Karl ELLER

  • "And I will add, impossible to quantify all the joy, and..."
    - Bruce Taylor
  • "Dear Stevie, Scott, and Elissa, We are especially grateful..."
    - Bruce Taylor
  • "My life and career was greatly enhanced because I had the..."
    - Ambassador Dick and Joan Capen
  • "Dear Stevie, Where have the years gone - football games at..."
    - Mary Ann Anderson
  • - John Milligan
Obituary

ELLER, Karl Advertising Pioneer and Business Visionary, Dies at 90 "Make absolute integrity the compass that guides you in everything you do. And surround yourself with people of flawless integrity." That was Karl Eller's response when asked which words he hoped he'd be remembered by. And Karl Eller was a man who practiced what he preached. An advertising mogul, an entrepreneurial titan, and a dedicated philanthropist, Eller died on March 10, 2019 at his home in Phoenix. He was 90. His death was confirmed by his wife of 66 years, Stevie. Eller was born in Chicago in 1928. As a boy he moved to Tucson with his mother after his father left the family. It was from that 1,700-mile drive that Eller's infatuation with outdoor advertising sprang: he passed the countless miles memorizing Burma-Shave ads – small, brightly colored signs with only a few words on each one, grouped in sequence along the highway so their clever messages could be read in order from passing cars. After graduating from high school in 1946 and serving in the U.S Army, Eller returned to Tucson and graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in business. It was there that he met and married his true love, Joan "Stevie" Stevens. Eller began his advertising career in 1952 with New York-based Foster & Kleiser Outdoor Advertising Agency. After seven years learning the ins and outs of the advertising business, Eller joined Needham, Louis & Borby Advertising Agency, where among his many other accomplishments he pioneered the concept of the miniature candy bar for Mars Candy, which still fills Halloween bags to this day. Eller had that unique entrepreneurial talent for seeing the future. He could not shake those colorful Burma-Shave ads from his mind, and as America's love for the automobile and the open road grew, he knew that billboards, still in their industrial infancy, were the future of advertising. In 1962 Eller acquired the Arizona operations of Foster & Kleiser, renaming it Eller Outdoor Advertising. He transformed billboards into an international industry as he spread across the world, constructing many of the billboards that still stand in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Times Square, Toronto, London, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, and Tokyo. Following the purchase of several newspapers, television and radio stations, Eller morphed the outdoor advertising company into Combined Communications in 1968. As he acquired numerous other major metropolitan news stations, publications, and advertising agencies in the United States and Canada, Eller forged Combined Communications into one of the largest and most profitable media conglomerates in the world. Eller served as CEO of Gannett following its merger with Combined Communications, before becoming president of Columbia Pictures in 1980. His vision of merging Columbia Pictures with the Coca-Cola Company would result in a $1.6 billion gain for Coke by the time they sold Columbia. Never content to rest on his laurels, Eller dove into the convenience store business when he became president and CEO of a small regional chain called Circle K, in 1983. "He only did that because it was a 'K', and he's a 'K' Karl," joked his wife, Stevie. Whatever the reason, Eller continued his streak of innovation, contributing what was then the novel idea of including fuel pumps at convenience stores, revolutionizing yet another industry. He built it into the largest publicly owned convenience store company in the U.S., with over 4,000 stores and more than $3.4 billion in annual revenue. But by his own admission, he had misjudged the market, grew too fast, and by 1990, Circle K had declared bankruptcy, almost taking Eller with it. If Eller could do one thing better than any another, it was bounce back. With the encouragement of his longtime friend, Bruce Halle, founder of Discount Tire, and the backing of investors who trusted him for his business sense and work ethic, he secured funding and returned to outdoor advertising in 1992, forming the Eller Media Company. He sold the company to Clear Channel Communications in 1997 for $1.15 billion, and Eller became CEO of the outdoor division, where he would serve until his retirement in 2001. While Eller loved business, his passion was philanthropy. "The more you give, the richer you are," he would often say. He served as chairman of United Way, sat on the board of The Salvation Army Phoenix, was recognized by the NCAA for his athletic scholarship donations, and was honored by the Arizona Historical Society as an Arizona Historymaker. His profound contributions to his alma mater led the University of Arizona to rename their college of business The Eller College of Management in his honor. A lifelong athlete, Eller realized his dream of bringing professional sports to Phoenix. Not only was he responsible for the inclusion of Arizona State and the University of Arizona in what was then PAC 8, he was also a founding member of the Fiesta Bowl, through his ownership brought professional hockey and basketball to Phoenix with the Roadrunners and the Suns, and was instrumental in bringing the Cardinals to Arizona. His book, Integrity is All You've Got, is essential reading for any ethically minded businessman or woman. He was the first Arizonan inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame, among numerous other awards. And still, there is so much more; in the life of Karl Eller, there seems to be more that he did accomplish than what he did not. Eller leaves behind a legacy of honesty and commitment, the classic American image of working hard with a smile on your face. He is survived by his wife, Stevie, and his children, Scott Eller and Elissa Goodman; six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. His longtime assistant, Kim Rogers, recalls him often saying, "For every 20 deals or 'great ideas' you have, you'll be lucky if you hit a home run on one." "It didn't bother him when deals didn't go," said Stevie. "He always felt that he hadn't done enough homework. He'd go through every avenue to try to save something, to try to fix it. But if it didn't work, he could walk away, and then he's off in something else. He's just so unusual in that aspect. Things really just didn't get him down." Integrity is all we have, and Karl Eller kept his until the very end. A private service is planned for the family; a Celebration of Karl's Life will be held at a later date, to be announced. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting that memorial donations may be made to the Karl Eller Scholarship Endowment at the University of Arizona Foundation. Checks may be made payable to UAF/Karl Eller Scholarship Endowment and mailed to the University of Arizona Foundation, 1111 N. Cherry Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85721. Online donations may be made at www.uafoundation.org/karlellerscholarshipendowment


Published in the Arizona Daily Star on Mar. 13, 2019
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