Inside This Issue - Opinion
Bowlus brought new dimension to industry
August 29th, 2011
by David Pinto
Charlie Bowlus died earlier this month. It was the sudden, inexplicable, deeply and shockingly heartbreaking event that happens all too frequently to those whom we most care about, those whose indestructability we take for granted, those we assume will always be with us, those who are irreplaceable.
Charlie Bowlus was a giant who never realized he was a giant. He transformed the way the mass retailing community does business in the United States and around the world. He brought a new dimension to the ways that retailers and suppliers interact. And he gave them unprecedented opportunities to do so.
Along the way he humanized and expanded the buyer-seller relationship by providing new opportunities for smaller suppliers to meet major retailers. He brought new levels of productivity and common sense to the sometimes tedious routine of bringing buyers and sellers together. He did so by grouping meetings around specific categories and offering economies of scale and better use of time as inducements to attract both retailers and suppliers to his meetings, advantages which had the cumulative effect of making other buyer-seller meetings less relevant and, often, less productive.
But perhaps Bowlus’ great asset is that he never really understood who he was and what he had accomplished. In his mind he was just another industry person doing his job. Indeed, he was most engaged, and engaging, when he was talking about and demonstrating the newest software programs he had developed and perfected, programs that made it simpler to do business.
Equally important when discussing Bowlus and his accomplishments was the fact that he never took for granted the power of his organization, ECRM, to bring even America’s largest retailers halfway around the world to a Bowlus meeting.
In short, Bowlus never took himself seriously, and never felt he would earn the success he enjoyed unless he continued to expand on that success by offering new opportunities, new meetings, new programs, new reasons to do business.
Withal, it was Bowlus’ compassion, his feeling for people, that set him apart. He would bend over backwards to attract new suppliers to his meetings, even smaller companies just getting started. If you couldn’t pay at once, or even at last, to attend a Bowlus meeting, that was fine. He’d simply bill you later — if he remembered to think about it.
When this publication or MMR, our sister publication, occasionally wrote about his accomplishments or recognized his achievements, surprise, rather than understanding or acceptance, was his dominant response. “Why recognize me?” he seemed to imply. “I’m just doing my job. It must be a slow news day.”
In the immediate aftermath of Bowlus’ passing, virtually the entire mass retailing industry went into mourning, a condition that has not yet seen its end. In an industry in which friends can normally be counted on one hand and everyone has at least a few antagonists, everyone who knew Bowlus loved and admired him. More to the point, if you knew Charlie you wanted him to like you and you literally lived for his approval. When he phoned, you eagerly took the call, hoping that his request, if he had a request, was something with which you could comply. Often as not, however, he was calling not to ask a favor but to pay a compliment or schedule a meeting to discuss his latest initiative or his newest software program.
Now he’s gone. His family, though understandably devastated, appears initially determined to perpetuate the business he defined, created and built. The entire mass retailing industry is determined to support the determination to perpetuate ECRM. But we all know that it just won’t be the same.
It’s not Bowlus’ absence that will be missed. It’s the absence of his presence, a presence that at once dominated and subordinated itself to what he viewed as the more important business of doing business.
Bowlus once told a story of “mooning” Frank Shanower — or was it Shanower who mooned him — at an important industry function. No matter. In a metaphorical sense, Charlie’s been affectionately and impishly mooning the entire retail community for a very long time — and, with us, laughing all the way.
How sad that we will never again be mooned by Charlie Bowlus.