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EVERYBODY'S BUSINESS: Ex-Sharper Image chief goes back to roots, but online

by Leroy Donald | September 23, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.

— It's been a year since a hostile board ousted Richard Thalheimer from control of The Sharper Image, the iconic big boys' toys company in San Francisco that he directed for almost 30 years.

Down for a time, Thalheimer, who grew up in Little Rock, has rocketed back, doing the thing he loves most - finding gadgets that appeal to him and, he hopes, appeal to the buyer.

Business Week, the national business magazine, recentlypublished an article on The Sharper Image, its headline reading: "A Small-Mirror Image of Sharper Image. Ousted as the gadget company's CEO, Richard Thalheimer triessome online one-upmanship."

Businesss Week notes that Thalheimer, who is nearing 60, is working for his own Web site

"He begins with a reference to his history as Sharper Image's founder and welcomes potential customers to their 'new on-line store for gifts and interesting products!'" the article says.

The Internet effort went live in May and Thalheimer now has five employees, he said last week in a telephone interview from San Francisco.

Thalheimer doesn't have a noncompete agreement with The Sharper Image and isn't doing this online business out of revenge, the Business Week article says.

Thalheimer said in the telephone interview that he has no connection to The Sharper Image, he's no longer on the board and he has sold all his stockin the company. He once had about 21 percent of the stock, making him the largest shareholder in the company.

He said that his departure could be considered amicable and he and the board just had different ideas on how the run the company. In the shake-up, Thalheimer's father, Alan Thalheimer, who still lives in Little Rock, also was removed from the board.

Richard Thalheimer said in the telephone interview that what he is doing now is similar to what he did when he started The Sharper Image three decades ago.

"This is back to my roots," he said. "For me personally I'm having fun finding new products, getting them exclusive for me and marketing as I like to market. I don't have to talk to anybody or explain."

He said he doesn't feel as if he's in competition with his former company. "It doesn't matter to Sharper Image. I'm on the Internet only, and they're a much bigger business with some 200 stores."

Thalheimer said he gets ideas two different ways, from his own head and from people who have products coming to market who know that he's back in business. This input comes from both vendors and companies. "I've had a lot of luck over the years in coming up with a product idea and getting it made up to my expectations," he said. He gets a lot of this information while working trade shows. "There are hundreds of manufacturers, especially in Hong Kong and China who are anxious" to bring their product to market.

He also said he was lucky to gain enough financing to do all this himself. As Business Week reports, he got almost $6 million in severance and he sold his 20-plus percent of the stock in May.

He said he has almost 200 "interesting products" already on his Web site. One of his big sellers at this time is restored slot machines. He found a source that takes slot machines that originally cost in the $4,000 range and restores them to near new condition. Thalheimer says he can sell these slots for $300 to people who want them for their game rooms.

"The slots have been converted to use tokens, and we send 200 tokens free with each one, so it's legal to ship to every state, including Arkansas," he said laughing. On the other end of the spectrum, he's offering a "fun night light" in the size and shape of a flashlight that is powered up by a crank. It doesn't need batteries, the cranking doing the job. It costs $30.

It's also a nice piece of modern art, he says.

"For some reason it's caught everybody's fancy We've had a tremendous response and sold hundreds of them," he said.

Thalheimer has always liked doing a personal job of selling his products, starting when he came across a runner's stopwatch - he had been an avid runner - and began offering it for $30 in an ad in a magazine. He used his own money then, too. From the profits he started a catalog business catering to shoppers looking forupscale gadgets.

The boy from Hall High School in Little Rock took off from there, creating a multimillion-dollar business and opening stores across the country.

By the late 1990s, the company had reached revenues of more than $200 million annually.

During expansion he acquired the 50,000-square-foot abandoned building once use by Levi Strauss in southeast Little Rock for a second distribution center. Later, a twostory addition was built that brought the building to more than 160,000 square feet. About 100 people work at the center during regular times, and this number grows to upward of 300 during the Christmas season. Thalheimer said he understood that Sharper Image had closed its distribution center in Richmond, Va., and he speculated that much of that operation would wind up in Little Rock.

Thalheimer's new Internet effort doesn't use a distribution facility now, as it sells directly from the manufacturer. But maybe one day he will need such a center, he said last week.

He said he gets back to Little Rock now and then to visit his mother and father and his sister Dr. Joan Nafe, the well-known veterinarian who, with husband Dr. Larry Nafe, runs Hillcrest Animal Hospital.

Thalheimer officially retired from Sharper Image in November 2006. Doing what he wants to do has been satisfactory to him he said.

"It's made for a terrific eight months," he says.

Incidentally, news reports lately show that the Sharper Image stock under the new direction has fallen to about $4 a share.

"It was good timing," he saysof selling his stock at nearly $10 a share.


The Twin City Bank branch in the Heights neighborhood is moving 453 feet down Kavanaugh Boulevard to a landmark building that for years housed Etcetera, the popular gift shop.

"It's a premier location for our banking operation," says Donna Hardcastle, a vice president for the bank. It'll be a big jump in size - from 700 square feet on a traffic island that was once a streetcar stop to some 4,100 square feet. The move will enable the bank to add two drive-through windows and house its private banking department with its investor services and the bank's home loan department.

These operations, she said, have been spread out in various locations. Altogether, 11 people will work there, Hardcastle said.

Work has already started on the building with demolition of some walls and ceiling. The whole building will be remodeled, she said.

"We'll spend a large amount of money on the renovation, including putting the driving lanes between the building and the dry cleaners to the north," she said.

The building, which is popularly referred to as "the Etcetera building" actually is part of a center that has two buildings and a parking lot between them. The other building to the south has multiple tenants, including a beauty shop and a fitness center. The property has been owed for years by the Samuels family of Little Rock, Hardcastle said.

Etcetera moved from its building years ago, and the latest occupant was Winterberry Homes, a home-decoration retail store that also closed in recent years.

Hardcastle said renovation would take about three months and the move would be made over a weekend. "Everything will be new in this branch," Hardcastle said. The branch has been at the island location since November 2003.

Ryan Carrus will be the branch manager.

The move in the Heights is just part of the bank's newlocation news announced last week.

The Bryant branch, the bank's first outside Pulaski County, opened last week. It is in a 3,700-square-foot building at Reynolds Road and Interstate 30 in the Lowe's shopping center. Lisa Smith is the branch manager.

Also, it was announced the bank's Argenta Main Street branch in downtown North Little Rock, which has been operated out of a trailer for years at Seventh and Main streets, will relocate to a 4,000-square-foot building at 305 E. Broadway as a "temporary" location, with plans to move back to a threestory development planned on Main Street between Sixth and Seventh streets.

Twin City Bank is set to be one of the anchors for the development led by Chris Travis, a Little Rock lawyer, and Jeff Yates, a real-estate developer in Little Rock. If the project goes forward, construction is planned to begin next June.

Everybody's Business runs every Sunday in the business section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Send your business news to Leroy Donald, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, P.O. Box 2221, Little Rock, Ark., 72203, or e-mail:

Business, Pages 84 on 09/23/2007


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