i3 | October 26, 2018

Give Back to the Community, Says CT Hall of Fame Inductee Bob Cole

Steve Smith

You could argue that you’d have to be crazy to open an electronics specialty store, even back in 1979, when the business was as tough for the little guy as it is today. It’s even crazier when you consider that while the protagonist in this story did have a passion for audio, he was a clinical psychologist. And more importantly he had no retail experience.

But almost 40 years later Bob Cole and his wife Karen still own and operate the award-winning World Wide Stereo, a brick-and-mortar and online retailer that includes custom integration and is based outside of Philadelphia. The operation has survived recessions, battles with big box and online retailers and a changing tech marketplace.

Cole, who turns 70 this year, has been elected into the Consumer Technology Hall of Fame and will be inducted at an awards dinner on Wednesday, November 7, at Capitale in New York. This relatively small retail operation has followed some unconventional philosophies over the years, most notably Cole’s, “Do well by doing good” mantra of giving back to the community which has also guided him and his company.

I had the opportunity to talk with Bob about his career and his business philosophy.

What are the big challenges that you had with World Wide Stereo to keep it a thriving business since 1979?

Cole: The easy answer is the big boxes such as Walmart, Costco, Best Buy, Circuit City, Silo who were all actively trying to put me out of business. Now Amazon is a metaphor for the entire [online sales] phenomenon. At the core of it has to do with greed. I’m sure there are people with these big companies who want to run a nicely structured company the right way, but there are so many companies that have a couple of guys at the top that do well and nobody gives a damn about the other people who work there. The death of Circuit City was when they got rid of all their commissioned employees. And Walmart has few full-time employees. Somebody has to drive the technology, and to the custom integrator’s point, somebody has to put it in people’s houses… so they can help [consumers] enjoy entertainment and the arts.

You’ve been involved in buying groups for years. How did you and your company benefit from joining these retail organizations?

Cole: I’m not a joiner and I was reluctant to join. But around 2000 a local competitor tried to put me out of business and the big boxes were targeting me. No one knew who we were. We floated under the radar, and I wanted it that way. At that point I decided to be more visible and I joined Home Entertainment Source [part of BrandSource] which was just starting, and I told Jim Ristow that I’d like to be on the board. I was on the board for a few years, then I moved into the PRO Group [now ProSource] and both groups merged.

One of my big “Ah-ha!” moments was when I was on the board of [Home Entertainment Source (HES)] and attended one of the big Brand Source meetings. There were roundtables with the retailers who sold dryers and vacuum cleaners. I couldn’t relate to them [about product] but I learned a lot about infrastructure and running a business. It was great. And at HES we talked mostly about best practices, not our numbers. At PRO I was shocked how open everybody was, what their numbers were, how they went to market. I learned a lot from other dealers.

When did you implement your “Do well by doing good” philosophy at World Wide Stereo?

Cole: Well it started on Day one. Remember at that time I was a clinical psychologist and the way I was brought up to give back. I always gave a percentage of my salary to charity, a significant percentage. I was a little bit of a socialist in that regard. I told my guys over the years you need to be focused on being grateful for this customer coming to us. And you have to try to improve the quality of his life. You can sell him a bunch of boxes. But instead you try to get to know him and find out what he wants with all of these boxes.  You may be able to give him a better experience and improve the quality of his life. And that is “doing well by doing good,” because he is going to give you money for doing that.

And he is going to come back. That has been the foundation of my business from the beginning and that’s how I trained everyone, no matter their position. It makes life better with one another by doing well by doing good.

In terms of the community I have done whatever I could. I can write somebody a $10,000 check or I can provide them with a $10K product at my cost, install it and seriously improve the quality of their lives. A good example of that is the St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, its Pediatric Oncology Unit. The kids there are facing stuff they should never have to face. I built a theater. No big deal, not a crazy thing, but it was certainly easier for me to do it than for them to do. I got some manufactures to contribute and I contributed myself.

The first Christmas morning after the theater opened get a text from the head nurse. I saved the text. She wrote, “I just want you to know that I’m sitting here with a bunch of children who are a facing what no child should have to face, and they all are watching a movie in the theater. And they all have smiles on their faces.”

That is what “do well by doing good” is all about and is a major reason why Bob Cole will be inducted into the Consumer Technology Hall of Fame. For more information on the honorees and the event, go to CTA.tech.

September/October 2018 i3 Cover Issue

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