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Office Space: Jon and Mike Abt, Abt

Brotherly love abounds at Glenview electronics and appliance store

June 25, 2012 | Kristin Samuelson

When four brothers and their dad run an electronics and appliance store, anything's apt to happen.

"I come in here some mornings, the door's shut, and I open it up and one of my brothers is in here doing something," Jon Abt said of his office at Abt Electronics in Glenview, where he and his three brothers serve as presidents.

"People come in here for changing their hearing aid battery, changing their clothes," said Mike Abt, the co-president who shares the office with Jon.

"Yeah, I've definitely walked in here with people in their underwear and I'm like, 'What's going on?'" Jon added, laughing.

A pretty indispensable place, considering the ribbing Jon and Mike take for it.

"They're like, 'You're wasting your time,'" Mike, the eldest, said of brothers Ricky and Billy, who prefer to sit in cubicles in the customer service area outside their office. "We used to make fun of the kids when we were growing up who played office, and now all of a sudden, me and Jon are the office guys."

Their office is one nerve center in Abt's 350,000-square-foot, two-story building, which includes a 100,000-square-foot showroom, customer service center, warehouse and attached minimall, with stores for Apple, Bang & Olufsen and other electronics brands. Coming soon are 8,000 square feet of additional retail space on the second floor for mattresses and bedding.

"The most interesting thing I've ever heard was, it doesn't matter how much talent you have; usually the family business will do better than the corporate guy from Stanford business school because they know and care about the business," Mike said of the close-knit environment. "Who would you want? The Stanford business guy or the schleppy brother who got a 'D' in calculus?"

"Hey, I got A's in calculus," Jon, the second youngest, chimed in.

"I was referring more to Ricky," Mike said, laughing.

The walls of their office are white, with holes that need to be patched. Jon doesn't recall where or when he acquired some of the sports memorabilia on his desk, such as the football and baseball, or who signed them. It's clear the two haven't spent much time spiffying up the place since 2002, when they moved into their building.

"I was the black sheep brother holdout in the family for a long time," said Jon, who "had a real career" in California, working for the Grammy Foundation, A&M Records and DTS, a surround-sound technology company, before being reeled back into the fold in 2001. Hanging above Jon's desk is a framed and signed poster from the "Grammy Showcase," a pre-"American Idol" contest Jon created to help new bands land record deals.

"Only Rick wanted to work here. All of us wanted nothing to do with it other than to come visit dad, grandma and grandpa and say, 'Hi,'" Mike said of Abt's founders, David and Jewel Abt. A black-and-white framed photo of the couple dancing is all that hangs on the wall between the brothers' identical wooden desks next to the window.

"The general rule for all of us was, you had to go to college, and then once you graduated, if you did want to come to the business, you had to work somewhere else before … just to understand what it's like not to work for the family business," Jon said.

"I was frightened, to be honest, to work with my family," Jon said. "I wanted to love my family. I'd come home for Thanksgiving and all they'd talk about was work."

Jon's in charge of Abt's e-commerce business. He also redesigned the company's website, which Mike admits was a "static, cartoony" image under his direction.

Framed printouts of the site's evolution hang on a wall next to a signed and framed copy ofPearl Jam'sdebut album, "Ten." It was Jon's gift for participating in a panel on live chatting at an Internet retail conference last year.

He's somewhat of an expert, popping in on Abt's live chats with customers.

"My father loves to listen to phone calls to see if (employees) are answering calls correctly," Jon said of Bob Abt, CEO of the retailer his parents founded in 1936 who works seven days a week. "I like to either fix the problem as it happens or teach them for next time."

In his pre-Abt days, Mike put his bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Colorado and year of medical school in Vermont to work variously as an emergency medical technician, biology teacher and ski instructor in Aspen, Colo. Mike, an environmentalist, is the one behind the windmills on Abt's front lawn. (The fountain in the minimall was the father's idea, borrowed from Steve Wynn, the man behind the Bellagio and Mirage hotels and casinos in Las Vegas. Ditto the 7,500-gallon fish tank in the showroom.)

Jon and his brothers welcome their employees to the family too, empowering them to make decisions, such as offering discounts and punctuating that with signs around the store that say: "The answer is 'yes' to any reasonable request."

That, and their open-door policy.

"Nine times out of 10, unless someone's changing, our office door is open," Jon said with a laugh.

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