My Father’s Unexpected Gift

Mike Abt, Abt Electronics

March 13, 2017

Abt Electronics was founded in 1936 by my grandparents. In the midst of the depression, David and Jewel Abt pooled their total savings of $800 to open a small storefront in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

My father, who passed away last year, started working full time at the family electronics store in 1953 and eventually took over the business. He and my grandparents were both Evergreen before there was a term for it. While the world has changed around us, we’ve stuck to their core values: Treat your employees and your customers like family, and you can grow on your own without needing to look for outside investors. Today, our employee family totals over 1,450.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been hard times. The consumer electronics landscape has changed dramatically over the past 15 years. Thanks to Amazon and the internet in general, you can order anything you want, from toilet paper to a 60-inch flat-screen television, without leaving your house.

Consumers who venture out are likely to visit a big-box store like Sears or Best Buy if they want electronics.

My father and I had to adjust to these very real competitors over the years, but we did it in a way that always kept our customers and our employees at the center of our universe.

If you’ve been to a big-box store lately, you may have noticed the customer service was, shall we say, lacking. That’s because these stores have become so focused on the returns they are giving their investors that they’ve forgotten about the people who are their front line in any transaction.

We’ve countered that by empowering our salespeople. If someone walks in and shows a lower price, our employees can make the right decision without involving a manager. We give them the space to really help customers because their bonuses aren’t solely based on sales. Showing up on time and going above and beyond to offer our customers great service is reason for a bonus.

For example, on the Saturday before the Super Bowl, we had three separate people come in and buy flat-screen televisions for the game. Instead of the usual next-day delivery, our salespeople delighted the customers by offering same-day delivery to make sure the televisions were set up and working in time for the big game. This was easy to arrange because our salespeople didn’t have to ask a manager or owner before they made the offer. They know if it’s good for the customer, we’ll always back it up.

My father also insisted that we pay our employees more than our competitors pay their people. This helps make them feel that they are part of the Abt family. We’re able to do this because we keep every aspect of our business in-house. People will tell you that outsourcing is cheaper but not when it comes at the expense of quality.

We have our own drivers, servicemen, repairmen, gas station, woodshop and solar panels, and we even have our own backup generator. So, if something goes wrong — and in real life things can go wrong — we have someone right there to fix it or make it right. Our builders can make a custom stand for a television or a panel to help a refrigerator look nice if the space around it is too big.

Not only does this save money and time because we don’t have to track down contractors when something goes wrong, but it also maintains our reputation for excellent service and keeps customers coming back.

The proof is in the numbers and in the multiple awards we have won over the years — the Better Business Bureau’s Award for Market Place Ethics in 2017, Chicago’s Top Workplaces in 2016 and Top Places to Shop in the 2016 Consumer Reports magazine, to name a few. In 2016, our revenues grew 7% while revenues at other electronics companies declined.

Watching my father spend his lifetime putting our family’s core values into practice makes it easier for us to lead our business today. We watched, we learned, and we grew. But, his last action will ensure that we never lose track of who he was and what he taught us.

Soon after my father passed, my brothers and I learned that he had taken out a second life insurance policy we knew nothing about. But this policy wasn’t for us or our families or to handle any tax requirements. Instead, he had taken out the $10 million policy on behalf of our employees who had been with us two years or more. Almost everyone received a check worth $4,000 or $8,000 as a final gift from my father. The outpouring of gratitude and words of kindness for my father and our family left me in tears.

As we continue to grow this third-generation company, the memory of my remarkable father motivates us every day to be better and do better. To the very end, he put People First and trusted good things would happen. We will carry that core value and his wisdom with us forever.

Mike Abt is the Co-President of Abt Electronics.

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