May 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

The Next Act

After 20 years at Tower, including a high-profile stint as head of e-commerce, Kevin Ertell heads east to start a new chapter.

Can a man who once played bass guitar in a rock band, flew waist-length hair and launched his professional life pushing vinyl in a Las Vegas music store find success as director of interactive marketing at a $4 billion company that happens to be the second-largest bookstore operator in the U.S.?

Borders Group Inc. thinks so. That’s why it hired 20-year Tower Records veteran and former senior vice president and managing director of TowerRecords.com Kevin Ertell for the job.

In a realm of retailing so new that it invents itself daily, convention isn’t necessarily the way to shine. Enthusiasm, smarts, a knack for connecting with people and twin passions for music and computers have been the guideposts that shaped a career path which started with a high school job two decades ago in a Las Vegas music store, and which in August 2005 landed Ertell in the newly-created title of director of interactive marketing, loyalty and CRM at the $4 billion Borders.

Computer virtuoso

Along the way, the mane was sacrificed and the band didn’t quite make it (though for one week, sales of its debut and only recording topped both Michael Jackson and Def Leppard at the Las Vegas Tower store). More importantly, Tower introduced computers into its stores-and this was the medium in which Ertell would prove himself a virtuoso.

Ertell had graduated from store associate to store manager as his interests grew beyond music to include the business side of store operations. In the mid-‘80s, he was managing a Tower video store in Los Angeles when the store hooked up its first computer to keep track of video rentals.

Fascinated, Ertell took to it immediately. He trained himself and soon developed computer-based merchandising and purchasing innovations that were adopted throughout Tower’s stores. “Before you knew it, I was training other stores in how to use the system, which led to an offer to work in the IT department at Tower’s headquarters,” he says.

Ertell joined IT as a project manager, implementing the company’s first corporate e-mail system and launching an electronic gift card system for Tower in conjunction with American Express. Eventually, when he developed an international point-of-sale system, that implementation took him to Tower stores internationally.

Board interest

As with many companies in the mid-‘90s, the emerging Internet and its possibilities didn’t initially get much attention from Tower corporate. The retailer’s first venture online was an AOL store, and its first dedicated web site followed in 1996. Both were the enterprise projects of a Tower exec whose main responsibility was Pulse, a magazine published by Tower at the time.

“He believed in the Internet, worked on the site on the side, and got it going,” says Ertell. “Then the Internet started to take off, Tower’s board got interested, and they decided to invest to make things happen.” That netted Ertell the job of head of technology for the new TowerRecords.com and eventually, a place on the executive management team overseeing the Internet deployment.

TowerRecords.com was becoming a world class e-commerce site, but as it grew, there wasn’t always agreement in the executive ranks about how it should develop. One such issue was that of music downloads. While it recently ventured into podcasts of music shows, Tower still does not sell music files online, though it was something Ertell had lobbied for strongly. “I believed there was a future with that, the CEO did not,” says Ertell. “It did play a part in my decision to leave, but it was the smallest part. After being there 20 years, it was just time to get some different experiences in my career.”

Ertell found the Borders’ position posted on an industry forum at about the same time he was contacted about it by an associate. “I saw so much opportunity,” he says. “So many things that could be done and be made really great. I liked the way Borders was transitioning, and still is, to improve the brand and do the right thing for its customers.”

Ertell spent hours before his first interview studying not just Borders’ web site but everything he could see about its marketing practices, its store operations-and its interactive kiosks. He arrived at his second interview armed with a 12-page list of questions, observations and suggestions on how Borders could leverage all of those channels.

Integrated perspective

That integrated perspective resonated with Borders Group senior vice president of marketing and e-commerce chief Michael Tam. “This was a position we were looking to fill for some time,” says Tam of a search than spanned more than 20 candidates over six months. “Borders is at an inflection point now where we can make a difference by doing some new things. We were looking for someone who would have the ability to think conceptually and innovatively about every aspect of an interactive platform, not someone who was simply an expert in building web sites or in e-commerce. Of all the people we talked to, we found that was best with Kevin.”

While at Tower, Ertell demonstrated the same ability over 10 years of interactions with Jupiter Research analyst Eric T. Peterson, who is now vice president of strategic services at web analytics company Visual Sciences Inc., Peterson says. “Kevin will be able to take a closer look not just at what a technology purports to do, but also will be able to understand what the technology actually can do and how the business can leverage that,” Peterson says. “With any sufficiently robust piece of emerging technology-personalization, mobile, RSS-the most important thing to figure out is the relationship between what vendors will tell you it is possible to do and what is truly valuable to the business. Kevin demonstrated he could do that at Tower. And nothing leads me to believe he won’t succeed in doing that now, in an even more competitive market.”

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