- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2005

OLEAN, N.Y. — Tom and Melissa Miklinski have just agreed to spend $200 a month for five months for a new set of kitchen knives, but the 18-year-old salesman who got them to sign on the dotted line isn’t through yet.

If the couple will just refer Ben Owliaie to two other prospects, he will notch another point toward a $200 scholarship.

“I’m working on it, getting closer and closer,” he tells the Miklinskis.

The calls are made, referrals sealed. A good day for Mr. Owliaie. A crucial day for Cutco Cutlery Corp.

Cutco, North America’s largest manufacturer of kitchen cutlery, relies on student salespeople for virtually every sales dollar — $182 million in 2004, $242 million the year before.

Changing times and technologies have swept up other traditional direct-sales companies — Tupperware and Avon are now stocked at mall kiosks and Web sites — but Cutco’s reach remains only as long as the arms of its young salespeople.

It has been that way since the 1970s, when college students, brought in to bolster the adult sales force in the summer, soon became the primary sellers.

Mr. Owliaie, a Canisius College freshman, is typical. Recruited in high school, he signed on for a crash course in the product and how to sell it.

“It was a lot of role-playing, going over the program, over and over again, why Cutco is so much better,” he said. “It got us pumped up.”

Now, armed with a demonstration cutlery set, a couple of carrots to dice, a length of rope and shoe leather, Mr. Owliaie gives his spiel, a mix of youthful zeal and seasoned sales speak.

“Is that cool or what?” he asks as Mr. Miklinski glides a knife through the rope in a single stroke.

Then later, “I’m sure you would agree that Cutco is a value.”

Company officials say student salespeople are “perfect” for their product.

“We have been at it long enough that we recognize that there are shortcomings,” said Erick Laine, chairman of the board of Alcas Corp., the parent company of Cutco and its sales arm, Vector Marketing. “But they make such a perfect sales force that we have no desire to change it.”

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