Philip Kives in 2013
Philip Kives in 2013

RIP: Philip Kives, the 'K' in K-Tel

Philip Kives, founder of 50 year-old Winnipeg-based K-Tel International, and the man who brought you the Miracle Brush, the Record Selector and a half-billion albums containing 25 Country Hits or Hooked on Classics, died Wednesday in Winnipeg where he had lived for many years. He was 87.

A funeral service is to be held at Chesed Shel Emes in the city this Sunday, May 1. Born on a Jewish colony farm near Oungre, Sask., Feb. 12, 1929, Kives came to Winnipeg in 1962 to create the company that bore the first letter of his last name, K-Tel.

A marketer the likes of which Canada had never seen before, he came from humble beginnings, in fact in his early years his family had to rely on welfare to survive.

As he told it, his story as follows:

I was born on a small country farm, near the town of Oungre, Saskatchewan, Canada -population less than 200. My parents originally came from Eastern Europe. But, because of the hardships suffered by the Jewish people, the Jewish Colonization Organization relocated them, first to Turkey and then, in 1926, to a new frontier in Western Canada. Here, I was born in 1929, the third of four children. We struggled on our small farm, living on welfare for many years, as did other farmers in our area. It was 'the dirty thirties', where drought, grasshoppers and crop failure were common place, making farming almost impossible. We had no power or running water. I recall the difficulties of hauling drinking water over four miles, as there was always a shortage. I remember milking cows daily from the age of five and helping my family churn the milk by hand. We would then sell the cream and earn approximately $2.50-$2.80 a week. Whatever we grew in the garden, plus the butter and the cheese that we made, and chicken and eggs that we raised...was what we lived on.

I started my first entrepreneurial venture at the age of 8, when I set up my first trap line. Not only did I sell my own furs, but I bought furs from all the other kids in school and re-sold them at fur auctions. I made just enough money to buy my few clothes for the year.

By the early forties we got our first used car and tractor and things started to improve. I finished high school, but with all my responsibilities on the farm, I was not able to further pursue a formal education

In 1957 I left the farm for good for the lights of the big city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. I had various jobs: from taxi driver to short-order cook. Then I tried my luck selling door-to-door, such items as cookware, sewing machines and vacuum cleaners. I had difficulties making sales at first. But, in approximately six months, I became a top salesman and ran a crew of sales people of my own. In 1959, I made $29,000. This was like a million dollars to me, as only a few years earlier I was barely making $1000 a year on the farm.

By 1961, my brother Ted and I made our way to the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. I was demonstrating in the Woolworth Store facing the Boardwalk. This wasn't quite as good as being on the Boardwalk itself, but it had the advantage of being protected from bad weather. I learned quickly that only the strong survive. If you did not produce, you were out of the Woolworth Store in a flash, as other people were waiting to take your place. I was a keen observer and learned the art of demonstrating a variety of products.

In the spring of 1962, I returned to Winnipeg and came to the realization that instead of demonstrating to a few people at one time, I could try television, where I would demonstrate to masses of people all at once. I made a live 5- minute T.V. commercial on a Teflon non-stick fry pan. To my surprise, sales took off at a remarkable pace. I quickly spread the T.V. advertising throughout Canada and this 5 minute commercial became the world's first infomercial ever. (From that point, I always wrote and directed all of the K-tel commercials). Unfortunately, tephlon was a new product, and the tephlon peeled off the fry pan leaving a lot of tephlon- coated eggs. However, although this product had problems, I learned a valuable lesson... the power of T.V. advertising. I then bought some great products from a supplier named Seymour Popiel, who is the father of Ron Popiel of the company Ronco. I went on to sell these products, such as the Dial-o-matic, the Veg-o-matic and the Feather-Touch Knife, with great success through T.V. advertising.

In August 1965, I left for Australia and within 10 days I was on T.V. with the Feather-Touch Knife. I was a one-man show, and operated from a hotel room with no staff or office. However, the girls at the front desk of the hotel were very nice to me, and were kind enough to answer my business calls and take all my phone orders.

By Christmas I had sold one million knives and netted a dollar a knife. All I did was sell the product into the store and buy the television time. After the difficulties of farming, I couldn't believe how easy this was. By the end of 1965, Seymour Popiel, said to me that he would not sell me any more products as I was getting "too big". That was when I was forced to find and develop my own products. Consequently, I entered the music business.

In early 1966, I returned to Winnipeg from Australia. My father was ill and passed away shortly after. Around this time I released the first compilation TV record , 'Twenty-five Country Hits' with a Bobby Darren give-a- way. Then, I released a Rock album, followed up by the big hit 'Twenty-five Polka Greats', which sold a million and a half in Canada and USA.

In the late sixties I started my company K-Tel and the rest is history. My biggest selling product was the Miracle Brush, selling 28 million in the late sixties. My biggest music seller was 'Hooked on Classics', selling over 10 million... and it is still selling today. By the early eighties K-Tel sold over half a billion albums world-wide.

One of my special moments was being inducted into the (CPSA) Canadian Professional Sales Hall of Fame in 2002. I was honoured for creating the first infomercial and changing the face of advertising in the world. Today we continue to license our music catalogue of over 6000 tracks to other users. We have set up a digital distribution network with companies like iTunes, where our music is sold all over the world. I still go to work every day and love to put together a winning product. I am extremely active both mentally and physically and feel I am just too busy to get old.

-- A summation of this legendary salesman's career can be found in The Winnipeg Free Press here.



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