Lives Unlived – Peter Underhill
Entrepreneur. Gadfly. Lawyer baiter. Born September 10, 1950 in County Cork, Tanzania. Died March 25, 2009 of a chicken bone through the eye that pierced his brain, aged 58.
People who knew him by reputation tend to forget that Peter Underhill was Minister of Interprovincial Affairs in the short-lived and unlamented Stephen Harper government. In fact, while it’s true that Canadians have trouble naming any of Harper’s cabinet members even though his government fell less than a year ago, Underhill is particularly forgotten, a black hole in the universe of Canadian politics.
This is especially sad considering what a colourful character he was.
Underhill first came to public attention as the CEO of Dundalk Unlimited, maker of the magnetic straw. This novelty item was popular from June 12, 1974 to September 22, 1975, when it was replaced in the public consciousness by the fur-lined hula hoop.
Soon after selling Dundalk to Hasbro for an undisclosed obscene amount of money, Underhill wrote his first book, Better Selling Through Magnetism. His general argument was that there is a winning formula for attracting consumer dollars (iron) to your producer’s wallet (magnet). While this may not seem like such an original thesis, you must remember that this was the 1970s; there were only 237 business books published annually back then, unlike the 2370 annually published today.
After several years of living on his own island in the Bahamas, Underhill got tired of the quiet life and, scraping together the few pennies he had remaining, returned to Canada to seek his second fortune. Underhill started Funchalk Unlimited, a company that made musical straws. Unfortunately, Underhill was ahead of his time: in 1986, the various parts of the musical straw weighed three pounds and the company never quite water-proofed the delicate electrical components. The venture ended in a class action suit by people whose musical straws caught fire and burned their lips when they tried to drink through them.
This was a low point in Underhill’s career.
Momentarily stymied on the business front, Underhill was given a job as a business reporter for all news radio station CNCF out of Moosejaw in 1988. His tendency to use any story – such as the Moosejaw Chamber of Commerce donating money to the Destitute Hockey Moms fund – as the basis of an attack on ambulance chasing lawyers who destroy small businesses through the pursuit of frivolous class action lawsuits left CNCF owners scratching their heads. Little did they realize that Underhill had inadvertently captured the emerging pro-corporate zeitgeist.
Money Talks So You Better Listen, Underhill’s show, was soon syndicated to over 237 radio stations across North America. To capitalize on his growing popularity, Underhill put out Are You Listening? , a rehash of Better Living Through Magnetism that was original mostly because he was wearing a better suit in the cover photo. It didn’t matter: Money Talks reached number six on Tiger Beat’s top 10 business books list in 1993.
As his fame grew, Underhill was approached by both the Liberal and Conservative Parties to run as a candidate in some unspecified future election. His sympathies were with the Conservatives, but this was just as Liberal Jean Chretien had won the first of his three consecutive majority governments, so Underhill politely declined.
“I had much more fun,” Underhill wrote in his biography, Class Action Lawyers Should Be Hung From The Neck Til Dead, “baiting that poutine-sucking, protester choking, golf ball guzzling poor excuse for a leader.” Exposure to American talk radio had clearly sharpened his rhetorical skills.
Early in his time at CNCF, Underhill cultivated relationships with many of the western right wingers who would come to prominence in the decades to come, including a particularly oily used ideology salesman by the name of Stephen Harper. The hard partying Underhill seemed an odd match for the perfectly controlled Harper, who Underhill once famously described as “wearing his Stetson a little too tight around the collar.” Yet, the relationship would finally blossom into Underhill taking the post of Intergovernmental Affairs in Harper’s government.
At which point he would completely disappear from the public record.
After the fall of the Harper government, Underhill could have settled into the well-paid purgatory of public speaking tours. Instead, he made his third fortune founding Bunblock Unlimited, maker of the Radio-Active Razor. Where most business pundits had long extolled the virtue of filling niche needs, Underhill never wavered from his belief in the power of pointless novelty items.
Many people were disappointed that Underhill’s biography, released a day before his death, contained only one sentence about his time in the Harper government. “I could tell you about Stephen Harper’s government,” he wrote, “but then I would have to kill myself.”
Clearly, there is still a story here to be told.
Regina Scleriotician is a business reporter for the Glob and Maul.