Way before in-line skating was banned in restaurants, bars and other civilized public places, Scott Olson skated into a Minneapolis supper club to woo the club's blond chanteuse. That was 1982, two years after Olson started Rollerblade, Inc. -- the company that became synonymous with in-line skating and turned a novelty into a craze into a lifestyle phenomenon. In those days, Olson skated into business meetings, to the grocery store, onto local TV shows. When he skated into court to contest a charge of disorderly conduct, the judge said no one had ever appeared before him on roller skates. ""Geez, your honor,'' Olson told him. ""These aren't roller skates. These are Rollerblades.''
Twelve years later Olson is rolling up Manhattan's Avenue of the Americas on another equally radical set of wheels: a cross between a mountain bike and a rowing machine he calls a RowBike. A bicycle messenger cruises up beside him and shouts, ""That's a kind of bike I ain't never seen before.'' Olson hands him a card. ""The first time I laced on a pair of Rollerblades and skated around Minneapolis,'' he says, ""I got the same kind of response.'' Maybe so, but why is he hawking this goofy contraption, instead of managing his global in-line empire? Because Olson no longer owns any part of Rollerblade, Inc., whose sales will reach about $260 million this year and could hit $500 million by the year 2000. He lost his company in a disastrous deal that left him with a 1 percent royalty due to expire in 1997. It's every inventor's worst nightmare, but as a cautionary tale, the Scott Olson story is equal parts pathos and comedy. The supporting cast includes an heir to one of the Midwest's largest outdoor-sign fortune, an alleged embezzling best friend and the inventor of the inflatable penile implant. The star is a hapless jock who seems to have the word gullible stamped on his forehead. ""All I wanted to do was play hockey and hunt,'' says the 35-year-old inventor savant. Sometimes Olson sounds just like Forrest Gump.
Back home at his 40-acre farm on the western edge of the Twin Cities, Olson tells his weird story, starting in 1979. A 19-year-old rink rat and semipro hockey player, he bought a pair of crude in-lines called Super Street Skates. ""It was such a high,'' he recalls in his slow Minnesotan monotone. He began a daily ritual, skating 15 miles from home into the city. ""I realized that this thing could be huge. I definitely knew all the hockey players would buy them. And as I made them smoother and faster, I realized it had mass appeal.'' He and his brother worked in their basement ripping the blades off ice skates and reattaching their own home-made roller design. They used dual ball bearings for increased speed, and added the molded ankle support of a ski boot. Olson hitchhiked to Chicago and struck a deal with the world's largest rollerskate manufacturer to buy its dormant in-line-skate patent. To hype his new product, Olson held roller tennis tournaments and created a roller-hockey league. He was tanned, buff -- a six-foot blond poster boy for all the physical and esthetic pleasures roller life had to offer. He went to Los Angeles and handed out free pairs up and down Venice Beach. The rest of the country soon caught up. Baby boomers who'd blown out their knees jogging liked the low-impact workout. Younger adrenaline junkies mainlined in-lines for pure speed.
Olson's annual sales were up to $300,000 in 1984 when things started to go bad. He says his best friend and accountant embezzled almost $100,000 and left the books illegible. Facing bankruptcy, Olson struck up a partnership with Robert L. Sturgis Jr., who offered a bailout on behalf of his boss, billboard scion Robert O. Naegele Jr. The deal was $1.5 million for half of Olson's Rollerblade company. Seven months later, unable to raise the money, Sturgis cut the figure to $750,000. By now the Porsche-driving president and CEO of Rollerblade, Sturgis made a final offer: $100,000 for 95 percent of the company and 100 percent of Olson's voting stock. Olson signed. He was not only desperate for capital to deliver on the flood of orders coming in, but also hopelessly naive about business, making deals on handshakes and going through lawyers like Kleenex. ""I walked out of there in tears,'' he recalls. ""The guy stole my company and there was nothing I could do.'' A six-year legal battle over Olson's settlement left him with his 1 percent royalty. Translation: a cool $10 million total by the time the deal runs out in 1997. Not bad. Not good, either, considering Rollerblades, Inc., has about 40 percent of a $650 million market.
Still, it's hard to feel sorry for a millionaire. ""Scott's a cocky son of a bitch who should be happy he got what he got,'' says Sturgis, who left Rollerblade in 1988. ""He needed money and he had to make a deal with the Devil to get it.'' Current Rollerblade president and CEO John Hetterick is equally unsympathetic: ""All I can say is, if Bob Naegele ever decides to screw me the way he screwed Scott Olson, I'll be a lucky man.'' As the trend exploded -- from 100,000 in-liners in 1986 to 16 million today -- companies like Bauer and Veriflex got in on the action. And Olson tried desperately for a comeback, first with a combination in-line/ ice skate called SwitchIt -- a concept financed by the father of the inflatable penile implant, Dr. Gerrald Timm. The SwitchIt languished on the drawing board because, until his settlement with Rollerblade in 1991, Olson agreed not to market in-line spinoffs. As Timm says, ""Scott is a promoter extraordinaire. His skills are not in business.''
Olson is now in the improbable position of masterminding the careers of half a dozen relatives and friends who work and lounge (mostly lounge) at the $1.2 million house on Lake Minnetonka he shares with his wife, Kerry Ciardelli, the sultry supper-club singer he once wooed on his blades. Still in-line obsessed, he's developing a skate with a certain sneaker manufacturer. He spent $5,000 and logged 200 miles on the prototype before misplacing it. ""We can't find the doggone thing,'' he says. If the RowBike doesn't work out (50 orders so far), Olson's got his penguins: two-foot-tall plastic birds that he's certain will be the biggest thing in ""yard art'' since pink flamingos. It's a sorry sight: the recreation visionary who pioneered a new national pastime reduced to peddling penguins. ""Naw, it's all worked out really great,'' Olson says. ""I don't want to have any regrets, so I don't think about losing the company.'' Hey, Gump happens.