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Abt Electronics: The Business, The Family

Jeff O'Heir

Visit Abt Electronics in Glenview, IL., for the first time and you'll be overwhelmed with a dominant feeling: jealousy.

Mike and Billy Abt

Walk through the 350,000-square-foot facility—past the full patio kitchen solution outside the entrance, through the mobile electronics section, by the hundreds of appliances and flat panels and audio products, past the famous fish tank and into the mall atrium, anchored by a large fountain and surrounded by stand-alone boutique CE, watch, gourmet and kitchen stores—you keep asking yourself: "Why couldn't there be an Abt in my community?" If only we could all be so lucky.

Mike Abt, part of the third generation of Chicago's first family of CE, has a simple answer: if the company opened multiple locations in different states, it wouldn't be able to focus on the Glenview store and remain as active as it is in the surrounding communities. The family has gotten plenty of offers to expand. But why risk something that could weaken the core.

"People have always been willing to drive here. If we had a second store we wouldn't be able to focus on this," Mike said. "But we know we could run another store."

Seeing that there are several stores within a store at Abt (including stand-alone Apple, Sony, and Bang & Olufsen boutiques in the atrium), there's no reason at this stage to complicate things. Besides, Abt established a national presence as one of the early pioneers of online retailing and has constantly optimized the site, integrating the latest Web 2.0 tools to replicate the same type of "customer service" online that customers have grown used to at the store.

"We focus on the basic things our grandparents focused on," Mike said, referring to Dave and Jewel Abt, who founded the business 87 years ago.

"We're very much part of the community. We like who we are today." A lot of other people do too, making Abt Electronics a worthy and overdue inductee to Dealerscope's 2009 Hall of Fame. Abt fits all the criteria of a hall-of-fame retailer (the CEA inducted David and Jewel into the CE Hall of Fame last fall): longevity, innovation, the right product focus and presentation, commitment to the community and, at least in Abt's case, a strong sense of environmental awareness.

"In a world of sameness in retail, I'd say that Abt Electronics, better than anyone, has defined event retailing, meaning that what they have developed throughout the store is unduplicated in the industry," said Dave Workman, executive director of the PRO Group, the buying group that counts Abt Electronics as a member. "I think it's the single finest shopping experience found anywhere in the U.S. It's an incredibly fun place to shop."

David and Jewel opened their first store, Abt Radio, in 1936, two years after they married, and constantly grew the business. David passed away in 1996 and Jewel died in 2003. Their son, Bob, along with his sons, Jon, Billy, Ricky and Mike, who serves as the face of the company, run the business today. They opened the current location about seven years ago.

The Abts don't break out sales figures, but Mike said consumer electronics make up about 45 percent of the sales, with appliances accounting for about 55 percent. Online sales account for about 12 percent of the business, which Mike expects to increase to about 15 percent in a few years.

Besides being in the forefront of online sales, Abt Electronics was one of the few regional retailers early on to recognize the power of full-blown customizable back-end software systems, which has helped the company streamline and/or eliminate many of its manual processes. "There has been 500 of those little things it has allowed us to do," Mike said.

The company, under Mike's direction, has also been in the forefront of the green movement, having won a number of awards for its clean environment initiatives. Besides extensive recycling programs, Abt generates its own power from natural gas co-generators and recently installed two windmills and a field of solar panels on the roof to produce more clean energy. The company also maintains its own fleet of trucks to prevent wasteful trips to outside mechanics, and is currently testing a hydrogen-fueled truck.

All of those initiatives make up a business that any community would be proud to support. But, for now at least, you'll have to travel to Glenview to experience it.

"Through three generations, it's really been one store," Mike said. "We're a family business. We all watch over it, we all take care of it, we all love it."

Copyright ©2009, North American Publishing Company, All Rights Reserved.