In recent years TV viewers have grown accustomed to corporate faces like Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca and Eastern Airlines’ Frank Borman hawking their goods on the screen. It’s a gimmick that seems to work, and the most successful practitioner of all may be an unimpressive-looking 55-year-old who does nothing more than sit behind a desk and promise his customers a closer shave. “I was a dedicated blade shaver until my wife bought me this Remington Micro-Screen shaver,” Victor Kiam tells his audience. “I was so impressed, I bought the company!”
And viewers have definitely bought Kiam’s pitch. Since he began doing the 30-second spots three years ago, Remington sales have nearly doubled—to $90 million annually—and the company now commands more than 40 percent of the total electric shaver market, more than twice its former share. “I’m telling the truth and it just comes out,” says Kiam of the commercial’s Walter Mitty appeal. “Lots of people have loved products so much, they’ve wanted to own the company that makes them.”
Salesmanship has always been Kiam’s forte, ever since his boyhood in New Orleans when he sold soda pop to people waiting for the streetcar named Desire. Graduating from Harvard Business School in 1951 after Andover and Yale, Kiam landed his first job as a salesman for Lever Brothers, where he helped promote a line of cosmetics. At one point, when a guest cosmetician hired to do demonstrations at a Cleveland department store failed to show, the resourceful Kiam learned how to apply mascara, billed himself as “Mr. Omar” and went on instead.
His smashing sales record boosted him up the corporate ladder—to Eastern district sales manager for Lever’s toiletry division. He left for International Latex, where he became president of the firm’s Sarong girdle and bra division. “I was always testing products myself,” says Kiam. “When the firm planned a male girdle called ‘the potholder,’ I wore it myself for weeks. Now I know what women go through. I itched so much.”
In 1968 he took on the top job at the Benrus Watch Corporation, rejuvenating the once-creaky company only to see it falter due to Japanese digital watch competition. Kiam sold his majority interest in Benrus in 1977. A year later he heard that Remington was for sale, after chalking up losses of $30 million over the previous five years. Kiam knew nothing about electric shavers. Just like the ads claim, he was a sworn blade man. “But I was in the bra-and-girdle business once,” he figured, “and didn’t know anything about that beforehand either.”
When Kiam started studying Remington marketing charts on the dining table of his Manhattan penthouse, his wife, Ellen, protested. “You don’t shave electrically; I’ve never even bought you an electric shaver as a gift. Maybe it’s no good.” She also thought maybe she had better go buy one for him to try. “I flipped,” recalls Kiam, after sampling the shaver. “I wondered how I could have spent so many years worrying about the whole ritual.”
About four months later Kiam bought the company for $25 million—a higher price, he now figures, than he might have paid if he hadn’t been so enthusiastic. He set out immediately to turn Remington around, firing 70 executives to trim costs, introducing a new model for $19.95, and stepping up the advertising budget. Says one industry insider of Kiam’s management style: “He’s a hard man and demands results. He’s the sort of guy who wakes his salesmen up on a Saturday morning.”
Despite Kiam’s early success, a 5 o’clock shadow is now being cast over Remington by North American Philips Corporation, the giant firm that markets Remington’s major competitor (with a 55 percent market share), Norelco. North American Philips has bought up rights to another shaver brand name, Schick, and is planning a product similar to Remington’s at a comparable price.
Kiam had hoped to buy Schick to prevent such a move, and is yelling “ouch” in federal court. Remington is suing Schick, North American Philips and its parent company, the $17 billion Dutch conglomerate N.V. Philips Gloeilampenfabrieken, charging antitrust violations. Kiam wants the courts to void the sale of Schick to North American Philips.
Events in the razor industry may be moving at a fast clip, but Kiam has found time to pursue other business interests. Over the past eight years he has made several trips to Peking, establishing connections with trade groups there; he already has plans for a special publication to help Western firms market products in China. Moreover, Kiam’s TV exposure has gained him a recognition factor few other businessmen possess. “Head-waiters don’t give me better tables at restaurants,” he says, “but it’s easier to get business appointments. After all, company heads are more interested in meeting a TV star than just another exec.”