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Abt Employees Do More Than Just Plug Along

In Tribune's Top Workplaces survey, Glenview appliance and electronics store is No. 1 place to work among large companies

By Sandra M. Jones, Tribune reporter
November 15, 2011

When Bob Abt took over the family appliance and electronics retail business decades ago, creating one of the best places to work was far from his mind.

"Basically, I just wanted to survive," said Abt, 73, the patriarch and CEO of Glenview-based Abt Inc.

The 75-year-old appliance and electronics company, founded by Abt's parents, not only survived but expanded, as bigger competitors — Circuit City, Incredible Universe, Polk Bros., Highland, Silo, Fretter, to name a few — have fallen by the wayside.

One reason: In a retail industry where erratic schedules, low pay and high turnover are the norm, Abt puts money and attention behind programs to keep employees engaged and motivated.

The practice boosted Abt to the No. 1 spot as the best place to work among large companies in the Chicago Tribune's Top Workplaces survey.

Abt gained high marks for giving its workers financial incentives to perform, funding employees' ideas to improve the business and allowing workers the latitude to make their own decisions, according to a survey of employees conducted by WorkplaceDynamics LLC, an Exton, Pa.-based consultancy.

Many Abt workers told WorkplaceDynamics they liked their jobs because they felt "appreciated" and "respected." Several praised the company for accommodating flexible schedules so they could spend time with their families. Others commended the Abt family — Bob and his four sons: Mike, 48; Rick, 46; Jon, 43; and Billy, 41 — for being accessible and willing to listen to new ideas.

Bob Abt in particular received kudos for walking the sales floor every day, knowing many of the 1,050 employees by name and adapting quickly to changes in the marketplace.

"A big thing is giving everybody incentives," said Abt.

Twenty-five years ago Abt employed an installer who was really good, and then all of the sudden things didn't get done, Abt said. The installer wasn't completing his scheduled runs. Delivery items were breaking. And customers were calling about problems with the installations. When Abt asked the installer what was going on, the employee said bluntly, "I get paid by the hour, so what the (expletive) do I care?" Abt recalled.

From that moment on, Abt put a bonus plan in place. Today, all employees — from delivery truck drivers to call-center operators to top sales associates — are on a bonus system, paid three times a year, if they do their jobs well. Incentives total 5 to 15 percent of base pay.

Abt invests more time and expense in training its workers than most retailers, said George Whalin, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based retail consultant who profiled Abt in his book "Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America."

"I've had great conversations with the cashiers there," said Whalin. "They are pleasant, not surly, and they enjoy their job. If you have people who love doing what they're doing, customers are going to love the store."

Abt Inc. began in 1936 as Abt Radio operating in a small storefront in Logan Square. Today it operates a 350,000-square-foot facility on 37 acres in north suburban Glenview. The complex houses a warehouse, offices, cafeteria, health club and a woodworking shop where Abt builds its own display cases.

The main 85,000-square-foot showroom has been called the "Bellagio" of retail, referring to the lavish Las Vegas resort, and features a 7,500-gallon aquarium surrounded by rows of appliances, TVs and mobile electronics. Separate rooms are devoted to custom kitchens and home theaters. And a sunny atrium is filled with high-end boutiques, such as an Apple store, a gourmet appliance shop and a luxury watch area.

Rebecca McShea, a 10-year veteran, said Bob Abt has let her spend money to improve the Gourmet Shop "without push-back." She splurged on a display of 25 KitchenAid mixers in every color to bolster the kitchen boutique's luxury image and advocated carrying $3,000 coffee makers, believing they would sell. (They did.)

"The physical atmosphere is beautiful," McShea said. "Most retailers just have shelves. But the upkeep of this store is incredible."

Abt doesn't disclose sales, but industry estimates put the retailer's annual revenue at more than $300 million. There is talk of opening a second location in Bolingbrook to capture shoppers from Chicago's west and southwest suburbs.

When, or if, the second store will be built has yet to be decided, Abt said. But he and his sons will do what it takes to keep Abt growing, he said.

"We're always changing," Abt said.

Copyright © 2011 Tribune Company. All Rights Reserved.

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