Wurtzel, Samuel & Wurtzel, Alan L.
Wurtzel, Samuel & Wurtzel, Alan L.
Circuit City Stores Inc.
Father and son Samuel S. Wurtzel and Alan L. Wurtzel propelled the Circuit City Stores into a conglomerate specializing in consumer electronics, digital video programming, music software, and automobile sales. Today it is the United States' largest retailer of brand name consumer electronics and appliances. This remarkable growth started from the single store founded by Samuel S. Wurtzel in Richmond, Virginia, in 1949.
Samuel S. Wurtzel was born in Sea Bright, New Jersey, March 2, 1907, the son of Jacob and Flora Wurtzel. He was an accounting student at the Pace School, at City College, and New York University. He married Ruth Mann in 1932. They had two sons, Alan and David. Samuel Wurtzel died in 1985.
Alan L. Wurtzel, the older son, was born in Mount Vernon, New York, September 23, 1933. He received his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College in 1955. He did postgraduate work at the London School of Economics from 1955 to 1956. Alan earned his law degree from Yale University in 1959, graduating with honors. He was admitted to the Connecticut bar in 1959, the Washington, D.C., bar in 1960, and the Virginia bar in 1968. Wurtzel worked as a law clerk for Chief Judge David L. Bazelon of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. From 1960 to 1966, he was an associate of a Washington law firm, and served from 1965 to 1966 as the legislative assistant to Senator Joseph Tydings. In 1988, Wurtzel married Irene C. Rosenberg. His children from a previous marriage are Judith Halle, Daniel Henry, and Sharon Lee.
Both men belonged to numerous local organizations. Sam was on the board of directors of both the Richmond Area Community Council and the Greater Richmond Community Foundation. Father and son were both involved in the local Jewish community, serving as members of the board of directors of the Jewish Community Center. Sam also served as the president of the Richmond Jewish Community Council. Alan Wurtzel has been involved in numerous boards and committees on the topic of education. He was a trustee of Oberlin College, the director of the Washington Educational Television Association, a member of the Virginia State Board of Education, and a member of the Commission on the Future of Public Education in Virginia.
Samuel Wurtzel worked for nine years, beginning in 1938, for Packing Products in New York City. In 1949, he was on vacation with his family in Richmond when a local barber informed him that the very first Southern TV station was going to air. Wurtzel began thinking about the possibilities of this fresh market for televisions. Later that year, he moved his family to Richmond, Virginia, where he opened a small television shop on West Broad Street as the Wards Company. The company's name was an acronym derived from the first names of each member of the Wurtzel family, Alan, Ruth, David and Samuel.
At first selling only televisions, the store gradually diversified its product line and began selling other small appliances. Wards became a public company in 1961. In 1966, Alan abandoned his private law practice and entered the business with his father. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the small company expanded by buying other appliance stores. Alan correctly predicted that the stereo business would slow down and steered the company toward becoming a full-line electronics store. In 1975, the company made a daring move, spending half its worth to open an electronics and appliance superstore. Since that time, the company has become known for its large stores.
Samuel Wurtzel served as president until 1970 and as chairman until 1984. Alan become vice president in 1968, and succeeding his father as president in 1970, chief executive officer in 1973, and chairman in 1984. Over the years, Wards, renamed Circuit City in 1984, was a pioneer in the electronics business. In the mid-1970s, the company attracted customers to their superstore with a combination of product variety, low prices, and a high level of customer service. The formula was responsible for Circuit City's explosive growth in the 1980s and 1990s. Circuit City stores operate as virtual supermarkets for televisions, stereos, and consumer household appliances.
Alan's successful marketing philosophy was to dominate a local market by establishing several stores near to each other. By doing this, the stores could maximize the cost of advertising and support each other with stock during sales and promotions. The company at first dominated Southern markets in the United States. In the 1980s, Alan tried to establish the company in New York. Though he knew he was entering a competitive market, where price slashing was rampant, he commented, "I am convinced there are a sizeable number of people who don't want to haggle." Uncharacteristically, Alan's instincts were wrong, and the company failed its attempt to dominate a local market. Expensive advertising and competition drove him away.
Chronology: Samuel Wurtzel Alan L. Wurtzel
1907: Samuel S. Wurtzel born.
1933: Alan L. Wurtzel born.
1938: Samuel S. Wurtzel worked for Packing Products Co.
1949: Opened television store in Richmond, Virginia, as Wards Company.
1955: Alan L. Wurtzel graduated from Oberlin College.
1959: Alan L. Wurtzel graduated from Yale University law school.
1966: Alan L. Wurtzel joined Wards Company.
