Treb Heining was arranging his giant umbrella of balloons at the upscale South Coast Plaza Mall in Costa Mesa, Calif., when a man passed by muttering "terrible."
Who pays $8 to $10 for a balloon? "This is terrible, just terrible, that you're charging that kind of money for balloons," the man complained. "You should be giving these balloons out free to the kids."
Heining, 57 years old, has been selling balloons at lofty prices for most of his life. He started at Disneyland when he was 15, hawking them for a whopping 35 cents. "THIRTY-FIVE CENTS!" some passersby would shout. "I can buy a whole bag for 35 cents."
"I don't think there's ever a point when people will say, "That's a fair price for a balloon,'" Heining said. "People always seem to think a balloon should either be given away for free or very cheap."
Being the low-cost leader was never an option for Heining. After deciding in college that he might not succeed as a musician, Heining set his sights on making his living by blowing up balloons.
"All my friends and family thought I was crazy," he said, "but after a year or so they all wanted a job."
Heining learned to blow and tie fast -- as many as 1,000 balloons in an hour. And along the way, he changed the world.
Have you ever seen a giant arch, a colorful spiraling column or giant letters fashioned from hundreds or thousands of helium-filled balloons? These did not exist until Heining invented them.
You know that Mickey Mouse-shaped balloon inside a clear latex balloon that they sell at the Disney parks? Or more recently, the balloons with lights inside so that they radiate in the dark? Heining invented those, too.
Heining holds three Guinness records for the largest balloon releases. He's created balloon spectacles for 16 Super Bowls, seven Academy Award shows, six Republican National Conventions, two Olympic Games, two presidential inaugurations and one world's fair. He's also done more than 5,000 corporate and celebrity parties, he still designs balloons for Disney's parks all over the world, and for the past 19 years he's been in charge of all the confetti that falls over Times Square on New Year's Eve.
None of this came easy. The balloon magnate faced the same problems every entrepreneur confronts:
- Regulation. In 2008, Heining spoke out against a California bill to outlaw foil balloons because they can short-out power lines, causing outages.
- Supply chain. Did you know the U.S. is currently in the middle of a helium shortage?
- Economy. Can something as unnecessary as a balloon survive a burst real estate bubble and a historic spate of 9%-plus unemployment?
Heining is proof of the old saw that innovations overcome obstacles. Heining's latest balloon creation is available in more than 3,000 stores for between $12 and $15 a pop thanks to a distribution deal with Bogart, Ga.-based florist and balloon-seller Burton & Burton.
It's called My Own Pet. Check it out at www.myownpetballoon.com. They're balloons shaped like animals, from dogs to dinosaurs, with just enough helium in them so they barely hover above the floor, making them appear to walk. Heining said he launched them a year ago in the throes of very uncertain times for retailers, and they've been selling wildly. Some outlets have been selling them for as much as $20.
"I'm probably the only CEO in the nation who has a firm control over inflation," Heining boasts.Still, one of his favorite places remains the floor of his humble mall operation where he can watch children beam over balloons and parents come to terms with the prices.
He learned at Disneyland that whenever someone asks for the cost of a balloon, you give it to them quickly and immediately add: "What color would you like?"
"You bury the price," he said. "So it's not just sitting there glaring at you...Maybe that's a little bit on the carnie side, but that's selling."
And you don't put out just a few balloons at a time. You put out dozens, even scores, because the more there are, the more you sell.
And if a crotchety customer walks away from this spectacle, you smile and you wait.
"The persuasion power of a toddler is nothing to ever underestimate," Heining said. "They'll bring the parent back kicking and screaming, and sure enough they'll walk off with a balloon."
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at firstname.lastname@example.org or tellittoal.com)