Glancing through the paper today I noticed a small article in Business Insider announcing the closing of 1784 Radio Shacks by March 31st, 2015 due in part to an agreement with creditors involved in the Tandy Corps bankruptcy.
To me this is very sad news as I have personal history with the company. I was hired as a sales clerk in 1977 and was later promoted to be the manager of store #6152 for the Tandy Corporation. It was my first taste of corporate life and it was an “electric” experience.
For those of you not familiar with Radio Shack, it was a toy store for nerds, where pocket protectors were required as were talks of the merits of filtering circuitry on unregulated 12 volt power supplies. It was a place to grab rolls of 60% lead solder to go with the “cap” you just replaced on the neighbor’s radio. In 1977, miniaturization was just beginning and many devices still had tubes. Strange pieces of plastic called transistors and diodes with tiny wire hairs were being introduced for use on circuit boards. There was talk of logic boards and miniature circuits, that could control relays and switches with preprogrammed instructions.
I rapidly climbed through the sales ranks of Tandy. It was a company built on marketing. Many remember coming in monthly for a free C, D, or 9 volt battery, it was called the “Battery Club” and we punched the members card for each battery provided. The other method of Tandy’s marketing was their obsession to get the address of every customer that came in the door, so we could send them a sales flyer. People hated to give out their address because they knew we would end up putting them on our mailing list multiple times, but the company loved it and tracked employee’s efficiency in obtaining those names.
A 70% name and address completion rate was considered a very good percentage. I was normally at about 60%. But one magical month, through some crazy clerical error, my store came up with a score of 100%. The company was ecstatic. My Regional Manager got a letter from Charles Tandy himself, congratulating him on his group’s performance. He in turn congratulated my District Manager who in gratitude promoted me to a better store. Everyone knew the percentage was baloney, but no one wanted to admit it. Unfortuantely the poor sucker who followed me as the new manager at my old store turned in a 25% completion rate on his first month (probably because the system corrected itself) and he resigned in disgrace. I had learned a key business lesson that has stuck with me over the years – Move fast when lightning strikes, because the tree it hit is normally on fire!
It was at the same time that Radio Shack released the TRS-80, utilizing the Z-80 processor featuring a mighty 4k of Ram. It ran on version of “Basic” developed by Bill Gates on which programs could be written and then stored on a cassette tape.
By 1980 it was the hottest computer on the market and competed with the Commodore 64 and the Apple computer, outselling them by a margin of three to one. The TRS-80 was being sold to businesses and schools. Store managers hunkered down to try to learn how to run them. (Surprisingly, there was no instructional classes for the employees and we were basically told to ignore the computers and stick to selling CB radios) It was that type of attitude that doomed the TRS-80. Management never believed in the market and technical advances were shelved. Apple computer captured the youth with the introduction of a color monitor, despite the fact the computer had to be hooked up to the families color TV. (A monitor was not included with the first Apples and they burned up a number of family televisions with a burned in image of “Pong”!)
By the end of 1980 my career as a Radio Shack Manager was ending, caused by an excessively large stocking of stuffed black poodle radios ordered for a Christmas Season (They were featured on the sales flyer at 40% off the normal $12.99 price and I thought we would sell thousands). However the good news was, I had put 10% of my salary into the company stock purchase plan. Thanks to a 100% company match when purchasing Tandy Stock and a stock market that doubled the stock price, causing a stock split on three different occasions. I made enough money to go back to college and graduate.
Based on the experience I gained at Radio Shack and even though I took a few college courses in Fortran programing, I “knew” the computer industry was only a fad and could never be taken seriously. I took my college degree and went to work for the “hot” restaurant industry. Country Kitchen recruited me and taught me the value of a Bootlegger – a cheese and bacon hamburger with “Special Sauce”.
Luckily I still knew how to get customers names and addresses, so my new corporate career flourished and I quickly moved on.