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David Oreck: Still Selling Vacuums At 81

Turn on your television set and sooner or later, you’ll see an infomercial featuring an energetic man with Bassett Hound eyes imploring you to take the "Oreck Challenge." That’s the 30-day, risk-free trial that has helped make David Oreck’s vacuum cleaners a household name.

It’s hard to believe David Oreck is 81 years old. He drives his Harley Davidson motorcycles to work. On his days off, he flies planes on his farm near New Orleans. (He flew bomber missions in Japan during World War II.) He walks or runs several miles a day. And he’s still the face behind the Oreck vacuums he made famous by creating them both powerful and light.

Ever the consummate salesman, David Oreck spends part of his time—when not hawking his vacuum cleaners—traveling around the country inspiring people to reach for their dreams at any age. David himself is a perfect example—he didn’t start his company until he was 40. Today, David Oreck has sold millions of vacuum cleaners around the world and is lauded for his vision in helping revolutionize home cleaning.

David Oreck is someone who has aged smart by demonstrating success and fulfillment can begin at any age. He is just one of the several people we’ve interviewed who proves that life can be just as fast in your 80s as in your 20s—with a few limits, of course!

I’m in pretty good health for my age. I’m still vertical in other words. I guess I’ve always been busy and never really known anything different. It’s very good for you to be busy and I kind of think if I were to retire as some people do, I’d go downhill.

I used to run a lot. I don’t run thousands of miles anymore because I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere. When you run, the knees and back go first. But I am active every day, and being involved keeps you going right along. In New Orleans, the weather makes it walkable outside at times, but we have pretty hot summers. I get used to that.

I’m not a big drinker. I didn’t drink for 15 years and then I got married 8 years ago, remarried I should say, and on the occasion of the wedding, I had a glass of champagne. It was the first taste of any alcohol that I’d had for 15 years and it tasted awfully good. So about 8 years ago, I resumed moderate drinking. Sometimes, I take a "big boy" drink, such as a martini.

I never thought about aging at all. I just didn’t. I didn’t think I was necessarily bullet proof. It astounds me every time I give my age because I don’t feel that age. I don’t think that way. People always think I’m blowing blue smoke at them because I don’t act my age. I don’t deny myself anything. I go out when I feel like it, and I stay out as late as I feel like. I work out or fly or whatever. I don’t feel as if I’m denying myself anything. Fortunately, we’re successful, and if I was unsuccessful, I might not have the same attitude. The company is doing well and I know I make a meaningful contribution. We have very good people here, my son is president of the company, and he takes over a lot of the nitty-gritty areas of things, such as marketing. I’m sure that if life were tougher, I’m sure that would take its toll.

I’ve always worked hard. I haven’t always been successful. Every large company was once a small company and even in the company today, I’m still picking up paper clips I see on the floor. A lot of people don’t do that and that ticks me off a bit. They didn’t start from zero and I did. I didn’t start my company until I was 40 years of age. I talk to a lot of universities around the country. I’ve talked to more than 40—I was just at Harvard on Valentine’s Day—and the thing I tell to young people, the point I always make, is that I didn’t get my start in this business until I was 40. A lot of young people get encouragement from that because they don’t know anybody, and they have no connections and no money or financial backing. When you think about it, Henry Ford was in his 60s before he made his millions.

I’m the oldest guy here. I’m not the only guy who’s up there a bit, but we have low turnover in this company, younger people included, and we don’t have a policy for retirement. When I’m gone, they’ll probably put one in. But I don’t think we should. As long as a guy is productive, he’s valuable. My personal feeling in business is if I could hire a guy 60 years of age, who had a good background and is in reasonably good health, that is a fantastic asset to be able to get all that experience from someone who wants to work. That kind of guy is terrific. It’s true that he may not be good for more than 5 or 10 years, or whatever that might be, but I would rather have one good year out of an outstanding guy than 10 years from one who’s not so good.

Typically, I get up at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. and work out for an hour and a half. I’ll read some papers and catch up on the news a bit. I get to work around 9:30—I used to be here at 8:00, but now I indulge myself. I’ll work at the mail, getting all that out of the way. I get voluminous amounts of mail, some of it is fan mail. I want people to know we’re approachable, we care, we produce a good product, and we stand behind it. I can’t answer all the mail, but I answer a lot of it. I take as many calls as I can, and I read every letter of complaint that comes on my desk and see to it that someone does something about it. Sometimes, I’ll attend some meetings that are important, and I spend a fair amount of time on the phone with our creative people.

I generally leave here at about 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. I still have a pretty long day, but I don’t mind. The day goes pretty fast. I no longer have two-martini lunches, not even one. We travel a lot, so if I’m in New York, I’ll go to the theatre. I go to bed fairly early these days, and generally, I watch the news on TV before dozing off. I don’t need a sleeping pill. I just turn the TV on, put the timer on that damn thing, and I’m gone before it’s off . . . unless I’m out partying. Now that’s another story.

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