The consumer technology industry lost a true legend this weekend. Former JVC executive VP/COO and Akai chairman Harry Elias passed away Sunday evening.
Elias, a beloved industry icon among retailers and manufacturers alike, is survived by his wife of 56 years, Gladys, three children, and two grandchildren.
He was in his late 80s according to a family member.
He spent 37 years at JVC, where he was the American face of the Japanese company. He was named executive VP in 1990 and added the title of COO in 1995. He was named JVC's honorable chairman in March 2003 after stepping down from his COO post, one of few Americans at the time to reach such high status within a Japanese company.
Elias followed his JVC years with a brief stint as chairman of Akai and was inducted into the CT Hall of Fame in 2005.
In addition to his duties with JVC, Elias was past chairman of the Consumer Electronics Association's (now CTA) video division and was a CTA board member. He was also on the board of directors of Bio-Reference Laboratories.
He was honored by the UJA-Federation, Consumer Electronics Division during the organization’s celebration of its silver anniversary, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) awarded him the first Patricia Rienzi Legacy Award. He was a tireless supporter of the ADL, and served as Dinner Chair in 1988, 1989, 1990, 1999 and 2000. He was honored with ADL’s B’nai B’rith “Torch of Liberty” Award in 1983 and later received a “Special Recognition” award from the League. In addition to ADL recognition, musician Tito Puente presented Harry with the Ballet Hispanico Award in 1988, and in 1993 the organization presented him with its Man of the Year Award.
Elias also accepted an Emmy Award on behalf of JVC in 2001 for outstanding achievement in technological advancement for Pioneering Development of Consumer Camcorders.
Elias was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., starting out as a salesman for Vim's electronics store in Brooklyn. He eventually opened his own store on Nostrand Avenue and Fulton Street called Houseland. According to Elias, the store was looted and destroyed during a riot. After that he decided to move to Florida and open another store. A short time later, a local JVC salesman told him that he had been promoted to head the New York City area and that the Brooklyn territory was open. Elias said he was skeptical that he could carry a bag and work outside, but his wife Gladys loved the idea of him working five days a week at a 9-to-5 job.
In Elias' words: "It was a commission job only. The first two weeks I didn't sell anything. I got nothing but complaints from my friendly dealers. Not one single order. I was getting ready to quit. But by the third week one of my accounts placed a $3,000 order, I got 2 percent, 60 bucks. At the end of that day I did about $8,000 in business and I made 160 bucks that day. From that day on I was on my way."
Elias was a quintessential storyteller and addressed his experience of climbing the corporate ladder at JVC thusly: "After two years there was an opening to become the New York City sales area representative, and to this day I can't tell you why I took it. At that point I was still a commission-only salesman making around $21,000 a year. Management offered me the job and told me that the salary would be $15,000. I said, 'What other compensation would I get?' They said, 'That's it.' I told them that being a manager is fine, but money is money and it was a $6,000 pay cut. They came back and said, 'But Harry, you'll get a salary now, and you'll become a manager." I called home and told my wife that I took the job, but didn't tell her about the money. Well, as I'm driving home I say to myself, 'No other Jewish guy from Brooklyn would ever accept a deal like this.' I get home, I open the door, the kids are all excited and Gladys has a bottle of wine ready to open. In her own mind she's already spent my new 'raise.' I didn't look too good, so after a few minutes she asks me what's wrong. I tell her about the salary. She's silent for a couple of seconds and says, 'I'm a Puerto Rican from New York and up until now I used to think that Jews were smart. No Puerto Rican in his right mind would take that deal!' At any rate I think things eventually turned out pretty well."
On his time at JVC: "Service was the key. I used to deliver most of the merchandise the same day, because I was afraid they were going to cancel the order! I figured Panasonic and Sony would get it. Some dealers would keep me waiting an hour or so, because the guy from RCA or Zenith would be in. I used to go to the credit manager in Maspeth, Queens, show the orders, pack my car, go back to Brooklyn and deliver the product. One piece, two pieces, I didn't mind. I'd tell them, 'Don't mail your check in. I know when it's due. I'll come over to pick it up.' So I'd save them a stamp, but by doing that I'd pick up a check and get another order. It was personal service to have people believe in you because, back then, nobody knew JVC.”
Former TWICE editor-in-chief Steve Smith, a longtime friend of Elias, commented: “The industry has lost an icon. Harry Elias established JVC as a major A/V brand in the U.S. and was a champion of independent dealers. He was a student of CE retailing, because he started his career as [a tech dealer] in Brooklyn, N.Y. Over the years he preached service and profitability to independent dealers and the industry in general, and that philosophy helped both JVC and its dealers grow profitably. Harry also donated his time to charities the industry supported, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the United Jewish Appeal, and was an active member of the Consumer Technology Association. My condolences to his family and many friends. He was a mensch.”
Smith added: "Harry regularly made unannounced trips to retail stores nationwide as a consumer, not only to see how JVC products were being displayed and sold, but how the stores looked, how store traffic was and if the salespeople in the store were effective or not. Harry preached for years two main points that over and over proved to be correct: 1. Retailers should sell products profitably because ‘you can’t live on sales volume alone,’ and 2. Retailers should avoid going public because ‘Wall Street will force you to expand, whether you like it or not,’ and overexpansion will usually kill a retail chain.”
Elias' words proved prescient. “The key to my success over the years," Elias said, "was developing a strong dealer network. We supported them and they supported us. I always told our dealers, ‘Don’t over-expand,’ especially if you have to take Wall Street’s money, because then you no longer own your own business.”
Fellow industry legend Lois Whitman, who worked with Elias for "most of [her] 51-year career," commented: "Harry was one of a kind. While he had no real business pedigree he was one of the smartest, savviest executives to ever work in this business. He was the guiding light to the JVC executives back in Japan. He was Japanese without even knowing it and made JVC a brand to contend with."
Whitman continued: "The thing about Harry was, he was the real deal. He took the time to get to know his clients. He got to know their families. He went to the store openings, the anniversary parties, even the weddings and Bar Mitzvahs of their kids. He was as genuine as they come. He made so, so many people rich but he lived a very modest lifestyle. He was not in this business for the money, he was in it for the passion. He is the last of an era."
Recent CT Hall of Fame inductee Marcia Grand added: "Just thinking back to some of the so many conversations we've had, I'm thinking of him in my head using my own Harry Elias voice impersonation – as I'm sure so many others are doing. The most impersonated person in the industry. Such a great guy; a spectacular promoter who was far larger than life. He will be missed”.
Noted CTA president CEO Gary Shapiro: "He was an industry legend, served on the CTA Board of Industry Leaders and always had ideas on how to make us better."
Added journalist Ron Goldberg: "Iconic is a word that gets overused, but that’s what he was."
Mike Mohan, chief merchandising and marketing officer of Best Buy had this to say of Elias: “We were very sad to hear of Harry’s passing. He was a longtime partner, supporter and friend of Best Buy’s and played an important role in helping us become the retailer we are today. We, along with the rest of the consumer electronics industry, will miss Harry greatly."
At one of many industry tributes, Gloria Steinem had this to say, summing up Elias in a nutshell: “Harry was one of the few, maybe the only executive, who wasn’t full of shit. When he said he was going to do something, he did it.”
Reporting by Steve Smith and Stewart Wolpin