1970: Replaced his father as president.
1984: Replaced his father as chairman and company renamed Circuit City Stores, Inc.
1985: Samuel S. Wurtzel died.
1985: Alan L. Wurtzel stepped down as chairman for a position of vice chairman of Circuit City Stores, Inc.
After 14 years, Alan left his position as chief executive officer in 1986, giving the position to Richard Sharp. Sharp had been involved with the company as a designer of its sales computer system. Alan remained involved in the company as the chairman for several more years.
Constantly mindful of its rising competitor Best Buy, Circuit City looked to gain entrance into new markets and industries. By the early 1990s, the company introduced CarMax, an automobile superstore. The company used the same principles that had been successful in the past for the Wurtzel family: friendly, no-haggling pricing, wide selection, and attention to customer service. This was a revolutionary concept in automobile retailing that changed the way cars are sold, and CarMax has since developed imitators.
In 1994 Wurtzel stepped down as chairman and was succeeded by Richard Sharp, who was the first chairman outside the Wurtzel family since the business had opened 45 years earlier. Wurtzel became the company's vice chairman.
Social and Economic Impact
It was during Alan Wurtzel's involvement with Circuit City that he began to realize the problems with the education system in the United States, and especially with the local education system. Wurtzel and his staff were frustrated with trying to hire young people who could "read, write, and interact" on a level that made them capable of working in Circuit City stores. A 1995 article in Buffalo News from Buffalo, New York, reported that according to Wurtzel, managers in the chain had to interview 20 young people before they found one with sufficient skills. Wurtzel felt that the education system was not training young people to keep up with the needs of the work force. In a 1991 article for the Virginia Forum, Wurtzel outlined a strategy for improving productivity and wages in Virginia. One of the problems that he identified was that "Virginia schools have not adequately prepared graduates, and certainly not dropouts, to hold the more challenging jobs of a fast-changing, high-productivity workplace." Wurtzel emphasized the importance of education within his own company. New employees must train for at least two weeks before starting to work, and they continue to receive training as they continue to work in the company.
Wurtzel's concern led him to become involved in numerous educational endeavors. Wurtzel has continued to lobby for reform in education and has been able to influence educational policies in Virginia as a member of the state board of education and the Commission on the Future of Public Education in Virginia. He emphasized the importance of connecting education to work, suggesting students who do not go to college should be offered programs in which they are trained and supported in a variety of ways, including through apprenticeships. His other suggestions have included the establishment of increasingly high, measurable standards for Virginia schools and punishing schools that do not reach the gradually phased-in standards. Both Alan and his father had always been involved in issues that affected local business and their communities.
The Wurtzels have helped revolutionize the consumer and appliance retail business. Pioneering the electronics superstore concept, Circuit City Stores, Inc. helped change the way consumers shop for televisions, stereos, and personal electronics equipment. By emphasizing customer service, Circuit City has been able to combine the concept of the electronics and appliance supermarket with the personal service of smaller stores. The formula of variety and low prices has proven to be an unbeatable combination that has fueled the company's growth from a local Richmond, Virginia, appliance store to a nationwide chain. In such a volatile business as consumer electronics and appliances that Circuit City has persisted and flourished for half a century is testimony to the leadership and vision of the company's founder Samuel S. Wurtzel and his son Alan L. Wurtzel.
Sources of Information
Buzbee, Sally Streff. "'Nation at Risk' Still Falls Short." Buffalo News, 6 April 1995.
Circuit City Stores, Inc. "Financial Reports & Media Releases." Richmond, VA, 1998. Available from http://www.circuitcity.com.
"Circuit City Stores, Inc." Washington Post, 27 April 1998.
Dun & Bradstreet Reference Book of Corporate Managements. 1996 ed. Parsippany, NJ: Dun & Bradstreet, 1995.
Gilligan, Gregory J. "Circuit City's Sharp Advances." Richmond Times-Dispatch, 15 June 1994.
Hoover's Handbook of American Business 1997. Austin, TX: Hoover's Business Press, 1996.
McDonald, Greg. "Debate on Education Focuses on National Testing Program." Houston Chronicle, 10 September 1997.
Who's Who in America. Providence, NJ: Marquis Who's Who, 1997.
Who's Who in Finance and Industry. Providence, NJ: Marquis Who's Who, 1974.
Wurtzel, Alan L. "Productivity In Virginia's Workforce." Virginia Forum, June 1991. Available from http://www.forum-media.org/va/.
Wurtzel, Alan L. "Raising Achievement Requires Higher Standards and More Money." Richmond Times-Dispatch, 10 May 1997.
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