Glenview, Ill. — Bob Abt, CEO of Chicagoland retail institution Abt Electronics, has died. He was 77.
Abt and his four sons — Michael, Ricky, Billy and Jon — ran the family's single 37-acre mega retail facility here, which has evolved and grown from several increasingly larger locations since founded by Abt's parents, David and Jewel, as a small radio store in Chicago's Logan Square in 1936.
A CE Hall of Fame dealer and winner of multiple awards, including the Better Business Bureau’s Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics and several TWICE Retailer Of The Year Awards, Abt ran one of the largest single-store retailers in the U.S., a pioneer in authorized CE e-tailing, and a proving ground for many CE and majap introductions.
He was a soft-spoken, self-described “average guy,” known as a creative genius with a gift for marketing and merchandising.
Abt Electronics cultivated a sterling reputation for service, competitive prices on a wide selection of premium consumer electronics and major appliances, and its vast, family-friendly showroom.
The showroom boasts product vignettes, single-brand showcase boutiques, and multiple attractions for parents and children, including a 7,500-gallon salt-water fish tank, a virtual “world” of butterflies display, and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies made onsite every weekend.
Always evolving, the NATM dealer introduced seven-day-a-week customer support and expanded its assortment to such categories as wristwatches, fashion sunglasses, gourmet cooking products, luggage, sump pumps, fitness equipment, HVAC systems, mattresses and bedding in recent years.
Retail consultant McMillan & Doolittle called Abt Electronics “a powerful case study in how to succeed as an independent.”
“Robert Abt is an innovative retailer who isn’t afraid to challenge the traditional ideas of retailing in order to succeed,” said former Illinois Retail Merchants Association's president/CEO David Vite. “Abt Electronics is a great model for how independent retailers can not only survive, but thrive in a highly competitive retail industry.”
“I’ve equated my store to Las Vegas,” Abt said in an interview in 2004. “As far as the entertainment, it’s really helped our growth a lot. Steve Wynn is my idol. People can gamble anywhere, but they want to go to Steve Wynn’s hotel.”
Besides the store's bright elegance, customer loyalty is bred by exceptional service. “We really try hard to keep people happy, and we mostly succeed,” Abt said. “If people are happy, they’ll tell their friends about it.”
Abt’s motto is “The House That Service Built.” The logo on every Abt truck reads: “Our Goal ... Complete Satisfaction.” And its one-page customer service policy handbook simply says, “The Answer is Always ‘Yes’ to Any Reasonable Request.”
Abt grew up sweeping floors at his parents' store and learning the value of hard work and customer service by watching his father. After earning a business degree from the University of Florida at Gainesville, partially funded by his own poker winnings, he went to work for Goldblatt’s Department Store. His father insisted he work for someone else for at least two years. It remains a family rule.
He would eventually succeed his father after convincing him that a larger facility was needed. "I definitely gambled,” Abt said. “But I thought we had to do it. Every move we had to do. We grew out of every place. A few years ago, we were doing so much business in way too small of a space. If we didn’t move, if we didn’t find the right property here, we could have gone out of business.”
Abt succeeded in much the same way he used to win card games in his youth — by doing things just the opposite of everyone else. “I like to be different. I used to play poker and we’d play a game called high/low. You know, if everybody goes one way, you want to go the other way,” Abt explained. “We like to be different, but we definitely want to do everything by ourselves.
Abt is survived by his wife of 54 years, Alice; his sons Michael and wife Jennie, Ricky and wife Dana, Jon and wife Julie, and Billy and wife Marcy; grandchildren Jake, Austin, Willie, Jordan, Jessie, Kelly, Emily, Dylan, Marcus, Mackenzie and Coby; and sister Diane.
Services will be held Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Am Shalom, 840 Vernon Avenue, Glencoe. Condolences to immediately follow the service until 8 p.m. at Am Shalom.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be sent to For Autistic Kids, 1200 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Glenview, IL 60025.