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Elly Valas, Nationwide: An Ardor for the Independent

January 10, 2013
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Long before the term ‘glass ceiling’ was coined to describe impediments to the career advancements of women, Elly Valas, Nationwide’s Member Services Director, broke through the consumer electronics industry’s version of it.

Valas earned the moniker of trailblazer back in 1992, when she was named president and co-CEO of NARDA (the North American Retail Dealers Association), the electronics, appliance and furniture trade organization.

The group’s management actively recruited Valas, impressed by her more than 20 years of experience in the retail, sporting goods, CE and home appliance industries. Since then, she has built a reputation as a book author and Dealerscope columnist, and as a business consultant who is regularly sought by independent retailers of all sizes.

“She’s an evangelist who cares deeply about the independent channel,” said Jeannette Howe, executive director of Specialty Electronics Nationwide. “There’s a passion in her that goes beyond what the industry has to offer. In many ways, I consider her a mentor and a hero. A lot of her time is now spent with independents, helping them turn around their businesses and fix the things they need to fix. She’s not afraid to tell a dealer they need a coat of paint, or new carpeting, or a new salesperson, or succession plan in place. She’ll tell people the difficult stuff because she believes in it.”
Retail was something Valas grew up around.  Her father, Harry, ran Denver’s Valas Stores and she worked there from 1973, after leaving the sporting goods business. “Those were the days when we actually dug out a crawlspace in our store basement and finished it to show big-screen TV because you had to show them in the dark,” Valas said.
Industry figures like Earl “Madman” Muntz, a friend of her father’s who pioneered car audio; and RCA’s Jack Sauter, Bill Boss and Joe Clayton left indelible impressions on Valas. Among her mentors in shaping her work with independents and her management style, she counts her dad, Jerry Gart, who ran Gart Bros., a leading sports retailer in the Rocky Mountain region; and NARDA’s Zeke Landres. Being in the trenches with retailers is something Valas loves.
“I was never an ivory tower guy,” she said. “I always love being part of the team, wherever I am. When I do a consultation, I try to spend time with the salespeople as well as the owner or manager. And the hands-on aspect carries over to my writing, talking to the people out there.”

Valas views her work with Nationwide as another way to help equalize the playing field between independents and mega-retailers, in more ways than just buying power.

“Major chains have whole teams to develop TV spots and do merchandising, advertising and training. If every independent (hired) someone to do each of those things, they’d be out of business,” she said. “Buying groups really help them do all this stuff to sell their product through. It’s about giving the little guy the scale, in many things, of the big guy.”

Guerrilla Retailing and Lessons from the Links, Valas’ two books, are among her proudest achievements. The latter compares business to golf, and was inspired by a dealer who said that he ran his business the way he played the game. “He explained to me that most people think they should run their businesses the way their competitors do,” she said. “If the competitor drops a line, they need to do the same. But a golfer doesn’t change his game because he’s playing Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. You play your best game, and try to overcome your weaknesses.”

A subset of her passion for independent retailing is her specific ardor for family-run businesses. “I’m not nearly as enamored with the cool technology as I am with the people who bring it to market, the people who connect with customers and with vendors,” Valas said. “I believe in these family businesses that are under tremendous stress. But some of them are doing great. Polyanna that I am, I still believe small business is the foundation of America.” DS


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