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Promoter of Voice Mail Moves To Belize, Invents Plastic ‘Shoe’

From Yale Drama to TrueValue, Consolini searches for the fast track

By Eugenia B. Schraa, Crimson Staff Writer

It has taken Robert L. Consolini ’53-’56 a while to get on the fast track to wealth.

Doubtless dozens of his Harvard classmates met with fabulous success within years of graduation, but it is only now, with his career in telephone marketing well behind him, that Consolini finds himself on his way to becoming a multi-millionaire.

TrueValue hardware stores are betting on the money-making potential of his invention—a plastic sheath which fits under wooden support posts, preventing them from rotting while in the ground.

Consolini came up with the idea for what he calls the house “shoe” about five years ago.

According to him, “the conservative U.S. market potential” for these is 14 to 28 million, at $27.95 a pop. TrueValue is now in the process of test marketing them, and, if all goes well, will soon be offering them in stores across the U.S.

Though Consolini never planned to embark upon a new career so late, his success with the “shoe” is oddly fitting for a man whose life has been dominated by serendipitous events and unexpected turns.

Although unexpected, his success in all endeavors was never accidental. As his younger brother John F. Consolini puts it “he dedicated himself 110 percent to everything he did.”

A second generation Italian immigrant whose father was a prominent dairy farmer, Consolini certainly never expected to go to Harvard, or to college at all.

But his roller coaster career got its start when, in eighth grade, he forged his father’s signature on an application he secretly filled out for prep school. Eventually, his parents found out and agreed to let him go to the Berkshires School.

Consolini grew up in Canaan, Conn., which he refers to as “the town of 5,000 cows, 2,000 people,” and from which he is the first to have gone to an Ivy League school or prep school.

Harvard, however, was his “first choice, his only choice,” from the start, according to John Consolini.

His brother recounts how, in order to overcome the dyslexia which plagued him, Consolini “memorized the dictionary,” before applying to Harvard.

Despite his drive, Consolini had a tumultuous time once he arrived in Cambridge.

He was put on probation sophomore year for having a woman in his Adams House room after parietal hours—a fact which he recalls with some pride. A few months later he flunked out and went to train for the Korean War during his two years off.

Consolini never saw military action, however, with the armistice declared just days before he was to take off for Korea. He returned to Harvard after his service.

Still plagued by his dyslexia, the English major channeled his dedication to extracurriculars. He became a member of the Harvard Dramatic Club after seeing plays by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller at their trial runs in Boston. He also “went out for the Crime [the Crimson]” his sophomore year simply because it was “the most arduous thing you could do,” he recalls.

Consolini meant to go on to business school after college, but despite the business acumen which has recently become apparent, he never made it—and went to Yale Drama School instead.

He applied there as a playwright, having sent in a play based on his experiences in the army “as a lark.”

After leaving Yale, in search of “high-profile stuff,” he worked as a reporter for ABC News, but soon left for a telephone company that would be bought by IBM. After the buyout, he says he became the “pioneer” in the marketing of voice mail.

It was not until after retirement that the idea for the “shoe” came to him in tropical Belize.

Consolini first went to Belize on a whim, after a business conference in New Orleans about 20 years ago. He says it seemed like a good idea, instead of returning straight to New York, to keep travelling south. The foreign-language-phobic Consolini chose Belize because he learned that the national language is English.

Soon enough, Consolini was hopping over to Belize for weekends, leaving New York at 7:30 a.m. and arriving at 2:30 p.m.

Something about Belize seems to have brought out the entrepreneur in Consolini. His brother recounts how, when he visited him there, Consolini was running a successful awning business.

Noting that Belizeans filled their windows with cardboard to block out the heat, he struck on awnings as a better solution.

“Typical of him,” John Consolini says. “He saw a need.”

Consolini’s attention switched to support posts only after retirement. He decided to build a traditional Belizean house on his waterfront property. In the process, he learned that the wooden posts used to keep the house above rainy season floods and the ubiquitous mosquitoes are doomed to rot within 15 to 20 years of being implanted.

Although Consolini’s architect assured him that the post could then be replaced by jacking up the house and removing the rotten section, Consolini says, “That didn’t impress me.”

With the help of his son Marcus’ roommate, who happened to be a plastics aeronautics engineer, Consolini pulled together a prototype of the shoe for the six-by-six-inch posts after scraping together $148,000.

For the entrepreneurial Consolini, however, that was not the end of his invention. When he found out that the American market was potentially much more lucrative—porches and verandas call for a surprising number of four-by-six-inch posts, he says—Consolini decided to spring another $148,000 for the four-by-six-inch prototype. This time he got the go-ahead for the hefty investment from his children.

In fact, Marcus Consolini is now devoted to ensuring the shoe’s success—launching its manufacture and sale in China and arranging for its export to other Asian markets.

Despite the time and effort that he has devoted to it, Consolini has stopped working on the invention, saying that the shoe is “not relevant to my lifetime.”

He has sold his property in Belize and moved back to Canaan, where he is “devoting himself 110 percent” to the composition of his opus—a trilogy of semi-autobiographic epic plays spanning four generations of his Italian family.

—Staff writer Eugenia B. Schraa can be reached at schraa@fas.harvard.edu.

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