Skip navigation

Friday April 29, 2016

K-tel's founder was the ultimate pitchman

Whether he was hawking Veg-O-Matic slicers on TV or selling digital rights to songs, he always embraced new technology

Continued from Page 1

The trick to selling door-to-door, he told Canadian Business, was that "you always ask a positive question so customers can only answer one way: yes. You say, 'You would like your wife to have this, wouldn't you?' And he'll say yes."

By 1961, he and his younger brother, Ted, were demonstrating pots, pans and knives on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, next to Ed McMahon, the future sidekick to Johnny Carson, who was touting blenders and vegetable slicers.

"You fought for a living there because your competition was so tough," Mr. Kives recalled in a 1986 interview with The Globe and Mail. "It was a place where the strong survived and the weak died. After that experience, I was well aware that nobody was about to give me a break or anything for nothing."

Back in Winnipeg, he realized that he could reach more people through TV.

He did a live five-minute commercial for a non-stick frying pan. By his own admission, the product wasn't good. But the great sales following the commercial confirmed his hunch.

At first, he sold gadgets made by a New Jersey inventor, Samuel Popeil, whose creations included the Veg-O-Matic, the Pocket Fisherman (a folding rod and reel) and the Feather-Touch Knife.

Mr. Kives wrote the scripts himself and explained to Canadian Business magazine how he made his pitch: "In the first line, I always tell the consumer what I'm selling. Tell them what you've got upfront. Don't keep them guessing."

In one famous episode, Mr. Kives set up shop in an Australian hotel in 1965 and started promoting the Feather-Touch Knife on local TV.

"I was working the Calgary Stampede. I met someone from Australia and the next thing you know I was on a plane to Australia. ... I went to Australia and I sold a million knives in five months and I made a dollar a knife," he told The Globe and Mail.

He said that Mr. Popeil ended their partnership later that year because he felt Mr. Kives was getting "too big."

Mr. Kives started developing his own products and branched out into the record business, pumping out compilation albums for every musical style from polka to disco.

The secret to those albums, he told the Chicago Tribune, was to convince aging stars to re-record their past hits, enabling him to circumvent the big record companies who owned the original rights to the songs.

His wealth enabled him to acquire a stable of 30 thoroughbred horses, and he established a solid reputation as a breeder of champions. But otherwise his tastes remained frugal, according to a Globe and Mail profile in 2000, which noted that his house was a modest bungalow, his car a "slightly beaten-up, grey Cadillac sedan" and his fine-dining choice a franchise steakhouse.

By the early 1980s, his company had expanded into oil and gas exploration, financing a feature film, real estate, ownership of the Viscount Gort hotel in Winnipeg.

However, worried about K-tel's performance, in 1984, four U.S. banks called in loans totalling $10.5-million (U.S.), forcing the company to apply for bankruptcy protection. The next year, the Bank of Montreal placed K-tel's Canadian operations into receivership.

"A verbal deal is no good with a banker even if you have had lunch with him for 20 years," he complained in a Globe and Mail interview.

The turmoil also forced the ouster of two of his cousins from their jobs as top executives of K-tel, who then set up a rival company, R-Tek Corp.

Mr. Kives eventually reorganized his company and went back to selling his products to a new generation of TV viewers.

In 2004, three years after he had stopped working, he came out of retirement to negotiate a deal with Apple, licensing his music catalogue.

"I knew we would emerge from trouble because I am a scrambler and a survivor. I thrive under pressure and become stronger," he once told The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Kives leaves a brother, George; his wife, Ellie; and children, Samantha, Kelly and Daniel.

* * *

To submit an I Remember:

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Associated Graphic

Philip Kives, seen in an April, 2001, photograph, was one of the iconic business figures of Winnipeg, a creator of flamboyant, energetic ads and infomercials throughout his career.


Mr. Kives, right, poses with singer and TV personality Perry Como.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Back to top