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Deceased HHGregg chairman oversaw explosive growth

January 23, 2012
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Jerry Throgmartin, who helped transform HHGregg from a local retailer into a major player in the consumer electronics industry, died unexpectedly Sunday at the age of 57.

A spokesman for the company declined to comment on the cause of Throgmartin's death. He fell ill and died while visiting his ranch in Colorado, University of Indianapolis President Beverley Pitts said in an e-mail to faculty and staff Monday morning. Throgmartin was a member of the UIndy board of trustees.

"It is quite a shock," Pitts wrote.

Throgmartin served as chairman and CEO of the Indianapolis-based company from 2003 to 2009, when he became executive chairman. Throgmartin's grandfather founded the company in 1955.

The former CEO played a "critical role" in HHGregg's growth during a career that spanned 36 years, current CEO Dennis L. May said in a prepared statement.

Throgmartin joined the company in 1975 as a salesman and then served as store manager, district manager, advertising director and store operations vice president. Before becoming CEO, he also served as president and chief operating officer.

Throgmartin led the company through its 2007 initial public stock offering, which accelerated its growth. It now operates 208 stores in 16 states and has annual revenue topping $2 billion.

Junior Achievement of Central Indiana Inc. announced Jan. 9 that it had inducted Throgmartin into its Central Indiana Business Hall of Fame. He was scheduled to be honored at a Feb. 16 event along with three other inductees.

Throgmartin was heavily involved in civic and corporate circles away from HHGregg, including serving as chairman of the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center development board and the University of Indianapolis board of trustees.

Last year, he was named to the board of directors of Hulman & Co., the Terre Haute-based company that controls the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Indianapolis bank executive Steve Stitle, who knew Throgmartin for more than two decades, called him a business visionary.

"I think Jerry had a knack for sort of going against the trend of what was happening in the electronics industry, and he understood the importance of customer service and really having outstanding people work in his business," said Stitle, regional chairman for PNC Bank in Indiana.

HHGregg withstood a series of competitive challenges before expanding its ambitions regionally and then nationally over the past two decades. In the 1980s, for instance, Fretter Inc. and Highland Superstores Inc. both charged into Indianapolis, only to later retreat and go out of business. The latest rival to falter was Circuit City, which went out of business in 2009.

In a 1997 interview, Throgmartin said he didn't spend his time obsessing about the competition.

"It is my own belief that competition doesn't put you out of business," he said. "You put yourself out of business, because you stop delivering what the customer wants."

Throgmartin didn't always see himself at the helm of HHGregg, despite having been immersed in the family business from an early age.

As a teenager, sports held a bigger fascination than TVs and refrigerators. A wide receiver at Franklin Central High School, then Ball State University and the University of Indianapolis, Throgmartin dreamed of a professional football career even while peddling appliances as a part-time salesman for the growing chain.

"Everybody who comes out of high school playing football thinks they're going to play in the pros, and I wasn't any different than that," he said in 2002. "I was just convinced that I had a career path. I would play some pro football and then I'd go buy a ranch someplace and take it easy."

Gradually, the realization set in that he wouldn't be catching touchdown passes in the NFL. The void left by that disappointment almost immediately was filled by the prospect of a future in the family business.

"I started getting the bug for our business almost as a replacement for the competitive part of football," Throgmartin remembered in 2002.

He started full-time sales in 1978, when there were five HHGregg stores in Indianapolis, Kokomo and Anderson. A year later, the company's first superstore opened near East 96th Street and Keystone Avenue, and Throgmartin became its manager.

He had barely gotten his feet wet when a devastating blow struck. At just 24, Throgmartin was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer whose treatment called for a bone marrow transplant.

In those days, such procedures were rare, and weren't being performed here. After treatment at the Indiana University Medical Center, Throgmartin went to Houston several times, ultimately receiving the transplant in 1981.

The disease gave Throgmartin a new perspective.

"I take our business pretty seriously and I'm pretty competitive. But at the end of the day, no matter how bad it gets, it's still just a job," he said in 2002.

Throgmartin is survived by Peggy, his wife of 35 years, twin daughters, a son and two grandaughters. The son, Gregg Throgmartin, is HHGregg's executive vice president and chief operating officer.

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