Former president of company grew chain in $2.3B business
By Hollace Weiner
Special to the TJP
Bernie S. Appel, a master merchandiser, a consumer-electronics pioneer and the street-wise president of Radio Shack as it mushroomed into a $2.3 billion chain with more than 7,000 stores, died Sunday after a tenacious, yearslong battle with congestive heart failure.
Dubbed “Mister Radio Shack” and well-known for his pugnacious style and wide smile, the 85-year-old business executive, visionary and philanthropist had a global reputation for being tough but fair and never canceling an order. A bona fide retail genius, he was in charge of day-to-day operations at Radio Shack in 1977 when it introduced the world’s first desktop computer, the TRS-80. He was on the successful team that took Ma Bell to the Supreme Court with a lawsuit that opened the door for retail stores to sell telephones. During his 34 years at Radio Shack, Mr. Appel held every key position, culminating with his tenure at the top from 1984 to 1992, the heyday of the Fort Worth-based chain that a decade later was sinking toward bankruptcy.
“I had the greatest job in the world,” Mr. Appel often said, reflecting on the family atmosphere fostered at work, his mentors within the Tandy Corporation, his 75 business trips to Asia and his myriad stopovers in Israel, where he advised startup companies and engaged in philanthropic endeavors.
Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Jan. 10, 1932, Beryl Schlama Appel was the youngest of four siblings. A Depression-era child, he began working at age 10, throwing newspapers and delivering groceries. The coins he earned went directly to his parents, Max and Sophie Appel, Russian Jewish immigrants who called him by his nickname, “Beri.” A bright, mischievous student, quick with numbers, he graduated from Boston English High in 1949 while working after school at a photo studio.
College was out of the question, due to tuition costs. So Mr. Appel worked full-time at S&W Distributing, a discount catalog that hired him as a buyer of housewares, jewelry and gifts.
During the Korean War, Mr. Appel enlisted in the Coast Guard, serving from 1951 to 1954 on Coast Guard cutters that checked on lighthouses in the North Atlantic and docked at Murmansk, a Russian port inside the Arctic Circle. Ironically, First Mate Appel could not swim or even float on his back. Nonetheless, he convinced his superiors that anyone who grew up in seaside Boston was comfortable in the water, and thereby avoided the Coast Guard swim test.
During a Coast Guard furlough for R&R in Baltimore, Mr. Appel met and fell in love with Betty Tankleson. Following his honorable discharge from the service, the couple married in October 1955 and moved into a Boston apartment. Two children, Arlene and Jerry, followed. Mr. Appel returned to his day job with the discount catalog and enrolled as a night student at Boston University’s School of Management. Higher education and inborn chutzpah soon led him to argue with his boss over business strategies and to start searching for employment elsewhere.
In 1959, shortly before graduating from BU, Mr. Appel applied for a job at Radio Shack, then a Boston-based catalog firm with three retail outlets. The vice president of advertising, Lewis Kornfeld, did not hire him, but Mr. Appel enjoyed the job interview so much he returned several times a week to discuss marketing and merchandising. Intrigued, Kornfeld asked the eager job applicant what he thought of an electric shaver that was selling well in the Radio Shack catalog. Mr. Appel bluntly told him the shaver was a “piece of junk” and that “a whole bunch of people who bought something cheap” like that would likely turn into “mad” customers.
Following that candid exchange, Kornfeld hired Mr. Appel at a salary of $125 a week. The job description described him as a “buyer of non-catalog merchandise,” such as sporting goods, housewares, toys, games, books, watches, clocks, phonograph accessories, pots and pans.
Ever practical and thrifty, Mr. Appel devised a fail-safe method to test products. As his son, Jerry, reminisced, “If I couldn’t break it, Dad would add it to the inventory.”
By the spring of 1963, when Fort Worth’s Charles Tandy bought Radio Shack, Mr. Appel’s performance had rocketed him to the company’s top buyer. He was among the executives who convened at Boston’s Ritz-Carlton to meet Tandy and listen to his plans to transform the broad-based mail-order catalog into a profitable neighborhood electronics chain.
