With a Little Help from His Friends
When Brett Wickard '90 arrived at Bowdoin from Downers Grove, Illinois, in the fall of 1986, he was a self-described "science and math nerd" possessed with major computer skills and a "deranged fantasy" that he was going to major in chemistry in order to improve the catalytic converter in automobiles and thereby help save the planet from certain destruction.
Nineteen years later, Brett Wickard has failed to achieve his scientific goal, yet he is not a complete failure. As founder and president of Bull Moose Music, Wickard now oversees a thriving record store chain with 10 stores in Maine and New Hampshire, 104 employees, and annual sales "in the low eight figures."
"I've already gotten more out of business than I ever dreamed," says Wickard, 37, as he sits behind his desk in Bull Moose Music's third floor corporate offices on Monument Square in Portland. Were this not the age of geek chic, Wickard would seem an unlikely CEO, a friendly, low-key, self-deprecating young man dressed for success in blue jeans and a rumpled short-sleeve sports shirt. And make no mistake about it, Bull Moose Music is a true homegrown Bowdoin business success story.
From Polar Bear to Bull Moose
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Brett was a distance runner, a trumpet player, a self-taught computer programmer, and an outstanding student, though he dismisses his academic achievements with characteristic modesty.
"Most standardized tests were built for people like me," he says. "I got better scores than I deserved on the SATs."
While at Downers Grove North High School, Brett came east to attend a summer session at Harvard. He had been thinking about Harvard or MIT, but that summer in Cambridge convinced him that he didn't want to go to college in a city. When it was suggested to him that he "try Bowdoin," Brett came to Brunswick for a visit and fell in love with the College at first sight.
"I had macaroni and cheese - my favorite - at the Moulton Union," says Brett of his favorable first impression of Bowdoin. "People were way more real. Bowdoin had a great way of making you feel you had a community there."
When he applied early decision, Brett was aware that Bowdoin was seeking diversity in its student body so, as a middle class white male from the Midwest, "I wrote that I was so generic and boring that I would make everyone else feel more diverse."
Another appeal Bowdoin held for Brett was the fact it was a Division III school in athletics, so there was a good chance he could continue his cross country and long distance track career in college, something he could not have done if he stayed home and attended the University of Illinois.
"I worked my butt off at running, but I was mediocre," Brett confides. "And I worked my butt off at music, but I was mediocre."
Dave Wilby '91, Brett's former roommate and close friend, attests to the accuracy of Brett's musical self-assessment.
"Brett is an unusually modest person," Wilby says, "but when it comes to his musical abilities his modesty is well warranted."
Since trumpet was not a great rock or party instrument, Brett took up guitar and keyboard with varying degrees of success. He recalls, for instance, "torturing" his fellow students by performing duets on the Quad with Sean Hale '91, being the fourth member of a U2 cover band that called itself the Joshua Trio, and rocking away happily with Randolph Mantooth and Fleshblanket, a 1980s cover band whose repertoire Brett describes as "the cheesier the better, but it was, oh, so much fun."
"All the bands I played in were based at Delta Sig, so the second semester of my senior year I joined Delta Sigma just to pay my dues."
Between his sophomore and junior year, Brett traded the piano keyboard for the computer keyboard when he took a summer internship with a software company, an experience that ultimately inspired him to go into business for himself. When he was paid $7,000 for writing a very profitable optical character recognition program for fax machines, Brett felt he had been exploited. Determined not to get ripped off again, he began brainstorming about what sort of business he might start to earn some money the following summer.
When DeOrsey's Record Store in Brunswick closed, leaving Bowdoin students without a music source, Brett began telling classmates that he was going to open a record store. And that's exactly what he did, albeit in a somewhat naïve and unsystematic way.
A Moose is Born
With his $7,000 nest egg and a $30,000 loan, Brett launched Bull Moose Music in the summer of 1989. His business plan amounted to looking up record distributors in the Yellow Pages and ordering one album by every artist and band that had released at least two albums, figuring if you got to make a second album you must be good.
"I had one copy of everyone with more than one album out," Brett says, "but I had the wrong album by everybody."
Not having figured out yet that location is everything to a retail business, Brett opened Bull Moose Music on hard-to-find Middle Street in Brunswick right next door to the Army recruiting station.
