Trans World's Late Founder Bob Higgins Remembered By Doug Morris, Stephen Cooper

Trans World Entertainment Corporation
Bob Higgins

"He was a complete gentleman, who was also the best retailer... I used to kid him about being the ultimate retail cockroach."

As Trans World Entertainment and its label partners gather this week at Saratoga Spring for the company’s annual convention, it will be the first meeting without the company’s founder, Bob Higgins, who passed away six months earlier, on March 2 at the age of 75 from natural causes.

Higgins founded the Trans World chain in 1972, and took his company public in 1986, trading on the NASDAQ exchange, where its shares can still be bought today. On Wednesday, Sept. 6, its shares closed a $2.30.

At the chain’s peak, Trans World had over 1,000 stores in 2007 after Higgins became the last retail giant standing, while consolidating the record store chain industry by buying Wherehouse, Musicland, Disc Jockey, Camelot and many other chains.

But Sony Music chairman Doug Morris remembers Higgins from earlier times. “This guy built his entire chain by himself,” Morris recalled earlier this year. “I once asked him how he got started. He was a music salesman for a wholesaler who left and started his own company, building it from a single store.”

When his chain became a force to be reckoned with, “he was still the nicest man you could meet,” Morris said. “He was a complete gentleman, who was also the best retailer, who knew everything about every one of his stores. I used to kid him about being the ultimate retail cockroach.”

But while the music industry’s transformation to the digital business model resulted in Trans World annual income statement showing four years of red ink through 2011, Higgins managed to soldier through the downturn, returning the chain to profitability in 2012.

Warner Music Group CEO Stephen Cooper worked with Trans World as a consultant before he joined the record label side of the business. “Bob was such a bright and determined guy, incredibly hard-working and always a gentleman,” Cooper recalled earlier this year. “Whatever format shift was hitting the industry, he took the pioneer’s path. I was always impressed with how he would noodle through each challenge to make sure his business thrived. I count myself very lucky to have known him and I send his family my deepest, heartfelt condolences.”

Likewise, Sony Music Entertainment executive VP/GM for sales Darren Stupak said, “Bob Higgins was an example to us all. He was a hugely successful entrepreneur with tremendous drive who was unafraid of taking risks. He strongly understood how to innovate and evolve his business to meet the changing dynamics of the industry, and how to make the most of the opportunities for a physical retailer, regardless of the situation – be it in the era of the CD's dominance, or in an environment increasingly powered by digital sales. I will always admire Bob for being an incredible leader,and remember him as a friend who was devoted to his family.  He will be missed.”

While Higgins remained chairman of the chain to his last days, he turned over day-to-day responsibility for running the chain to Mike Feurer, who was hired in 2014 as CEO; and has still kept alive the chain’s annual profit streak at six years and running. The company remains a publicly traded stock and on Wednesday Sept. 6, its share’s closed a $2.30.

David Bolotsky, who is now the founder and CEO of UncommonGoods, recalls Higgins from his days following the Trans World Entertainment stock price and company as a retail analyst for Goldman Sachs from 1987-1999. “Bob Higgins was a sharp, self-made businessman – his leadership of Trans World helped it outlast many of its more celebrated competitors,” Bolotsky said. “He understood mall real estate well and his businesslike approach helped him recognize the need to diversify his product mix into higher margin, faster growing merchandise categories outside of music.  I always enjoyed meeting with Bob, he was refreshingly candid and down to earth, combined with a good sense of humor, an inspiring work ethic and a very generous spirit.”