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Former Circuit City CEO Richard Sharp dies

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Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2014 5:34 am

Richard Lee Sharp was an inventor, a technologist, a computer wizard and an entrepreneur who had a creative business mind.

He took Circuit City Stores Inc. from a midsize consumer electronics chain in the 1980s and turned it into a national retailing powerhouse. He was the mastermind behind CarMax Inc., the used-car superstore concept that Circuit City developed that is now the nation’s largest retailer of used cars with $12 billion-plus in annual sales.

Lynchburg had a Circuit City store in the Candlers Station shopping center until it closed in 2005.

Sharp was a founding investor in Crocs Inc., the manufacturer of those popular cloglike, rubberlike shoes, and he helped lead that company from obscurity in 2005 to worldwide fame.

Mr. Sharp, 67, died Tuesday night from posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease, his wife said. He was diagnosed in October 2010 with early-onset Alzheimer’s, a disease that also afflicted his grandfather, father and uncle.

“He was an extraordinary person with wide-ranging talents and skills that extended in so many different directions,” said John W. Snow, former U.S. Treasury secretary and former chairman and CEO of railroad giant CSX Corp., who knew Mr. Sharp for decades.

“He was such a huge force,” said Snow, now chairman of private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP. “Virginia and Richmond and the world has lost one of the truly gifted people of our times.”

Tom Folliard, who has been CarMax’s president and chief executive since 2006 and was hired by Mr. Sharp as one of the chain’s first employees, said Mr. Sharp was a great leader and stood by the CarMax concept even when others thought the company should cut its losses and shut down.

“He had such a positive attitude and resolve that this would work,” Folliard said. “I don’t know if anyone else would have stuck with it. He had the long-term vision and … he was obviously right. Rick’s influence on the company is profound and will have a lasting impact.”

Mr. Sharp worked with Austin Ligon and others to refine and develop the used-car retail concept, changing the way used cars are sold in the U.S. They envisioned used-car superstores with large volumes of inventory in a no-haggle selling environment.

The project, known internally as “Sharp Motors” and “Honest Rick’s Used Cars,” faced ridicule, including Wall Street analysts and others in the auto industry who said the concept would never work. CarMax also lost money for several years before posting a profit.

“He was the exception that proved the rule that large corporations can develop great new businesses from scratch if they have a visionary leader,” said Ligon, the CarMax co-founder who served as the chain’s CEO until 2006. “CarMax would have never happened without Rick’s vision.”

Goochland County-based CarMax now operates 136 used-car superstores in 68 markets.

A year ago in May, CarMax dedicated its first store — on West Broad Street at Interstate 64 in Henrico County — to Mr. Sharp for his contributions to the chain and the community. He stepped down as CarMax’s chairman in 2007.

Robert S. Ukrop, chief executive of Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods and former executive of his family’s former grocery chain, said Mr. Sharp was an incredible entrepreneur.

“If he believed in something, he was all in it,” Ukrop said. “He was a man of action. He was a man who got things done. He was brilliant.”

Ukrop also knew Mr. Sharp on other levels: They were once neighbors, they both served on the University of Richmond’s board, and Ukrop bought his son a Jeep Grand Cherokee, making them CarMax’s first buyer.

“I had a great deal of respect for Rick on many levels,” Ukrop said. “We competed on the basketball court. We laughed. We had a variety of conversations on a variety of topics. Over the years, I came to appreciate his entrepreneurial spirit and his philanthropy.”

Snow and others said Mr. Sharp never stopped thinking of better ways of doing something.

For instance, after stepping down as Circuit City’s CEO in 2000 and its board chairman in 2002, Mr. Sharp decided to play more golf. Snow recalls how Mr. Sharp was convinced there was a way to simulate the perfect golf swing by attaching electrodes on people so they could learn to play better.

“His mind never stopped,” Snow said. “His mind was always searching to find better ways to do things — better retailing, better ways to market cars.”

Mr. Sharp was never content with the status quo. Innovation was in his vocabulary.

Under Mr. Sharp’s leadership, sales at Circuit City soared from just less than $1 billion in 1986 to an estimated $12 billion when he stepped down as CEO. Stores increased from 69 to more than 600.

Mr. Sharp had “the ability to see needs before shoppers even knew what they needed in consumer electronics. He was a leader in the industry, and a giant in the community,” said Kenneth M. Gassman, a former analyst who followed the retail industry for two decades, including Circuit City and CarMax.

