Live & Learn: Philip Kives, founder and CEO of K-Tel

K-Tel’s founder and CEO owes his success to “25 Polka Greats”—and telling the customer exactly what they’re getting

K-Tel founder and CEO Philip Kives

K-Tel founder and CEO Philip Kives.

I grew up on a small farm in the southern part of Saskatchewan. I did not enjoy farming. We had very poor land out there. I looked around at how people were living and I thought, I’m going to have a tough time living on a farm for the rest of my life.

I used to trap on my way to school. I was trapping weasels, basically. That’s when I started my first business. I’d buy furs off the other kids in school and then I’d resell them, along with mine, to an auction in Regina. I’d make 50¢ a fur.

I saw an ad in the paper about selling cookware door-to-door. You learn quickly how to sell. 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.

In 1959, I recall I made $29,000. So in 1960 I bought myself a big, white Cadillac convertible. I was flying high.

My first commercial was a live one, around five minutes long, probably the first infomercial in the world. It was the spring of 1962. I had a non-stick fry pan and I fried an egg. I went back into department stores to demonstrate the fry pan, and it took off big time.

I used to buy products from Seymour Popeil. That’s Ron Popeil’s father. Ron is a good salesman, but his dad made everything. He said to me, “Philip, you’re getting too big. I’m not selling you anything anymore.” So I went off on my own.

In the winter of 1966, we released the first record, 25 Country Hits. I didn’t look upon it as a long-term deal. I looked upon it as a one-time product. But after 25 Polka Greats, which sold around a million-and-a-half copies in the United States alone, I thought maybe we were on to something.

Record companies in those days didn’t know what compilation albums were. They had vast catalogues of music they didn’t know what to do with.

We grew into a big company, and it was very difficult for me to control it. One of the biggest mistakes I ever made in my life was having 13 relatives working for me.

We went bankrupt. We went into oil and gas and real estate. Then the bottom fell out of real estate in the United States.

I invested three or four million dollars of my own money and I started up fresh. I controlled the company the way I wanted to. We went back into the music business and back into the product business, and did well.

Some of my relatives left. They weren’t happy. We talk now, but for years we barely talked to each other.

The Miracle Brush was one of my favourite products. We sold 28 million of them in the early ’70s. It really worked.

I always say a good product makes a good ad. 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.

I tried to retire about five years ago. But in the last couple of years, the big thing has been downloading. I have this massive music catalogue. I came out of retirement to put a contract together with Apple. We were one of the first independent record companies that Apple put on iTunes for downloading.

I keep fit. Today, I feel strong enough to walk through a wall. All summer long I was bicycling a lot. Now in the wintertime, I go to the gym three or four times a week.

I’ve been racing horses for about 30 years. It’s just like business—I want to win.

I got a product coming out called the Clever Cutter. I like the product. I use it myself. It’s a knife and a cutting board, all-in-one.

People out there, they either believe in me or they believe in the products. I’m not sure which it is.

Philip Kives

Born Feb. 12, 1929, Oungre, Sask.


Philip and his brother Ted form Syndicate Products, K-Tel’s predecessor, in their parents’ basement in Winnipeg.


Syndicate Products becomes K-Tel when the company is incorporated. Kives takes K-Tel public three years later.


K-Tel expands into Europe. Later that decade, SCTV and Saturday Night Live parody the company’s hard-sell TV commercials.


Bad investments force K-Tel into bankruptcy. Kives restructures and takes the company back to its roots a few years later.


K-Tel puts its catalogue of 10,000 songs, including tracks from Little Richard and Hank Williams, on iTunes for download.