Editor’s note: Billy Warden is a writer, producer and co-founder of Research Triangle-based marketing agency GBW Strategies.

GRANVILLE COUNTY — J. Pratt Winston — arguably North Carolina’s most colorful business success you’ve never heard of — thrives on being “an oddball.”

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the square-dancing entrepreneur from Granville County became the unlikely purveyor of a coveted lifestyle fixture for big city swingers. Decades after he walked away from that improbable adventure, he sits atop another booming business, now celebrating its 40th anniversary.

“Pratt is the quintessential entrepreneur,” says developer, former Secretary of the NC Department of Human Resources and neighbor Lucy Hancock Bode. “He looks at the world as this boundless palette of opportunity.”

One of the things that makes Pratt, now 86, so compelling is that he’s so wide open about sharing his journeys and learnings. Not in a grandiose way. On the contrary, he’s unerringly self-deprecating. Which is, come to think of it, one of the many things business folks can learn from Pratt.

But before getting into more such lessons, a bit of background: Raised amid rolling countryside during the Great Depression, Pratt studied engineering at Danville Community College before finding his groove as a traveling salesman. In his 30s, he co-founded his own wholesale company, Weltron, based in a humble Durham warehouse.

Following a flash of inspiration, Pratt spearheaded the development of an all-in-one AM/FM eight track portable entertainment unit he dubbed the Model 2001, now affectionately known to collectors as the Spaceball and featured in pop culture throwbacks like the Austin Powers franchise.

I had the privilege of chronicling Pratt’s adventures in the September edition of Our State magazine — a ride that careens from tobacco fields to Madison Avenue and back. Pratt sold Weltron to a conglomerate, traveled the world as one of its executives and then realized what was most important in life.

Some of the down home tycoon’s key guiding principles as well as lessons learned on the trip are noted here:

“We didn’t have a nickel, but at the same time we were rich.”

Pratt grew up on a family farm without electricity — ironic for a fella who’d eventually make his mark equipping swinging party pads. Creature comforts were few and far between. But he didn’t feel deprived, or act that way.

The Winston’s bare bones existence in a little crossroads community called Grassy Creek sparked innovation. Pratt’s family developed their own indoor plumbing system. That DIY sensibility would stick with the budding entrepreneur as sure as his thick Carolina accent.

Rural communities helped build North Carolina, but now face challenges adapting to the modern economy — giving rise to the much talked about urban/rural divide. Pratt succeeded in both environments because he focused on qualities that transcend setting: ingenuity, diligence and teamwork (more on that in a minute).

“I just can’t help it. I want to do things different.”

In the immediate years after Pratt originally co-founded Welton (with Virginia businessman Charlie Womack), the company did OK on projects like selling white-labeled guitars during the British Invasion. Business was solid, but not spectacular.

The moment that turbo charged the company came when Pratt decided to pursue his vision of a highly stylized all-in-one entertainment unit influenced by his fascination with science fiction. He’d always been an oddball, as he’ll proudly tell you. Finding a way to channel that eccentricity put him on a flight path to fortune.

“A lot of people laughed at me. I didn’t care.”

Having been an unabashed oddball also made Pratt immune to the scoffing and snickering of peers and competitors. Hauling his round unit around the fabled Consumer Electronics Show, Pratt looked ridiculous to some attendees, who openly mocked his “commode” design. But he’d been scoffed at before, so it didn’t knock him off course.

As Bloomberg once put it, “The most successful entrepreneurs are those who don’t follow the herd but anticipate the needs of the market earlier than the competition.” They singled out business ideas taking root in fields from cleantech to DNA customization to space hotels.

Pratt knew that while instant acclaim would be nice, it’s not necessary. A business idea just needs critical mass to feed and build off. “I didn’t need everyone to love it,” Pratt says, “just a few to get started.”

“You don’t do everything in life yourself. It’s not just you — it’s more Y’ALL!”

Pratt revels in other people — their gifts, skills, ideas — and how the right team, no matter how ragtag it may seem, can achieve great things.

When he first envisioned an all-in-one entertainment unit, Pratt talked it up enough that an acquaintance in New Jersey pointed him to a like-minded engineer in Japan, who Pratt convinced to come to Durham and collaborate. That engineer — Ryuzo Fujita — would prove key to developing the Spaceball.

Later, as Weltron grew and launched new models like the equally futuristic Model 2005 turntable, Pratt turned to a Hungarian electrical engineer, George Ipoly, who, as a youngster, had fled the Nazis.

A Granville County salesman, a Japanese engineer with limited proficiency in English and an Eastern European war refugee — nothing obvious about that squad, and yet Weltron wouldn’t have taken off without them.

“I know the difference between Raleigh-Durham and New York City, and you don’t.”

When the conglomerate Walter Kidde & Co. bought Weltron in 1974, they put Pratt under contract. That meant moving to New York City, where new colleagues took exception to his accent and style. But when people made fun of him, Pratt took solace in the thought that the city dwellers reminding him that he didn’t fit in actually knew LESS of the world than he did. After all, he’d visited big cities around the world AND traveled country backroads.

Today, more than ever, corporations are coming around to research showing that a diverse and inclusive workforce makes for better products and bigger profits. Still, underrepresented members of large teams may feel treated as outsiders, ‘others.’ Pratt’s way of dealing with this was to remind himself that the qualities and experiences that made him stand out didn’t make him lesser, they made his perspective and understanding broader.

“This is as close to heaven as I’ll ever get.”

In the mid-’70s, Pratt’s contract with the conglomerate that bought Weltron came up for renewal. He’d spent the last few years jet setting around the world, and he could go right on doing that. But, as was often Pratt’s way, he heeded a different calling. He realized he was happiest with his family at his home in Grassy Creek overlooking the dark, sprawling waters of Kerr Lake.

And so, the iconoclast did what many might consider unthinkable — he left the big job and the big city for the small town he loved. While hanging with his kids, boating, living his best life, he founded another company, Winston Electronics, which, four decades later, keeps its staff of 35 busy providing highly specialized circuitry to companies around the world.

And with that — family, a town where he seems to know everyone, a company to build — he found his take on an earthly heaven. Which begs the question, dear reader, what’s your take, and how close are you to achieving it?

Finally, just how much of Pratt’s remarkable life has been by design? “He may look lucky, but it’s all skill,” says neighbor Bode. “He doesn’t miss a beat.” And yet he’s wondrously offbeat.

Filmmaker David Iversen was so taken with Pratt’s personality and story that he’s exploring the possibility of a documentary. “Pratt made his own way, played by his own rulebook and has an infectious ‘joie de vivre’ in everything he does,” Iversen says. “He approaches life with a unique point of view. He’s very grounded, but there’s a boundless optimism in him that harkens back to a time when the future was something we all looked forward to. He seems to know things the rest of us don’t — which is immensely appealing.”

Whatever the future holds for Pratt, one thing is for sure: Granville County’s best kept secret is now one of North Carolina’s best examples of both doing business and making a life on no one’s terms but your own.