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Ron Rice, ‘Suntan King’ who founded Hawaiian Tropic, dies at 81

The former “mountain boy” from North Carolina built an empire of sun-care products, promoting his lotions and oils through star-studded beauty pageants.

Business executive Ron Rice in 1988, joined by a group of Hawaiian Tropic models at the Westin Kauai Celebrity Sports Invitational in Hawaii. (Ron Galella/Getty Images)
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As Ron Rice told it, he was sitting in his lifeguard stand on Daytona Beach, when he got the idea that made him a multimillionaire. Looking out at the beach towels, umbrellas and surfboards scattered across the white Florida sand, he spotted someone applying Coppertone, one of the few suntan lotions then available in the late 1960s. He thought he could make something better.

Mr. Rice, a part-time lifeguard who taught high school chemistry and coached football, was not exactly an expert at skin care. But he had shown an entrepreneurial spirit since he was a boy, when he spent his summers selling homemade honey, cider, black walnuts and live rabbits from a roadside stand near his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In college he had trained to search for uranium and oil, thinking he might make a career out of mining and drilling. But after his beachside epiphany, he “ended up getting in a different kind of oil business,” as he later put it. Decamping to his garage with a 20-gallon garbage can and a broom handle that he used as a stir stick, he set to work mixing a little “A, B, C” with “X, Y, Z,” using a special combination of fruit oils to create a new line of coconut-scented suntan lotions.

With help from a few neighborhood kids and a $500 loan from his father, he started selling foil-label bottles of his concoction in 1969. He gave it an exotic name, Hawaiian Tropic — his preferred brand name, Tropic Tan, was already taken — and recruited a football coach and lifeguard friends as some of his first employees.

Within a few years, he had a factory in Ormond Beach, Fla., and was distributing his products worldwide, building an empire of lotions and tanning oils that he promoted with help from star-studded Hawaiian Tropic beauty pageants. “Suntan is sex,” he said. “That’s what it all boils down to. Sex and vanity.”

Mr. Rice, a tireless promoter who became known as the Suntan King, was 81 when he died May 19 at a hospital in Daytona Beach. His longtime adviser Bill Jennings, a former executive at Hawaiian Tropic, said Mr. Rice had been in poor health but did not cite a specific cause.

As Hawaiian Tropic grew into one of the nation’s largest sun-care brands, Mr. Rice continued to hold himself apart from other executives, dismissing the suit-clad businessmen he saw at the airport as “the penguin express, the polyester parade.” At the same time, he cultivated an extravagant lifestyle that was all but unimaginable for a former “mountain boy” from North Carolina.

Surrounding himself with bronze-skinned, blonde-haired young women, he acquired a reputation as the Hugh Hefner of Florida. He flew on private jets, sailed on an 80-foot yacht and acquired a stable of Italian racecars, including a Lamborghini that he loaned to his friend Burt Reynolds for a scene in “The Cannonball Run.”

His life, he said, was guided by one rule: “If it’s not fun, don’t do it.”

Long before American offices began to embrace a more casual dress code, Mr. Rice encouraged his employees to wear jeans and sandals, and let them off work each Friday at noon to go to the beach. He was frequently on the road, overseeing beauty pageants and photo shoots with the brand’s bikini-clad models; at home, he was often carousing with celebrities like Julio Iglesias, Alan Thicke and Fabio.

“Ron likes commotion — he goes out every single night,” Cheryl Shade, the company’s director of advertising and promotion, told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1986. “But if he comes in at 4 a.m. and has an idea, he’ll call you. He lives and breathes Hawaiian Tropic.”

Mr. Rice promoted the brand by sponsoring racecars and sporting events, and he leveraged his Hollywood connections to get Hawaiian Tropic bottles featured in movies and on TV shows. To further the company’s association with sun-soaked youth, he launched his own beauty pageant in 1983.

The results far exceeded his expectations. “It was absolutely magic,” he told the Knoxville News Sentinel of Tennessee. “I had never seen anything like it. We had every horn dog in the world come in and see the pageant.”

His pageants went on to draw celebrity judges and special guests including O.J. Simpson and Donald Trump, whose second wife, Marla Maples, was a former Hawaiian Tropic contestant. “He was kind of a regular with us,” Mr. Rice told the Boston Globe in 2016, adding that when Trump threw parties at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, “He’d call me up and say, ‘I’m having a big party. Bring your girls in.’ ”

Mr. Rice’s relationship with his female employees came under scrutiny in the late 1990s, when he was sued by two women who alleged in separate lawsuits that he had sexually harassed them at work. Mr. Rice denied wrongdoing and settled out of court with one of the women, a former Hawaiian Tropic model. The other lawsuit continued for six years before a jury concluded that he was not liable for damages.

Although the cases made headlines in Florida, they seemed to have little impact on Hawaiian Tropic, which had net sales of more than $110 million in 2006. Mr. Rice sold the company to Playtex Products the next year for $83 million, according to the Orlando Sentinel, and the brand later changed hands again before becoming part of Edgewell Personal Care.

Mr. Rice signed a five-year noncompete clause after the sale. Unable to quit the business altogether, he hired some of his former employees to launch a new company, Habana Brisa, after the clause expired. The brand started selling sun-care products earlier this year, according to Jennings.

Ronald Joseph Rice was born in Asheville, N.C., on Sept. 1, 1940. His mother was a homemaker, and his father managed construction projects and devoted the last years of his life to building his dream home at the top of a mountain.

Mr. Rice helped by mixing mortar and carrying rocks, and later paid homage to his father by using granite rocks from the region to complete his own dream house, a beachfront mansion in Ormond Beach where he lived for more than three decades.

He had been drawn to the Florida coast since childhood, when his family traveled to Key West one year and passed through Daytona Beach. As his father drove slowly across the beach, Mr. Rice opened the door and filled a tiny box with sand. He kept it on his desk for years, according to the St. Petersburg Times, and vowed that he would move to the Daytona area one day — fulfilling that promise after he graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1964.

Mr. Rice’s first marriage, to Linda Rice, ended in divorce. In 1990 he married Darcy LaPier, a former Miss Hawaiian Tropic who was 25 years his junior. They arrived at the ceremony “in a replica of Queen Elizabeth’s royal carriage, drawn by a spotted Appaloosa with a mane and tail dyed pink,” according to the Times.

In honor of Hawaiian Tropic’s origins, they reportedly drank champagne from the same garbage can — plated in nickel and outfitted with a tap — that Mr. Rice had used to create his original tanning oil formula.

The marriage was annulled after two years, when LaPier left him for Belgian action star Jean-Claude Van Damme and Mr. Rice discovered that she had never divorced her previous husband. The two remained friends and raised a daughter, Sterling Rice, and in recent years Mr. Rice discovered that he had another daughter, Valerie Deese, from an earlier relationship.

Both daughters survive him, in addition to a sister and a granddaughter.

Asked about his life in the years after Hawaiian Tropic, Mr. Rice once told a TV interviewer that wealth had its advantages, although some things never changed. “It’s fun,” he said, according to his obituary in the Daytona Beach News-Journal, “and there’s a lot of extra toys involved, and a lot of fun times, and I drink a little better quality wine, of course. But I’m still a country boy.”