According to Mr. Appel, who is quoted in the 1992 book Tandy’s Money Machine, by Irv Farman, “turmoil” followed the Tandy takeover. “Charles didn’t like political people. He wanted to hear it like it was … He had to decide whom he trusted and whom he didn’t … He didn’t believe in writing memos. He told us what he wanted.” He appreciated Mr. Appel’s thick skin and frank assessments. Both Mr. Appel and his mentor, Lew Kornfeld, were among those who remained on the Tandy team and entered the boss’ inner circle.
Promoted to merchandise manager in 1966, Mr. Appel began traveling three times a year to the Far East. With his sharp eye, he scoured Asian capitals and backwaters for electronic goods and gadgets at the right price. As he ventured into cultures far different from the streets of Boston, his etiquette advisor was New Yorker Elaine Yamagata, an American of Japanese descent who had lived in Japan and China. With her husband, she had co-founded A&A International, an import firm that Tandy acquired. Mr. Appel considered Yamagata, Tandy and Kornfeld his most influential mentors.
By 1970, Charles Tandy was eager for each of these top professionals to move to company headquarters in Fort Worth. Appel, despite a promotion to vice president, balked. He was hesitant to commit without checking out the local synagogues and ascertaining whether his children could get a strong Jewish upbringing in Fort Worth. “Charles said to me, ‘Bernie, if you don’t like the synagogue we’ve got here, I’ll build you your own.’ ” A decade later, when Congregation Ahavath Sholom, of which Appel was president, planned to construct a new synagogue, Tandy followed through on his pledge. He helped All Saints Hospital purchase the old synagogue property and contributed generously to the new house of worship, which has a “Charles Tandy” plaque on the president’s office.
Mr. Appel’s twin passions were Radio Shack and Israel. He received the Israel Bonds Star of David Award in 2007; New York City’s Defender of Jerusalem Award in 1990; and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith Electronics & Appliances Division Torch of Liberty Award in 1988. He served on the advisory board of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of North Texas; worked for the creation of the Jewish Education Agency of Fort Worth; was president of the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth & Tarrant County; and served on the United Jewish Appeal Regional Financial Relations/Jewish Agency Committee; Project Renewal Cluster, Acco-East, Israel; the campaign cabinets of the UJA Southern, Southwestern and Western Region Campaign Cabinets; the advisory board of the Business Network for Israel and was a member of Fort Worth’s Beth-El Congregation. At the time he moved to Texas, he was founding vice president of Temple Aliyah, Needham, Massachusetts.
Among the most noteworthy accolades he received in the business realm was his 2002 induction into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame, an institution whose honorees include Alexander Graham Bell. Mr. Appel served on the International Board of Visitors of TCU’s Neeley School of Business, and received an Honorary Doctor of Commercial Science from McKenzie College and the 1994 Alumni Award from Boston University School of Management. He is listed in Who’s Who in Consumer Electronics, Who’s Who in Finance & Industry, Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World.
In the civic and social sphere, he served on the board of Tarrant County’s Crime Prevention Resource Center and as president of Safe City Commission Crime Stoppers. He was a longtime member of the Masons, Tabernacle Lodge; Shrine, Moslah Lodge; Rotary Club of Fort Worth; Century II Club and Colonial Country Club. He served on the boards of Casa Manana and the Arts Council of Fort Worth & Tarrant County. In 1988, at a time when he was living alone and divorced, a friend at Ahavath Sholom fixed him up on a blind date with a cousin in Atlanta. Later that year, he married Ellen Carey, a fine arts photographer. The couple were regulars at the symphony, the ballet, the opera, Casa Manana and the Cliburn.
When Mr. Appel retired in 1994 as Tandy Corp. Senior vice president and Chairman of Radio Shack, he launched Appel Associates, a private consulting firm with global reach. Both Forbes magazine and The New York Times wrote up his retirement, crediting him with the rapid expansion of a consumer electronics firm far ahead of its time.
He is survived by his wife, Ellen Carey Appel; son, Jerry (and Sheril) Appel; daughter, Arlene (Michael) Kleinberg; grandchildren, Max and Sophie Appel, Alyssa, Joshua and Arielle Kleinberg and Rachel Liebert.
Funeral services were held at Congrgation Ahavath Sholom Tuesday, with burial at Ahavath Sholom Hebrew Cemetery.
The family requests contributions in Bernie’s memory be made to Congregation Ahavath Sholom, or the charity of your choice.