Death of a World-Class Salesman

by Stephen Moore
Rick Sharp was a superstar capitalist and philanthropist.

America lost one of its great entrepreneurs of the last 50 years, and the conservative movement lost one of its most generous benefactors, when Richard Sharp, a pioneer in the astounding consumer-electronics revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, died on Tuesday.

As a business leader and visionary over the past three decades, Rick Sharp, of Richmond, Va., had few peers. His record of success led many of his friends and admirers to say that Rick had a magical Midas touch: Nearly every organization he ran or invested in turned to gold. From a young age, he had a Bill Gates–like obsession with computers. In 1975 he founded Applied Systems Corporation, an early industry leader in the development of custom hardware and software business systems using advanced microcomputer technology. The company grew to more than 300 employees and was bought in the early 1980s by Tymshare, Inc.

Next Rick joined what was then a small retail firm called Circuit City, and by 1984 he was tabbed as CEO. That company’s meteoric rise during his leadership is the stuff of business legend: Circuit City’s revenues exploded from $175 million to $12.5 billion by 2000. Anyone who bought a big-screen TV, camcorder, DVD, CD player, or cell phone in the 1990s probably purchased it at Circuit City. Rick proved to be a genius at retailing, locating hundreds of stores in prime commercial locations where sales exploded.

During one seven-year stretch, Circuit City had the biggest run-up in its stock value of any Fortune 100 company. Tens of thousands of Americans were made rich by Rick’s business savvy. He used to tell me with his customary modesty that “we had the right business model at the right time and were lucky to catch the wave of the consumer-electronics craze.” In reality, it was his vision that created the wave and brought these products at affordable prices into the living rooms of tens of millions of Americans.

One lesson of Rick’s life is that in business, great leadership is everything. When he stepped down as CEO, Circuit City was one of the hottest retail brands in the world. Five years later it was bankrupt thanks to a series of financial blunders by his successors, who ignored his advice.

Sharp later founded the used-car powerhouse Carmax. He once told me he got the idea because “there was no industry with a lower reputation, other than Congress, than used-car salesman.” His vision was to create a classy nationwide retail seller of used cars without the hassles and the haggling. “Buying a car should be a fun experience,” he used to say. Its annual revenues reached $7 billion.

If possible, his acumen in investing was even more chart-topping. In 1992 he served as founding investor of Flextronics International, an electronics-manufacturing company. That firm’s sales soared to $30 billion during the years when Sharp served as chairman.

About ten years ago, Rick started walking around in green and brown and red casual shoes made of plastic. These came to be known as Crocs. In 2005, he met the inventor and became the chairman of Crocs, Inc. — yet another $1 billion retail hit.

I first met Rick Sharp when the two of us locked horns on opposite sides of the debate about replacing the income tax with a national sales tax. I was for it; he, as head of the National Retail Federation in the mid 1990s, was a leading critic. Even though we vehemently disagreed on the issue, we struck up a friendship and became partners in political crusades to defend the free market. He often said, “The free enterprise system is what made this nation wealthy and allowed someone like me to become rich. Why does Washington want to tear down that system?” I never had an answer.

He and his wife Sherry have been prodigious charitable givers for cancer and Alzheimer’s research, Boys and Girls Clubs, and conservative political organizations. The Sharps have donated millions of dollars for private-school scholarships and were avid supporters of school choice. Charles Koch once said of Rick Sharp that “he is one of the most generous people I have ever met in my life.”

Yet Rick Sharp will be celebrated in history books not for what he gave away, but what he created: world-renowned enterprises. His unique talent was to see where the future of consumer demand was headed before anyone else had a clue. He was a capitalist in the best sense of the word. He loved driving racecars because he admired fast things. He steered the American consumer into the digital age and left the world a richer place.

— Stephen Moore is chief economist at the Heritage Foundation.