"The Army recruiter was great. He gave me the Army's 'Be All You Can Be' bags because I hadn't thought of bags, and he told me if it didn't work out he would put me in the Army."
Befitting a rock 'n' roll record store, Brett Wickard's Bull Moose Music was launched "with a little help from my friends." When he realized a few days before the grand opening that he didn't know how he was going to display all the CDs he had purchased, Brett went to a party at Bowdoin's Brunswick Apartments and recruited some buddies - Chris Brown '91, Dave Nutes '91 and Dave Wilby '91 - to help him build wooden bins. Hilary Bush '91 designed the Bull Moose Music logo.
Over the years, Brett has been content to allow an apocryphal story about how the store got its name to be repeated in the press - that he had named it after Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party, a reference to being an independent alternative. In fact, he says, that's just pure bull.
"Any Bowdoin student would know that Bull Moose was a track-slash-drinking club. Our first t-shirt was a moose wearing track shoes."
In its first summer season, Bull Moose Music limped along on sales of about $100 a day, bleeding red ink and forcing Brett to run up his credit card debt. Dave Wilby, who was rooming with Brett that summer, says he is amazed Brett knew whether he was making or losing money at all, given "the fact that he's a slob."
"It's amazing he could keep any records straight," says Wilby. "He had this beat-up Honda and there were always important business documents underfoot. There were three of us living together and you'd wake up in the morning and walk to the bathroom stepping over last night's receipts."
To help keep the marginal start-up business afloat, Brett hired Chris Brown '91 as his first employee. Brown, who is now Vice President for Operations of Bull Moose Music, played bass in such long-forgotten bands as Chicken Bucket and Sam the Waggon and, with his shoulder-length hair, mustache and goatee, looks very much like the poster image of rock legend Frank Zappa that adorns his office next door to Brett's.
While Ellen Teegarden, Bull Moose's first customer and second employee, minded the counter with Chris Brown, Brett and classmate Cheney Brand wrote code furiously in the back of the store, creating a billing program for psychologists in order to help pay the bills.
"Chris managed the store full-time. Cheney and I programmed full-time," Brett recalls. "Cheney paid me the same amount I was paying Chris. We were running on fumes."
In search of more visibility and foot traffic, Brett moved Bull Moose from Middle Street to the Tontine Mall on Maine Street. When a UPS driver suggested that he would do better with a storefront on Maine Street, Brett moved Bull Moose to its present location at the corner of Maine and School, right at the foot of Park Row where every Bowdoin student walking downtown passes by.
To this day, the Brunswick store (and several of the other Bull Moose Music stores) has the grungy look and feel of a college town underground record shop. There's a lot of indie rock, punk and alternative rock in the bins, and Brett confesses that his own tastes still run to "whiny college alternative rock," bands like the Smiths, Green Day, the Killers and Coldplay. But Brett says the key to Bull Moose's success has been non-judgmental musical inclusiveness.
Brett was big into a band called Camper van Beethoven when he opened his first store and might have been expected to cast a jaundiced ear on a pop band such as Bon Jovi, but he experienced a bit of an epiphany when a young girl came into his store all excited about a new Bon Jovi album.
"I realized there was no difference between the love Bon Jovi fans have for their band and my love for Camper Van Beethoven. It's the core of what we do. Our job is to find music you like."
Bull Moose Gets Serious
When Bull Moose started breaking even that first year, Brett Wickard started getting serious. He was still studying chemistry and economics, but he was now on a fast-track from academe to commerce.
"My little business side kicked in," he says. "I realized this industry is based on scale. We needed to buy direct and in order to buy direct we needed to buy more."
And in order to buy more, Bull Moose Music would need more stores. So, "it was all guns to get to the right size."
Brett opened his second store in North Windham in 1991, skipping over Portland for the time being "because I was afraid of the city." Trying to run two stores and do everything himself, Brett ended up injuring a disc in his neck while frantically loading heavy boxes of CDs. Temporarily sidelined by the injury, he made another important discovery.
"The stores ran just fine without me there every day," Brett says. "I have a great staff. I think the stores actually ran better when I wasn't there."
No longer feeling the need to micro-manage his business, Brett was free to concentrate on growing it. He opened a store in Portland's Old Port in 1993, one in Lewiston in 1994, and another in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1996.
