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Abt Electronics Thrives on Values, Family Ties

By Stephanie Brightharp (Medill News Service)
February 13, 2002

Being part of the family's electronics business wasn't Michael Abt's original plan. He wanted to be a doctor.

Now, as the third-generation president of Abt Electronics in Morton Grove, 38-year-old Mike Abt is sewing up profits rather than wounds.

While Mike's dad Robert is still the chief executive officer, Mike and his three brothers run the various departments of Abt Electronics, which they say is the largest single-store electronics retail operation in the country.

They started out sweeping the warehouse in their youth, but the family "didn't force" working in the then small electronics store, which was started by his grandparents Jewel and David Abt in 1936 with three employees near Logan Square on Chicago's Northwest Side.

Eager to set out on his own, he followed the family's rule of trying something else for at least one year before deciding whether to work for Abt Electronics.

After graduating from the University of Colorado, Mike entered medical school, but he stayed only a year.

Now, three years into the president's position, he smiles brightly while wondering what some of his medical school friends think about "selling electronics."

For the 940 Abt employees, it's much bigger than that. It's an exciting line of work that constantly changes, according to Mike.

The next big change comes April 1 when the company moves into a new Glenview showroom, about eight miles from the current location. This larger 350,000-square-foot building is three times larger than its current space, thanks in part because of the store's growing Internet department.

Inside the current store, representatives for the company walk among the high-end appliances while customer service personnel are poised behind the counter, on a mission for Abt with their dark uniforms and electronic head-gear, waiting to take calls.

Mike fills his days with meetings, dealing with finances, selling, purchasing and "alternative advertising." Brother Billy takes care of the sales floor and newspaper advertising, Ricky is in charge of customer service and the truck fleet and Jon is in charge of Internet sales.

"We all overlap. We're all equal, but I'm the one that watches the bottom line," Mike said. And the numbers he's watching are strong.

"Sales always go up at least 10 percent each year," Mike said. Last year, despite the recession, sales were up 20 percent compared with 2000, except in the service department, Mike said.

Nevertheless, the service department is key to keeping customers and the store is able to offer superior service "because everything happens under this roof," said Randy Goldman, a general manager, who worked for another electronics retailer before coming to Abt three years ago.

"We can deal with problems right here so there is a higher level of flexibility and not a lot of red tape involved," Goldman said.

The company has 50 trucks, 38 custom-installation vans and 46 service vans that make more than 6,000 service calls and deliveries each week.

The store gets 90 percent of its business from repeat and referred customers.

The wall of fame in the rear of the store tells the family success story in pictures and includes a customer named Michael Jordan.

The most recent accolade comes from Bizrate.com, which ranked Abt as one of the 24 best Internet retailers during the recent holiday season. Abt launched its Internet showroom about the same time Mike became president.

"Everyone said, 'Don't do it," said Mike with a smile. But after the initial period of slow sales, customers began to "embrace it quickly," he said.

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