Abt innovation helped retailer become a destination after 80 years
Bob Abt's death in 2016 was a turning point of sorts for his four sons.
The time of grief turned to energy as the next generation of owners worked to ensure that Glenview-based Abt Electronics Inc., would become the destination their father wanted.
Jon, 48, Mike, 53, Billy 46, and Ricky, 51, wanted to carry on their parents' and grandparents' legacy with enough innovation, unique products and customer care that customers would return not just time after time. They would return generation after generation.
"Our dad (Bob) was one of the most respected people in the industry," Jon said. "Death is never an easy thing and it was hard for all of us. But our father gave us the tools to succeed. He wanted his legacy to go on."
The Abt brothers, all co-presidents, unveiled their father's last dream in 2016 of the Innovation Studio with its high-end remodeling ideas. They also continued to offer unique and well-respected brands of electronics, appliances, mattresses and other products as they planned for a future with a stronger focus on furniture and some green initiatives.
Abt, which started more than 80 years ago as a small radio store in Chicago, now has more than 1,400 employees at a 37 acre campus in Glenview. It has grown on average of 10 percent each year over the last 80 years. It also grew 10 percent in 2016 over 2015, said co-President Jon Abt.
The growing retailer sells affordable and luxury products, such as a Samsung ultra-HD TV for about $150,000. Yet such luxury hasn't scared away customers. Instead, it invited them to come inside and enjoy the dream. Such a dream started for the Abts in 1936 when grandmother Jewel Abt gave her husband, David, about $800 to start a business.
"Our grandmother's brothers kicked her out of the family's produce business because they didn't want women in the business," Jon said.
Jewel wanted to have her own family business and asked her husband to do what he knew best, sell radios. Jewel and David continued to work at the store while their son, Bob, eventually took the reins. Bob continued to expand the business as it moved from the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago to Niles, Morton Grove and Glenview. David later passed away at age 91 in 1996, while Jewel died at age 96 in 2003.
Jewel had dementia during her final years, and her son Bob would continue to take her out to lunch and around the business. He wanted his mother to be as engaged as possible in the business.
Over the years, Bob continued to work long hours at the store while his four sons grew up. That third generation started training early, often starting to help at the store when they were 12 or 13 years old.
The boys loved to play hide-and-seek in the warehouse, while the employees tried to work around them, Jon recalls.
At other times, some unsold products ended up in the basement at the Abt home.
"I remember as a kid, our house was like a second warehouse, full of snowblowers, and we would bring them up and down the stairs, and store them in the basement because they didn't sell," Mike said.
However, if they talked business at the dinner table, their mother, Alice, would often just walk away.
"She didn't like it," Mike said of his mother. "She wanted us to talk about other things, to have more of a well-rounded life."
Still, they enjoyed talking about business with their father and learned about retailing.
"Dad taught us all about retail and we did that a lot just by watching him," Jon said.
Bob also taught his four sons how to keep the store fresh with new products and ideas.
"If someone had a good idea, we would go with it," Mike said. "One of the reasons we made the Top Places to Work lists was because we let our people help make the decisions."
Over the years, Abt added a variety of services, including e-commerce in 1998. Amazon was just beginning to sell products around that time and the family saw the internet as a new way to serve customers.
They also provided home delivery with their own trucks and repair services.
"People trust us, because if there's a problem of any kind, we deal with it," Mike said.
Even during economic downturns, Abt was one of the few retailers to survive and thrive by expanding repair and other services. That's when people were keeping their appliances longer.
"Even during tough times, we were hiring people," Jon said. "We never had a layoff during the recession. We did that by managing our resources."
The Glenview store became a centerpiece, featuring a 7,500-gallon saltwater aquarium, which was often used to demonstrate the image quality of cameras and camcorders for sale.
The store also offered a mini-mall design with each area focusing on specific brands, such as Apple, Bang & Olufsen and Tumi. The atrium became elegant with the addition of a fountain to give the store a touch of Las Vegas grandeur, which was one of Bob's ideas.
The company also expanded its warehouse and the parking lot. It then needed police on some days to direct traffic in and out of the lot.
In recent years, the company also began some green initiatives, such as collecting Styrofoam, plastic and metal for recycling, and using trucks that operate on natural gas instead of gasoline. More green initiatives are expected this year with solar panels on the roof. Some of those initiatives, along with the Innovation Studio, started while Bob led the company with his four sons.
After Bob died of cancer last year at age 76, his widow, Alice, 74, still visits the store and enjoys time with her 11 grandchildren, including those who work there.
Alice's four sons plan to continue the work started by their father Bob, and grandparents Jewel and David. They hope to put a stronger focus on furniture soon and unveil other plans down the road.
All those plans focus on the Glenview store. They don't want to add more stores anywhere else.
"We're trying to make this a place where people come from all of the country to see it," Mike said.
Abt Facts• Business: Electronics, mattresses and appliances for consumers
• Founded: 1936
• Founders: Jewel and David Abt
• Leadership: Co-presidents and brothers Mike, Jon, Billy and Ricky Abt
• Location: Glenview
• Employees: 1,400
• Web site: www.abt.com
• Facebook: www.facebook.com/abtelectronics
• Twitter: @abtelectronics