Tandy, Charles David

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TANDY, Charles David

(b. 15 May 1918 in Brownsville, Texas; d. 4 November 1978 in Fort Worth, Texas), major industrialist and entrepreneur who, during the 1960s, transformed a family leather business into an international conglomerate that included Pier One Imports and RadioShack.

Tandy was the first of two children of David, a leather merchant, and Carmen (McClain) Tandy, a housewife. He attended public schools in Brownsville and Fort Worth and started work at the age of twelve, helping his father sell shoe bindings to repair shops. His father and a partner co-owned the Hinckley-Tandy Leather Company. Tandy graduated from Texas Christian University in 1940 and entered Harvard Business School.

In 1941 Tandy joined the navy and became a supply officer stationed in Hawaii. He noticed sailors being taught knitting and needlepoint as part of recuperative therapy. Believing that the men would prefer leatherwork to needlework, he established a system of leather craft for hospitalized service personnel. In letters to his father, he noted that leather craft not only was useful in military hospital units but also could be marketed in postwar civilian recreational centers. In 1945 Tandy married Gwendolyn Purdy Johnson, a widow with two children.

Tandy was discharged as a lieutenant commander in 1947, and he and his family returned to Fort Worth. His father made him the manager of his company's leather craft division. After the war American companies entered a new era of producing a vast supply of consumer goods for families with more time for hobbies and do-it-yourself activities. Tandy's career has made handicraft almost synonymous with "Tandycraft."

After buying out his partner, Tandy's father gave his son more control of the business. In 1950 Tandy opened two leather craft retail stores and began an aggressive mail-order business. Advertisements appeared in such national magazines as Popular Science. Whenever there were at least one thousand mail-order customers in a concentrated area, he contracted with a local partner to start a retail business. The partner put up 25 percent of the capital. Tandy took a personal interest in store managers and encouraged employees through profit sharing. As more retail stores opened, his market share expanded, and by the early 1960s, the newly named General American Industries, Inc., had 175 retail leather craft supermarts throughout North America.

When Tandy became the company's president in 1955, he fundamentally pioneered diversification. He acquired new divisions outside the leather business and then sold them by 1960 if they were unprofitable. The most successful new division was Tex Tan, which sold various finished leather goods and Western clothes. In 1961 the company was renamed Tandy Corporation, with its headquarters in downtown Fort Worth. Eventually, the Tandy Center occupied eight blocks and included shopping areas, offices, and an ice-skating rink.

As president and chairman of the corporation's board, Tandy further diversified throughout the 1960s. In 1961 he bought Corral Sportswear, Cleveland Crafts, and Merribee Art Embroidery Company. His Tandy Marts expanded craft and hobby merchandise. His philosophy was "You can't sell from an empty wagon," and thus his retail stores carried high inventories and short delivery times. In 1962 he founded Pier One Imports, based on the San Francisco importer Cost Plus. A strong U.S. dollar allowed Pier One to import furniture and knickknacks at rock-bottom prices. That division supplied a national audience of students and other first-time buyers with furniture and other household items, and the exotic appeal of its merchandise reflected the fashions of the 1960s.

Also in 1962 and into 1963 Tandy expanded into electronics. During those years Tandy acquired two smaller firms, Electronics Crafts of Fort Worth and RadioShack of Boston. RadioShack had been a bankrupt, nine-store chain supplying ham radio equipment. (When early wireless equipment was first installed on ships, the wooden structure built on the open upper decks was known in navy slang as the "radio shack.") As he had previously done with leather goods, craft items, and inexpensive furniture, Tandy aggressively expanded the potential of the industrial and consumer electronics industry. In 1966 he sold the Pier One chain to its division management and concentrated on building up RadioShack.

By the end of the 1960s, Tandy had diversified his conglomerate's portfolio even further. Craft and hobby divisions now manufactured and sold mosaics, needle crafts, wood, ceramic tiles, metalwork, jewelry, plastics, plaster, glass, and basketry. Tandy also sold the tools for each craft. Divisions included Craftool Co., Clarke and Clarke Ltd., and ColorTile stores. In addition, Tandy bought and expanded Wolfe Nurseries and Leonard's Department Stores.

Tandy's major success internationally was RadioShack. By the end of the 1960s Tandy had bought or built twenty manufacturing plants in Asia and North America. First nationally and then globally, Tandy's supplying divisions equipped several hundred stores by the late 1960s with a full range of electronic products. RadioShack radios, televisions, and audiotape and, later, videotape recorders were complemented by supplies for the goods. Batteries became the leading auxiliary product. By 1969 Tandy had increased the number of RadioShack outlets to 530, and the chain had become a household name. Moreover, Tandy stressed customer satisfaction and guaranteed complete refunds for defective models or service.

Still later, in the 1970s and 1980s, RadioShack sold citizen-band radios. RadioShack was also one of the first corporations to enter into the field of microcomputers. In the mid-1970s, Tandy's TRS-80 Model 100 portable computer was hugely successful. Low pricing and repair service through any RadioShack outlet assured distribution and reassured service. Tandy's success with RadioShack led Tandy Corporation into becoming the largest and most profitable network of thousands of electronic specialty outlets in the world. Beginning in the late 1960s Tandy furthered expansion in electronics into more divisions of the corporation. RadioShack was itself complemented by McDuff Electronics, Computer City Super Centers, and the Incredible Universe electronic entertainment chain. Tandy's wife died in 1967, and in 1969 he married Anne Burnett Windfor. Tandy died of a heart attack in 1978; he is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, River Oaks, Texas.

Tandy transformed a small family leather business into a multibillion-dollar international conglomerate. Yet its heritage is based on his family's first company, which featured high-quality products retailed and serviced in networks of outlets whose managers are motivated by profit sharing.

There is no biography of Tandy. Important studies of his entrepreneurial success are James L. West, Tandy Corporation: "Start on a Shoe String" (1968), and Irvin Farman, Tandy's Money Machine (1992). An obituary is in the New York Times (6 Nov. 1978).

Patrick S. Smith