In the years after creating CarMax, Circuit City under Mr. Sharp’s leadership got into the home-security business, tested the installation and repair of home air-conditioning and heating systems, and considered opening large furniture stores.

It created a venture that sold a digital video disc rental system called Divx. After pouring more than $200 million into the venture, Circuit City pulled the plug on Divx in 1999 because it failed to get support from Hollywood studios and other retailers.

Mr. Sharp was hired as executive vice president at Circuit City in 1982 after a computer services company he owned in Washington sold computerized cash registers to the chain.

His business smarts and innovative nature caught the eye and interest of Alan Wurtzel, son of the founder of what became Circuit City. Wurtzel said he took a risk on Sharp and hired him to eventually succeed him as the chain’s CEO.

“He didn’t know anything about retail, so that was a big risk,” Wurtzel said. “I thought if he was smart, hard-working, ambitious and had decent people skills you could learn the business and be successful. He was all of those things. He was smart and engaging. He was a very talented guy.”

In 1992, Sharp was a founding investor and chairman of Flextronics International Ltd., a California-based electronics design and manufacturing company with annual revenue of more than $30 billion.

“Rick has all of the attributes that make for a great leader,” Michael Marks, a former CEO of Flextronics, said in a May 2013 interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “He’s smart, personable, not egocentric, incurably curious about all things. He’s one of these people who seem to know something about everything.

After leaving Circuit City and CarMax, he became managing director of V-Ten Capital Partners in Richmond, a venture capital fund.

Mr. Sharp was a self-made millionaire and made his achievements largely on his own with smarts and passion.

He hailed from a modest home in Alexandria, where his father was a federal government employee.

He studied electrical engineering at the University of Virginia for three semesters before dropping out in 1966 because he really wanted to study computer science and U.Va. didn’t offer it.

“One semester, I went to class and got B grades,” Mr. Sharp said in an interview in 2013. “The second semester, I had no interest.”

Cutting classes, he occupied his time playing poker and pool.

He later studied computer science from 1968 to 1970 at the College of William and Mary. He never received a college degree, although he attended Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program in 1985.

An active and generous Republican, Mr. Sharp supported the party, its candidates and officeholders at the local, state and federal level. His home in Goochland was the occasional venue for high-dollar fundraising receptions, including one that featured President George W. Bush.

During the administration of Gov. Jim Gilmore, Mr. Sharp sought to suppress a study by an influential business organization of which he was a member, the Virginia Business Council, that correctly predicted that Gilmore’s car-tax rollback would create a $1 billion hole in the state budget.

He also served on numerous boards, including Dominion Resources Inc. and S&K Famous Brands, and was a former chairman for the National Retail Federation.

His two daughters, Donna Suro and April Garnett, said their father was charismatic.

“He had a smile that I will never forget. His laugh was catchy,” Suro said. He also had a playful side that those closest to him got to enjoy frequently. He thoroughly enjoyed pulling pranks on my sister and me throughout our childhood. I believe he enjoyed the success of a good prank as much, if not more, than his business successes.”

Garnett said her father also enjoyed collecting cars, primarily Porsches.

“My dad was a brilliant collector. However, the finest and most priceless collection he acquired during his 67 years is people. Superman has super friends, and my dad is no different,” Garnett said.

Mr. Sharp died at his home with his wife, Sherry, his two daughters, other family members and friends at his bedside.

“He is free now and he is not suffering,” said his wife of 45 years and high school sweetheart. “Through this long and hard struggle, his faith was strong and now he has gone home.”

He was diagnosed in October 2010 but knew for a couple of years before then that he had the symptoms.

Mr. Sharp spent his later years promoting Alzheimer’s disease research.

“If we don’t find a way to find a fix and find a cure, you won’t be able to build enough buildings to house” all of the Alzheimer’s patients who will be diagnosed with the disease, he said in an interview last year.

Since 1999, he and his wife have donated more than $5 million to Alzheimer’s and neurological research, most of it at Johns Hopkins Medicine, the medical school and hospital complex in Baltimore where he served on the advisory board.

His daughters created the Stay Sharp Fund to Cure Alzheimer’s at the Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia to begin raising funds for research. The family suggested memorial donations be made to that fund.

“Our goal and our family’s goal is to find a cure. ... There are so many people affected by it,” Mr. Sharp said last year.

Burial will be private. A memorial service will be held at a later date.

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