In the immediate aftermath of the sudden and devastatingly heartbreaking death of Charlie Bowlus, ECRM’s founder and guiding force, the mass retailing industry was forced to confront a future with a vastly reordered and possibly diminished trade group.

David Pinto, death of Charlie Bowlus, ECRM’s founder, Mitch, ECRM

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Inside This Issue - Opinion

ECRM faces tough questions

September 5th, 2011
by David Pinto, Editor

In the immediate aftermath of the sudden and devastatingly heartbreaking death of Charlie Bowlus, ECRM’s founder and guiding force, the mass retailing industry was forced to confront a future with a vastly reordered and possibly diminished trade group.

Make no mistake: Bowlus didn’t run ECRM on a daily basis. That task has been very capably handled by his son Mitch, and a strong and deep supporting cast, for a very long time. But Bowlus was a constant presence, sometimes in person, more often in the ideas and innovations that characterized ECRM’s meetings throughout the year. Indeed, more significant than his presence was his ability to generate new ideas, new venues, new programs, new ways of doing business. Equally impressive was his success in engaging new retailers and suppliers while extending ECRM’s reach and influence to new locations outside the United States. As well, the ECRM chief was brilliant in his ability to offer customized programs to individual retailers and encourage suppliers to get involved with those programs.

In the immediate aftermath of Bowlus’ passing, as the initial period of shock and disbelief fades, questions about ECRM’s future are beginning to emerge. At the outset, several realities seem apparent. Among them:

• ECRM has been criticized in recent years for holding too many meetings. Moreover, while the majority of those meetings remain successful, some of the more marginal gatherings are badly in need of reappraisal or deletion from the ECRM ­portfolio.

• Bowlus’ absence will be most keenly felt not in the execution of the ECRM meetings but in the founder’s strategic ability to generate interest in the meetings, and in doing so to attract attendees on both sides of the buyer-seller equation who normally would have passed. Whether anyone can replace Bowlus in that key role — or indeed whether Bowlus himself would have remained effective forever as an inducement to attend ECRM events — remains to be seen.

• In the aftermath of Bowlus‘ passing, several retail trade organizations might understandably reevaluate their own positions in the meetings continuum. Clearly, ECRM’s success has somewhat eclipsed such events as the NACDS Marketplace Conference and the GMDC semiannual marketing meetings in their ability to attract and engage key retailers and suppliers. In the case of NACDS, that association’s Total Store Expo, scheduled to debut in 2013, would offer new opportunities and expanded possibilities should ECRM’s ability to attract retailers and suppliers to its own events diminish in a post-Bowlus world.

• Among Bowlus’ many strengths was his unique ability to embrace individuals and organizations that would, in any other environment, be viewed as competitors. He succeeded in this endeavor, most notably, by receiving regular invitations to NACDS meetings despite the fact that NACDS was viewed in many quarters as ECRM’s closest competitor. He was able to manage this bit of legerdemain for a simple reason: In both his personal and professional life Bowlus was always prepared to give more than he received. It is a rare quality — and one can’t help wondering if Bowlus’ successors at ECRM have the ability or inclination to attempt to duplicate it. Failing to do so would hurt ECRM simply because Bowlus had become as much a fixture at such NACDS events as the Annual Meeting as the NACDS staff.

But the big challenge in the aftermath of Bowlus’ departure is retaining and expanding on the freshness that has always characterized ECRM. Though his major innovation was defraying the retailers’ costs to attend an ECRM event, he also led in his ability to grasp the efficiencies of organizing meetings by category and, as a result, holding category-specific meetings that made possible new levels of efficiency that even smaller suppliers could enjoy. As well, he simplified the business of doing business by developing easy-to-use software programs that aided in scheduling meetings and writing and confirming orders.

To date, no organization has succeeded in bundling so impressive and convenient a group of incentives whose sole purpose has been to simplify the sometimes tedious process of buying and selling merchandise. Still, perhaps Bowlus’ biggest asset was his apparently unlimited ability to expand on those innovations, keeping them fresh and so giving ECRM participants one more reason to show up at a Charlie Bowlus event — whether or not Bowlus was in attendance himself.

With his passing, so much of that is bound to change — nothing more so than the energy and enthusiasm with which Bowlus approached even his most mundane tasks. Whether that enthusiasm can be retained in some form, or whether the innovation that invariably characterized a Charlie Bowlus event can be channeled into new and equally appealing forms, only time and a new generation of leadership will tell.