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Two of a Kind, Bob & Bill

Bob Lawrence of BrandSource and Bill Trawick of NATM have successfully led their respective organizations during the most difficult period in the history of electronics/appliance retailing with courage, leadership and innovation, rare qualities in any endeavor, especially this business.

Even though their backgrounds and personal styles of management were different, the challenges they faced and their successful results were similar.

They got their jobs at the buying groups during a period when they not only had to contend with the dominance of national chains, but also with a new type of competitor: Internet retailers. It was also during a time when key categories in CE and major appliances evolved dramatically and/or disappeared, as did many of the triedand- true suppliers that independent dealers had relied on for decades.

For years, getting the best deal, or a deal comparable to what national accounts were getting, was the key to being a successful buying group executive. By the time Bob and Bill took the reins of their groups, times had changed, and getting a good deal was just about a given; they had to deliver much more than that to be successful.

While both men had successful careers before getting involved in buying groups, they came at it from different perspectives — Lawrence as a Maytag manager, and Trawick as a retailer with P.C. Richard & Son and Conn’s.

Bob, based in Southern California, is always the more laid back of the two guys. Bill, even when he was at Conn’s in Texas, has always been a New Yorker. While they may differ in style they have in common in another quality — honesty — which is not only highly valued by their groups’ members and vendors, but treasured by the media, which they welcomed to their meetings.

About the media being “welcomed” by buying groups over the years, to be honest, when I first started covering this business in the mid-1980s, the press was tolerated as a necessary evil at best.

Both men, along with several other heads of industry buying groups which have departed or are still with us, embraced the role of the industry media in the past two decades. That helped us in the trade press, but more importantly it got the word out to independents about industry trends and helped convince them that joining a buying group might help their businesses.

Another thing that both men had in common in their years leading buying groups was the appreciation of the bottom line. You had to make a profit. I know … a strange concept in this business, yet both were on the record preaching this elemental strategy to anyone in the industry willing to listen. They searched for product lines, services and product niches, especially in the past several years, which could be sold profitably by their members.

And, from the 1990s to the 2000s through today, as national brick-and-mortar retailers got bigger and Internet retailing more powerful, both men emphasized having a buying group act as if it was one national retailer that suppliers would want to partner with.

As TWICE’s Alan Wolf reported Trawick saying during NATM’s Dallas meeting this September, “We’ve always looked at NATM as having one voice. You can’t win if we’re 10 voices.”

That’s why Bob Lawrence and his team came up with the BrandSource strategy in 2000.

When Bob took over the Associated Volume Buyers (AVB) two decades ago, it was one of several regional buying groups consisting of plenty of mom- ’n-pops and some small electronics/appliance chains that were mostly situated on the West Coast and in the Southwest. I remember attending one of AVB’s first meetings when Bob took over in 1994 and innocently asked – since personal computers were very hot back then – whether or not the group was going to enter that category. Bob laughed as I recall, and bluntly said, “Computers? We have a hard time having some members carrying TVs and projection TVs!”

Well, Bob got more of his members to carry TVs and carry plenty more CE products. He also attracted plenty more members with a series of innovations, including the creation of BrandSource as a unified brand for independents, which was the most significant.

Around that time I began to hear the phrase at any buying group meeting I covered, “This is like herding cats!” Why? Buying groups are made up of independent retailers that have their own pointed views on their brands and markets. For instance, some incorrectly thought the BrandSource program would take their brand name – or family name – off their storefront. That took some explanation in the early days.

Later on, Lawrence saw the custom-installation business as a growth area for his members and created the Home Entertainment Source (HES) division. He eventually partnered with the key buying group in that segment, PRO Group, creating today’s ProSource.

He also considers the in-house Expert Warehouse distribution network among his top accomplishments, and I agree.

In my experience, both guys are straight shooters. For instance, the first time I finally got Bill on the phone was in the mid-1980s, back in the days when I was the electronics section editor of Home Furnishings Daily (HFD).

HFD did a top CE retail listing back in those days, like TWICE’s current Top 100. Reliable retail data back then was unheard of and to get the numbers you had to not only speak to the retailers, but talk with their suppliers (off the record), examine historical and current retail trends … and make some murky guesses which were always a last resort.

The P.C. Richard number we estimated for one year didn’t make sense to us, and finally Bill took one of my many calls. We had never met and he was blunt and straight up, which didn’t bother me because I’m from Brooklyn. “Are you going to publish real numbers this time?” The implication wasn’t flattering.

I said, “All we want are accurate numbers. What do you have?” Bill countered, “Before I give you anything, check The Wiz numbers,” referring to the famous, now-departed, New York metro area CE retailer. “Whatever they gave you is 40 percent software and not CE.” The HFD list was, like TWICE’s Top 100 Retailers Report, only supposed to reflect annualized sales of CE hardware.

We checked out The Wiz numbers with sources, and checked with them directly. Bill was right. The Wiz numbers included tapes, CDs and pre-recorded video (no DVDs back then).

I didn’t tell Bill the CE hardware sales figure for The Wiz when I called him back, but he gave us the P.C. Richard sales total, warning that if The Wiz number was not accurate in our report, HFD would not speak with P.C. Richard again.

The numbers must have been accurate because at HFD, and later here TWICE, we always had good communications with Bill and P.C. Richard & Son from then on.

NATM has always been and continues to be a buying group of anywhere from 10 to 15 regional players who dominate their markets. Some have had national aspirations. Best Buy, Circuit City, hhgregg and Conn’s, among others, were members over the years. NATM has historically consisted of retailers who are consistent volume sales performers.

You would think that Trawick, who this year marks his 50th anniversary in the business, would have had an easy time of it 15 years ago. And you’d be wrong.

While the smallest retailers and even Best Buy, Sears and RadioShack were hurt were hurt by the Great Recession, Internet retailing and changing technologies, and arch-nemesis Circuit City disappeared, NATM remained consistent.

The group did not go unscathed during Trawick’s tenure. But during the storm he was blunt in his assessments of what was wrong with the industry, and what could turn it around, and he piloted a strong course for the group.

Thanks to Bob and Bill, independent retailers – real local entrepreneurs who in many cases are not publicly owned – are still a vibrant and viable retail channel for the CE and appliance sectors. For this the industry, and dare I say our economy, is in their debt. That is because while national retailers are great places for consumers to buy those products, at their best independent retailers sell them profitably, and also teach employees how to run their own businesses, versus being a greeter at a chain store.

The typical statement at a time like this is to say, “We won’t see their likes again,” etc., etc. But both groups have plenty of execs who have learned from Bob and Bill what works and what doesn’t in this business.

I’m sure that the hard-fought lessons Bob and Bill have learned, and the integrity they have shown in their careers, will not be forgotten by their co-workers and successors.

I personally wish both gentlemen health and happiness as the move on to the next chapters in their lives. They will be missed.