribution When Gillette bought a hot startup in an effort to diversify, it got something even better: the entrepreneur behind the product.
By Maggie Overfelt

(FORTUNE Small Business) – It was 1947, and Gillette executives were scouring the country looking for acquisitions that would help the company grow beyond shaving. When they stumbled across Minnesota-based Toni Co., then the leader in home permanent-wave products, they folded in more than just a good seller: They also got Richard Neison "Wishbone" Harris, a man whom ex-Yale classmates called the "guy who could talk 20 million bucks out of thin air."

They weren't too far off. Harris, whose nickname came from his childhood fondness for that part of the chicken, had used $1,000 and a daring marketing sense to jolt a sleepy beauty segment into a $20 million opportunity. That it took just three years--less time than it took King Gillette to succeed with his razor and blade--is credited mostly to Harris's shrewd publicity stunts. He sponsored live unscripted radio shows with customers chatting about their Toni home perms, sparking buzz and sales. And the tag line--"Which twin has the Toni?"--became an American colloquialism of the day. After Gillette bought Toni, Harris pocketed $6 million and stayed on to run it independently within Gillette. He paid for himself, since "within two and a quarter years Toni earned $8 million net for the company," according to Fortune in 1952. Competitors faded, and Harris's fertile imagination built up the Toni line to include a one-piece plastic curler (the "chicken bone"), White Rain lotion shampoo, and even Tonette, a perm kit for little girls who knew the brand from playing with Toni dolls.

Harris's most lasting contribution to Gillette may have been his Paper Mate acquisition in 1955. Execs hoped Harris could do for pens what he had done with permanent-wave kits, and by the time he left in the late 1950s, it made up 10% of sales and was dominant in its category. Gillette built a stationery division around it, which was sold three years ago for about $750 million. After Gillette, Harris started Pittway Corp., a fire-and burglar-alarm maker that he and his son ran until Honeywell acquired it in 2000. The ex-Yalies of Wishbone's past would have to raise their expectations for him: Harris became the "guy who could talk $1.9 billion out of thin air." --MAGGIE OVERFELT