Bikes, business, and breakfast with Len Mattioli

It’s difficult to characterize Len Mattioli, founder of American TV and now owner of Crazy Lenny’s E-Bikes in Madison.

Those who meet him at his west side store will likely describe him as friendly, genuine, and fun.

But he’s also a master promoter and a shrewd businessman with a refreshing take on advertising in today’s social media-based world, and he’s not known for mincing words.

“One thing I’m very proud of is that we never used T&A to sell product, and yet that’s so much of what you see out there,” he laments.

He criticizes the e-bike industry for not promoting its own. “I watch the Super Bowl and the awards programs, but I’ve never seen ads for electric bikes,” he says, which offer health benefits, particularly to the baby boomer set. “Instead, I see ads for penis enlargements, Viagra, pills, and attorneys.

“[The industry] talks with great excitement of increasing sales year over year by 30%, when they should be increasing by 300%, just like microwave ovens years ago, or color TVs, or stereo amplification.”

Before he ever got involved in American TV, Mattioli was an engineer for Kodak in Rochester, N.Y. When he moved to Madison in 1969, he did so with the intent of helping to close his dying brother’s TV and appliance store on Madison’s near-east side.

Instead, he instantly took a liking to the retail business, and through the years transformed the store into a mega-million dollar success story. The television commercials he starred in, and the free-bike promotions the store ran, helped with the “crazy” moniker, and sponsoring the Lenny’s Inferno TV show, which aired on WMTV through the early 1980s, probably helped a little, too.

In an Isthmus article from 2008, Dick Flanigan, who played Inferno’s TV host, Mr. Mephisto, said Mattioli would often supply them with items, such as televisions or turntables, that they could destroy during the anything-can-happen late-night show. “Lenny loved that stuff,” Flanigan said at the time.

But life always has its ups and downs, and Mattioli has survived both. In 1986, his first wife Paulette was killed in the crash of a Midwest Express plane near Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport, leaving him and two teenage sons behind.

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Then there was the failure of American TV & Appliance in 2014. Mattioli had left the operation years prior, selling his ownership stake to his nephew, Doug Reuhl, but after a tough recession, the operation failed.

But that’s all in the past.

These days, he moves about in his new E-bike business with the gusto of a much younger man. That youthfulness, he says, helps on the retail end. “Retail success is a matter of people. You have to have the ability to make your customer feel comfortable. I just turned 73, and my e-bike customers see someone with an attitude of an 11-year-old.”

Mattioli loves telling stories. He shares one about growing up in Chicago, where he says he learned all about the retail business from his Italian mother. “In those days, vendors would load bananas on a truck. When the truck came through the neighborhood, she’d tell the vendor — every time — ‘I want four bananas.’

“‘But Mrs. Mattioli, you know bananas come five to a bunch,’” the vendor would say.

“‘I want four bananas, 16 cents each.’” She got her bananas.

“If there were bananas left at the end of the day, we ate bananas for dinner,” Mattioli says. “The point is, at the end of the day, it’s about the last banana. Inventory margins are thin. After everything, American TV made less than 5% on sales, so you had to sell every [item].”

Trying to narrow his focus as he prepares to speak at IB’s Icons in Business breakfast event on June 10 could be compared to herding cats. From childhood stories to his theories on marketing in a social environment, Mattioli promises an entertaining look at the evolution of TV Lenny, how he got to where he is now, the American TV years, and what happened after he left the operation in 2004.

He’ll share his thoughts on advertising, retail management, e-bikes, and thinking outside the box.

“You have to differentiate,” he advises. “Be a little wacko. Wacko is good, and nothing is better than humor.”

And no one should know that better than the crazy man himself.

To attend IB’s Icons in Business breakfast on Wednesday, June 10, click here.

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