Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously said that the company was founded in the 1930s, and that two former executives declined to be interviewed. The company was founded in the 1940s, and the film maker did not approach former CEOs Rich Sharp or Phil Schoonover.
A local filmmaker has turned his lens on his former employer, which also happens to be one of the biggest corporate flameouts in Richmond history.
Tom Wulf, 50, just finished “A Tale of Two Cities: The Circuit City Story,” a self-financed documentary that traces the company’s history from its birth on Broad Street to its demise in 2008 and 2009.
The film premieres tomorrow night at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville. Wulf, who moved to Richmond to work in training for Circuit City, said he wants to have a local showing in a month or two.
(You can watch the Trailer below.)
“I had a picture that hung on my wall of [Circuit City founder] Sam Wurtzel, and when I left the company I sent that picture back to Alan, his son. Then I asked him if he’d grant me an interview because I had an idea about a documentary,” Wulf said.
Throughout the movie, Sam Wurtzel is painted as the ballast and spiritual leader of the company. It was his emphasis on customer service that helped the company get off the ground, initially selling TV sets to African Americans from a shop on Broad Street. Then the company added other appliances and soon branched out to other markets.
Through interviews with Alan Wurtzel, former Circuit City presidents and rank-and-file support staff, Wulf explores how one of Wall Street’s darlings went into a slow decline and then collapsed in 2009 after suppliers would no longer lend the company inventory. But that was really just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The film is broken into two parts: One that explains how the company started in the 1940s and grew as Wards (the name wasn’t changed to Circuit City until the 1980s) and one that explains how it lost its competitive edge over the past 20 years (same-store sales began slipping, Best Buy gained market share, gambles didn’t pay off) and eventually collapsed.
“The company also was on top so long, it didn’t pay attention to competition,” he added. “They stopped listening to the customer service associates.”
Several major figures are not in the film, including former chief executives Rick Sharp and Phil Schoonover, who was voted the worst CEO in America by a national business magazine in 2008.
The film uses lots of videos – former Circuit City ads, internal management training videos and news reports – as it chronologically tries to explain what made the company so successful through the 1980s and what made it sluggish over the past 15 years.
For example, to show how the company kept changing its marketing strategy and slogan, Wulf cuts to old ads. One has the tag line, “We’re with you.”
That was changed in 2004 to, “Just what you needed.”
None of those changes mattered much, according to Wulf’s account. The company made several blunders, such as signing 30-year leases on buildings that were eventually situated in sub-optimal neighborhoods and gambling millions on a failed video rental disc.
Perhaps most fatally, the documentary posits, the company purchased almost a billion shares of its own stock this decade. If it hadn’t done that, the film suggests, it would have been able to weather the recession instead of filing for bankruptcy protection and then liquidating.
Wurtzel speaks candidly and at one point says that during the Schoonover years, the company was just grasping for straws.
“If it didn’t have a good margin, we did not want it,” Wurtzel said of the policy to not stock as much merchandise as archrival Best Buy. “So we did not have games, which was key to attracting kids, and we did not have as many models of computers.”
For Wulf, the film is intensely personal. The former TV journalist left the news business in the 1980s to work as a sales representative for Circuit City in Atlanta. Wulf then worked his way up and was hired in Richmond to work on management training. He then worked at CarMax for 12 years.
Aaron Kremer is the BizSense editor. He has several ideas for documentaries. Please send news tips to [email protected].