Victor Kiam, 58, rivals the best of them when it comes to turning obstacles into opportunities. Six years after rescuing the loss-ridden Remington Products, Inc., he can claim sales of $160 million a year, or 20 percent of the world market.
Whether he's making a full- scale pitch to retailers or chatting casually, the garrulous Kiam is always selling. Kiam's resolute vision came to him early in life. At age 10, he opened his first business -- a coke-stand hard by the tracks that carried the streetcar named Desire past his New Orleans childhood home. Ten years later, while ostensibly studying French at the Sorbonne, he bagged the books and used his savior-faire instead to build a successful touring business around a single Simca.
"The man who bought the company" today has Remington in good enough shape to be able to focus on other ventures, including a line of neckties bearing his signature, and a weekly half-hour television game show he's developing. Its allure, Kiam says, will be "the American Dream." Its title, aptly, is "Going for It!" Although he denies he's interested in politics, he acknowledges that he's been approached to run for public office. Friends say the office Kiam secretly dreams about is oval, and that he may be persuaded to make a run for it some day. If he gets to the White House, he'll have one perk already in place -- the cordless Remington is used on Air Force One. In the meantime, Kiam spends what little spare time he has with Ellen, his wife of 29 years, and children Robin, 24, Tory, 26, and Lisa, 32, Mrs. Kiam's daughter by her first marriage. Kiam hacks, and hacks well, on the U.S. Tennis Association father-and-son circuit, where he and Tory were ranked number one in the East in 1985. Mary Fifield, former producer of CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," is currently living in Rome.
Q: What did you do when you got out of the service?
A: With my savings I went off to Europe with two other men. I enrolled in the Sorbonne and I started a business through a fluke. The three of us had bought a car and the other two went home, so I kept the car. Having a car in Paris in 1949 was a very worthwhile experience. I was over at the American Express one day and [heard] a couple of people complaining about the cost of a chauffeur-driven car. It was $35, as I recall, that American Express wanted for the car. I was standing there with my beat-up Simca and a newsman I knew named Max turned to me and he said, "Would you like to take these lovely people on a tour around Paris?" I said, "Sure."
I ended up with six automobiles. We called it the European Touring Service, Inc. It was a great life. I was going to class whenever I darn well pleased.
Q: What happened to the French studies?
A: I learned it exteriorally. My father thought I was going to turn into a permanent exile and reprobate, so unbeknownst to me he entered me in the Harvard Business School. All of a sudden he called me up one day and he said, "Son, you've been accepted by the Harvard Business School." I said, "I have? I didn't apply."
Q: What did you do when you got out?
A: I went to Lever Brothers. I wanted to go into foreign trade because I spoke French and a smattering of Italian. I went in as trainee in cosmetics. The first thing I worked on was the development of a new perfume line with "The Nose" who came over from the central perfumery in London.
Q: The nose?
A: Lever Brothers' nose. He's trained. If you put litmus paper into the three basic fragrances and brought him into the room, say, 10 minutes later, he could sniff and tell you what was in there. And he happened to have a very huge nose. I mean, it was a big probiscus.
That was the year that Bobby Thompson hit the home run off Ralph Branca, I remember because we were locked in this little room out in Long Island City. I was taking all the notes, with these vials and bottles and fragrance, and he didn't understand baseball. I asked if I could listen to the game while he was sniffing.
Anyway, a salesman in Cleveland fell down and hurt his back. They didn't have anybody to send out except me. My first day out, I went into this drugstore. I looked at the call sheet and last year he'd bought $180 worth . I spent all day with him and I sold him a couple of thousand dollars. I was sky high. Oh, God, the first day and everything. Sent the order in and it was rejected from credit, because the guy didn't pay his bills.
Anyway, I went to work in Cleveland and worked my tail off. I was single and I had nothing else to do.
Q: What were you selling?
A: Harriet Hubbard Ayer Cosmetics. I became a makeup artist. We set up the national launch of Harriet Hubbard Ayer in Cleveland because of the success that I'd had in selling a revolutionary new product called Air Magic, an iridescent cream. It was the brainchild of Hollywood make-up artist named Keva Hoffman. He was coming out to do a big promotion. I had set up satellite promotions in Youngstown and Akron. He was bringing a number two honcho named Fred Ferrar. I went to the plane to pick him up. Keva and his secretary came off but no Fred Ferrar. This was Saturday evening. There's an ad tomorrow morning in Youngstown announcing him. "What the hell," I thought. "It can't be that tough." So, I said to Keva, "If we work like a bloody fool tonight and tomorrow, could you make me a make-up artist?"
"Nah," he says. "Well," he says, "we'll try." His secretary's face looked like hamburger by Sunday night because I kept making her up and changing her.
[Keva] grayed my temples because I was only about 24 and I was supposed to look like an authority. I appeared in Youngstown at the store as "Mr. Omar" from Harriet Hubbard Ayer's Paris salon. I made up women for three days and then I moved on to Akron and did the same thing.
Q: What was your line?
A: "My dear, you look so well, but there are a few things that we should change. Do you mind if I change the way you've been making up all your life?"
After that I got transferred. In the summertime, I was sent to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. I lived out of the car, just kept driving. I used to work 12 hours a day, six days a week. Didn't stop for lunch. With that amount of effort, I didn't have to be that good a salesman. But I learned a few things, like business is where you are. You don't look for the big hit down the street when you're talking to somebody. You make every effort.
Q: When you bought Remington from Sperry Rand, they'd lost $30 million over the prior four years. How did you turn it around to a company that has sales of over $160 million?
A: And making money. Don't forget the second part of it. I reduced the payroll. We laid off 70 executives -- the average pay was about $30,000 -- and saved $2 million.
