Backstory is a CJN column recalling some of the most bizarre, unique, and important moments in Jewish history. Click here for last week’s instalment.
No one understood the basic rules of business and advertising better than Philip Kives, the dynamic Winnipeg entrepreneur and founder of K-tel International, who passed away in Winnipeg on April 27 at the age of 87. “Selling is like fishing,” he said. “If you feel like you’re losing the fish, what do you do? You let it off the hook. You let it out in a hurry. If you think the buyer is going to say no to you, you go soft. Once you have them interested, you pull them in.”
From a young age, Kives, a tall, rugged man with a ’50s movie-star appeal, reeled in a lot of fish. Starting out in the early 1960s, he sold in excess of 28 million Miracle Brushes, millions of Feather Touch Knives, hundreds of thousands of slicing and dicing Veg-O-Matics, and more than 150 million of such immortal compilation albums as Goofy Greats and the Grammy-nominated Hooked On Classics, featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London.
According to the 2006 documentary As Seen on TV: The K-Tel Story, in its heyday, K-tel ran 40 to 50 TV spots and 80 radio spots per week. That meant that seven days a week, there was a K-tel ad running about 15 times a day, or every 40 minutes.
Hokey or not, the records also had a cultural impact. “I would argue that K-tel was more important in the long run than Rolling Stone,” said Robert Hull of Time-Life Music in a 2001 interview, “because it showed us that music does not belong to a realm of snobs. Without K-tel, there never would have been Napster.”
The K-tel story, however, is also about the genius of salesmanship, the interaction of technology and marketing, and the complex psychology of mass consumerism – all conceived by a genial and good-natured, yet savvy, farm boy from a Jewish farm colony in Saskatchewan.
Kives was born in 1929 in Oungre, Sask., a small hamlet close to the Jewish farm colony of Sonnenfeld and about 60 kilometres southwest of Estevan. His parents, Kiva and Layka (or Lilly), two elder siblings, and their extended family were Jewish immigrants who had arrived in Canada from Turkey three years earlier, though the family’s roots were in Romania.
Life at the Sonnenfeld colony was arduous and primitive, as it was at the other half-dozen western Canadian Jewish farm colonies that operated from the late 1880s to the 1940s. Drinking water was derived from a well the first Jewish pioneers had dug some years earlier. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing. Still, the settlers constructed a small synagogue, hired a Hebrew teacher for their children and a shochet so they had a supply of kosher meat. By the time the Kives family arrived, the colony had a population of 99 people and a total of 9,600 acres of farm land.
As a youngster, Phil Kives already showed an aptitude as a salesman. He caught weasels and muskrats himself, bought up furs from his friends who operated their own traplines and then sold them to traders for a modest profit. Deciding that he did not want to be a Prairie farmer, he made his way to Winnipeg, where he finished high school and worked at an assortment of jobs. In 1953, at the age of 24, he embarked on his sales career, hawking sewing machines and vacuum cleaners.
He next spent time in Atlantic City, N.J., working the carnival circuit on the boardwalk, where he learned the art of the sales pitch and then did floor demonstrations of a new “revolutionary” product, the non-stick frying pan, at Macy’s Department Store.
Within a few years, he launched K-tel, taking advantage of television to reach many more potential customers than he ever could in a store.
By 1979, Kives and the small army of relatives he brought into the business had K-tel operating in 34 countries with sales generating a pre-tax profit of $10 million (US). In short, Kives was well deserving of his designation in 2003 by the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business Hall of Fame as the country’s best salesman.
Historian and writer Allan Levine’s most recent book is Toronto: Biography of a City.