Money makers: how I made a profit from portly dummies

Ruth Lee and "Barry"
Ruth Lee with the life-saving bariatric Barry

Britain’s obesity epidemic is placing an increasingly heavy burden on the National Health Service, says Jack Malvern in The Times. Last year there were 617,000 admissions to NHS hospitals in which obesity was a factor – an 18% rise in 12 months. But there is at least one person who is smiling. Ruth Lee (pictured), 80, has made more than £100,000 from orders for her overweight bariatric manikins.

The dummies, nicknamed Barry, are used to train paramedics and firefighters in lifting heavier people. “I can only look in wonder at how the company has transformed, probably epitomised by the arrival of Barry, a 40-stone manikin who I could not even put my arms around, let alone carry,” says Lee.

Lee founded the business, Ruth Lee Ltd, in the 1980s, with her husband, Ron, as a sideline to their Silver Cross prams repair service, while their sewing machinist also repaired tarpaulins for the Merseyside fire brigade. One day the firemen asked if their sand-filled dummy could be repaired. While working on the manikin, Lee thought she could do a better job from scratch, although with no experience, she admits it was “a bit of a shot in the dark”.

Nevertheless, they borrowed the money to develop their own dummy. The fire brigade was so impressed by the results that they placed an order for 20 of the manikins, while other rescue services also placed their own orders. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) once even called to tell Lee that “dead Fred and Ruth” had performed well in a North Sea rescue exercise.

Her grateful emergency-service customers have even come up with nicknames for her, says Lee: “[I was] the bag lady, the dummy woman and no doubt other names that my customers were too polite to mention”.

My news website made me a multimillionaire at 23

Alexis Ohanian, 35, has a way of making everything seem possible – but life hasn’t always been easy for him, says Chrissy Iley in The Sunday Times. Ohanian was born in Brooklyn in 1983, the son of a travel agent whose grandparents came to America as Armenian refugees. Money was tight, but he got his first taste of technology early on. “Computers were very expensive… it was a huge investment for my parents, but I wore them down,” he says.

At the age of 23, he became a multimillionaire when he sold Reddit – a popular discussion and news aggregation website that he created with his university roommate, Steve Huffman – for at least $10m. Today, it is valued at around $1.8bn, but Ohanian has no regrets. “I am not upset at selling it early,” he says. “It gave me the freedom to do all the things I have done since.”

The man who helped bring calculators to the people

Kazuo Kashio, who died last month aged 89, helped found with his three brothers one of Japan’s most iconic technology brands: Casio Computer, says Leo Lewis in the Financial Times. While Kashio was studying English in 1949, two of his brothers built a successful business around miniature cigarette-holders. By the mid-1950s, all four had joined the company, renamed Casio, which began exploring the emerging world of electronic calculators.

The firm launched a mass-market desktop calculator in 1965, followed by the Casio Mini in 1972. Kashio convinced his brothers to sell the world’s first personal calculator “cheaply” for ¥12,800 – a quarter of the average monthly salary of white-collar graduate recruits. Since then, cumulative sales of calculators have topped one and a half billion. In 1988, Kashio took over as president and chief executive, before handing over the reins to his son, Kazuhiro, three years ago.

Ice-cream maker with big dreams

Just a few years ago, sales of Halo Top, Justin Woolverton’s range of reduced-calorie ice cream, were flat-lining and the Los Angeles-based business was pleading with American supermarkets to keep the tubs in their freezer cabinets, says the BBC’s Anne Cassidy. “We were hanging on by the skin of our teeth,” the 38-year-old co-founder admits.

Woolverton created the product after he put Greek yogurt, fruit and stevia (a sweetener) into a $20 ice-cream maker. “It was delicious,” he says. “So from there, it was like: ‘Holy cow, if I like this why wouldn’t other people like it?’” With money borrowed from family and friends, student loans and £150,000 of credit-card debt, Woolverton launched the brand in 2012 with friend Doug Bouton. Money was too tight for marketing, so they focused on social media. Sales were inching up at best.

Then, in 2016, GQ magazine published a light-hearted article in which the writer tried living off Halo Top for a week. Sales soared. “[Supermarkets] didn’t know how to deal with it either,” says Woolverton. “For the first time people were buying three, four or five pints at a time. It had become the first lifestyle ice cream that people could eat daily.”

That year, Halo Top became the best-selling ice-cream pint carton in America, generating $132.4m in revenues. Woolverton says he has been inundated with takeover offers, including a reported $2bn bid from Unilever. He has rejected them all, aiming to keep control and go for global domination. “We’ll be as well known as Ben & Jerry’s,” he says.