We created an atmosphere within the company that changed it. There were two pay plans, one for the factory and one for the so-called white collar. I did away with that. We had one basic pay plan. I said there's not going to be a blue collar or white collar in our company. We've got one collar, the Remington collar, because we're a smallish company and we've got to fight. We did away with all perks. No company cars, no executive washroom, no executive cafeteria.
Q: Has Remington made you a millionaire?
A: I think I was before I got into Remington. I'd been able to accumulate it. I didn't inherit anything. Nothing. Zilch. And I've had a lot of mouths to feed because I had the kids and my mother and my grandmother for a number of years.
Q: Was the money important to you?
A: No, money has never been important to me. Success has been important. The sense of accomplishment, of achievement. The thrill of success is really what I am interested in, what makes me hump. I don't spend any money. I have a car with 198,000 miles on it. It's the only car we own. American-made too. I know when I get in that car that that motor's going to turn over and I'm going to get there. It has never let me down. Money is unimportant in my life. I haven't got any time to enjoy it. If I go away on vacation, after the first three or four days I'm itching to get back into the fray.
My security is in that I know what I can do and I don't need to look at bank statements to tell me what I am. I didn't go into Lever Brothers to be the next level up on the ladder. I went to be president of Lever Brothers. Every job or anything I do, I go to the top. I haven't made it all the time but I've gotten further than if I'd just aimed for the next level because that's where I would have stopped.
Q: Most people know you because of your ads for Remington. What prompted you to get in front of the camera?
A: When I got into Remington I thought the advertising was atrocious. The ad they were running was a helicopter carrying a giant shaver and dropping [it] on a peak in Death Valley. I couldn't figure out what the hell they were selling, helicopters or shavers. We sat down and wrote what we call a nuts and bolts commercial: "The Remington microscreen shaver shaves as close as a blade. Here's why." For a consumer product, if you have the right copy, platform, reason to buy, the U.S.P. -- the Unique Selling Proposition -- that works for the United States will work in France, it'll work in Thailand. There are some exceptions. You wouldn't run an ad like we ran in girdles, "Win the battle of the bulge," in Germany because that would have other meanings to them.
This commercial has a Walter Mitty approach, a dream. You probably found products you've liked and said, "Gee, I wish I had thought of it." That's really what triggered people: "I liked it so much I bought the company." It turned out to be almost a historical line but at the time it was just the truth.
Q: And how many languages do you do it in now?
A: I know 29 seconds in 15 languages. I can knock off 15 commercials a day. It goes like clockwork. We had a shoot about a month ago and I did three new commercials in three languages -- nine commercials. All shot in my office. At one end is the bathroom, at the other, a desk. The commercials go from one end to the other. All they have to do is move the camera around. With a little company like we own, we have to watch every penny. I did one commercial in New York in a set. It cost $86,000. I can do a commercial in the office and we put the supers on and the color coordination. I can do the whole damned commercial for $10,000.
Q: Do people notice you on the street because of the ads? What do they say?
A: They make cracks like, "Get a good shave this morning?" A lot of them say, "I bought your product. It really works. Thanks a lot."
Q: What do you think your employes think of you?
A: There is a book [that lists] the 100 best companies to work for. We're the smallest one in it. I have a great deal of fun.
Q: You get your enjoyment out of many things.
A: I get my enjoyment by going down to that factory and seeing 350 people enjoying what they're doing. Work isn't something that many people enjoy but they have to do it and they do more of that than anything else. One of the ways of getting enjoyment out of it is the enjoyment of knowing you did a good job. It's inside of you. Of course, it's always great to get recognition, whether it's monetary or just plain old respect from other people.
In our company we have a fund. We say [to the supervisors] pick out somebody that's done something a little different and better [and] bring them up to my office. They don't know what they're coming for. I want to see them. I say, "Mary, I want to tell you something. You're just a pleasure to have at this company. I want you to know that everyone here is honored that you've chosen Remington to work for. We don't want to ever see you leave. We love you and I want to give you something." I give them $200 or $300 and say, "Go out and have a good time. Take your husband out. I don't want you to put it in a savings bank. This is because you earned it and you deserved it. And you earned it from everyone around here. You've been recommended not by me but from everybody in this company and so have a heck of a good time and don't ever leave us, Mary. We want you."
What's $200? And what do you think she does when she goes back to the factory floor? She says, "Gee, you know what happened to me?"
Q: You've been approached to run for public office. Your wife says that you'd love it and you seem to be a natural. You've got high name recognition, a definite point of view and a lot of energy. When are we going to read that you've thrown your hat in the ring?
A: I don't know if it will be public office. It's public service, really, as much as public office. I'd like to be in the international field more than any. I've traveled the world. I've been in every goddamn city in this United States. A lot of the people in governmental jobs at the highest level have never had international exposure. They've never dealt with the people. I know most of the customs of the world. I know what their basic drives are. I'd like to do be involved in State or the trade representative office.
I work hard. I'd be a 12-hour-a-day guy. That's what I work now. I still carry the bag. I walk in and sell! With the samples! Who do you think opened Japan? I went right into the buyer's office there with my sample case and the president of a Japanese company that we started. I was pitching why they should carry Remington. And I still handle the major accounts in Canada, England, Germany. I'm not up in the ivory tower shuffling papers.
Q: What are you going to be in your next life?
A: I wouldn't want to change too much. I'm a happy man. I really believe that. I wouldn't want to change anything. I have a wonderful wife, great family. Always been a number-one priority. I love business. I enjoy it. I would rather play a little better tennis in my next life.
Somebody asked me [a] somewhat similar question. He said, "When you die, what would you like to have inscribed on your tombstone." I thought for a minute and said: "He tried." Afterwards I said, if I had to do it again, I'd like to change that. I'd like to say, "He loved and he tried."