Inside This Issue - Opinion
At ECRM, the focus shifts to Mitch Bowlus
September 12th, 2011
by David Pinto
The final goodbyes have been said, the last stories told. Only the memories of Charlie Bowlus linger, the memories of the personality behind the organization that charted new directions, opened new windows, explored new possibilities and developed new ways of doing business. Only the sadness lingers. And the laughter.
Suddenly, the talk is all about Mitch Bowlus, Charlie’s son, who now assumes control of ECRM, the organization that his father conceived, developed and built into a powerful merchandising mechanism for doing business, one that transformed the way mass retailers and their suppliers go to market.
The first realization when speaking about Mitch Bowlus is that he’s not his father. The second is that he could be.
At the memorial celebration held in Cleveland last month, one that honored Bowlus’ life by recalling and sharing its most memorable moments and most stunning accomplishments, the younger Bowlus was clearly in control, greeting and embracing virtually every one of the 350 people who journeyed to the Cleveland Browns stadium off Lake Erie to say goodbye.
In sincerity, intensity of feeling, sense of personal loss and recognition of the need to move on, Mitch had only one rival: Charlie’s wife, Liz, whose world had fallen apart at the very moment it had become most satisfying, a time when the couple was planning to buy a home in Southern California and Charlie, for the first time, gave indications of slowing down, of enjoying the life he had built.
But most of the attention on that Monday in Cleveland was naturally focused not on Liz but on Mitch — and on the future of ECRM.
While many of the people who showed up — a gathering that included many of the 160 ECRM staffers; a strong contingent of Walgreens people; Marc Glassman, whose Cleveland-based deep-discount drug chain remains the standard for that concept; a representative of Wegmans; NACDS’ Jim Whitman and Terry Arth; CHPA’s Ted Peterson; CDMA’s Jim Devine; former Walmart executive Tom Coughlin; the Emerson Group’s Scott Emerson and Rick Wellinger; and such industry veterans as Frank Maioni, Rich Landers, Barb Hartman and Kathy Steirly, to name just a few — clearly knew and admired Mitch Bowlus, many others just as clearly did not know him.
In the ECRM scheme of things Mitch had been much in the background, devoting his time, talent and energy to the technology that lay at the core of ECRM’s astonishing success. Now he must subordinate that role to the infinitely more daunting assignment of keeping his organization fresh and exciting, and so insuring that it outlasts the passing of his father.
It will not be an easy assignment. But it will be necessary if ECRM is to survive, for clearly there is no alternative to Mitch Bowlus’ involvement.
What’s needed here is for Charlie’s son to become the visible and trusted figure that his father had become. And where the elder Bowlus developed that trust and respect gradually, over a period of years, his son must do so over a period of the next several months. Moreover, he must do so without slowing down or halting, even for a moment, the ECRM agenda or momentum. He must jump on the carrousel while it is spinning at full speed.
That being the case, Mitch will have to attend every ECRM show between now and the end of the year. As well, he must become the face of ECRM to the mass retail community. That means he must plan to attend every NACDS function to which he is invited over the next 12 months. He must, for instance, appear in New York City during the first week of December, when NACDS convenes its Foundation Dinner, board meeting and board dinner, as well as several functions that serve as adjuncts to these main events.
Then, too, he must begin to develop the retailer and supplier relationships that were at the core of ECRM’s success. In the aftermath of the senior Bowlus‘ passing, it would be only natural for some retailers and suppliers to step back and reevaluate ECRM, determining if they really need it as desperately as Charlie insisted they did. Mitch must not let that happen.
Finally, Mitch Bowlus must avail himself of the human resources around him. This includes not only the deep and committed staff Charlie Bowlus had assembled, but the trusted advisors he routinely turned to for help, guidance and support (and arm-twisting when that was called for). For openers, he must reach out to these people, either individually or collectively, and assure them that they will be just as important to him as they were to his father.
Finally, Mitch must set out to strengthen his father’s only known weakness. He must become a gentler, more compassionate employer than his father, who was known for his quick temper and impatience with intellects less active than his own, ever thought he needed to be.
If Mitch Bowlus can master those few concepts, and translate them into action, ECRM will remain a force in mass retailing for some time to come.