When flyers started appearing around Portsmouth that read, "Boycott chains! Buy local!," Brett thought Bull Moose was being welcomed to town as an independent local record store. Then he realized that Bull Moose, with five stores, was the chain being targeted by a local record shop.
Brett experienced another "corporate moment" when he got a call from commercial banker Ben Geci '92 of People's Heritage Bank (now TD Banknorth). At first, Brett wanted nothing to do with commercial debt, but Geci convinced him that "if you borrowed money, you could grow your business a lot faster."
"The first time I called him, he wouldn't do anything with me," Ben Geci recalls. "He didn't believe me. He thought I was trying to screw him. But he slowly came around to the idea that as long as he was making more money off the money he borrowed than the bank was, he was in good shape."
Bull Moose Music stores thus appeared in Sanford in 1997, Waterville in 1998, Bangor in 1999, Salem, New Hampshire, in 2001, and near the Maine Mall in Scarborough in 2003. The Scarborough store was a major departure for Bull Moose, being both a 10,000 square foot warehouse store that supplies the other nine stores and a clean, well-lighted space quite unlike the funky poster-plastered look of early Bull Moose outlets.
"Brett has new offices now," says Ben Geci, "but 10 years ago I wouldn't let my boss, who now runs with Brett, visit his office, it was such a mess."
In fact, a visitor to most Bull Moose Music stores still would be surprised to learn that the Bull Moose operation is actually a model of hi-tech efficiency.
"Efficiency is the equivalent of a weapon in business," explains Brett. "Because we literally lived off nothing, we learned how to run a business on nothing. Our overhead is 10 percent of sales. Our competitors' overhead is as much as 34 percent of sales."
One of the ways Bull Moose optimizes efficiency is by using the Willow Retail Suite software that Brett wrote to keep track of his inventory and sales.
"Our inventory replenishment system," he says, "was inspired by the math surrounding high energy physics like electron clouds."
Wickard's Willow Retail Suite program factors the probability that a title will sell into an equation that calculates the likelihood that Bull Moose "will have what the customer is looking for at the best margin for the store." Brett says that the fact that he could take the time to write the Willow software is "a tribute to what Chris does."
Chris Brown, who returned to Bull Moose in 1995 after taking a few years off to pursue his music career, says, "I'm really just the other guy here, the sidekick." But Brett knows better.
"Chris is able to shoulder so much of the operation of the business that it gives me time to do other things. I'm still the president, but he does a huge amount of the stuff around here."
Bull Moose is now licensing the Willow software to three other music store chains and has a half dozen waiting to come on-line, giving the program "collaborative filtering" of sales data from many more stores.
Bull Moose customers know that Bull Moose stores are far more likely to have rare, hard-to-find titles than most big box stores. That's both because Bull Moose buys and sells used CDs and because Brett Wickard has figured out something he believes his larger competitors have missed - while he may only sell one copy of a hard-to-find CD, the customer who buys rare titles is likely someone who spends a lot of money on music.
"The title isn't profitable," Brett says, "but the customer is."
"In the early years of Bull Moose, when Bull Moose was vulnerable," says Chris Brown, "what got us through is the fact that Brett is not greedy. He used all the money he made to open new stores."
Time to Smell the Roses
It would be easy to imagine Brett Wickard as one of those driven, get-a-life cyber-clones Silicon Valley is famous for, working 24-7 and existing on pizza, Diet Coke and tunes, but the truth is that he is a family man more determined than ever to spend as much time as he can with his wife and children.
Brett met artist Louisa Boehmer '85 eleven years ago on a blind date (lunch in Tommy's Park while an a cappella group was performing) and the couple were married eight years ago. They live in Cumberland with their two children - Lydia, 7, and Stuart, 5.
"Without Louisa in my life," Brett says, "I would not take time to smell the roses."
Brett was devastated a few years ago when son Stuart was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, but, rallying to the cause, he became the corporate fundraiser for the Maine chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. With a goal of raising $190,000 this year, Bull Moose Music pledged $25 to everyone who participated in the September 18 Walk to Cure Diabetes.
Brett's easy-going demeanor changes, and he becomes visibly emotional when he talks about how he has been buoyed by the support he has received from business colleagues. When Stuart was first diagnosed with diabetes, the president of one of the country's largest music store and distribution companies, himself a Type I diabetic, called Brett and gave him a pep talk. Brett then wrote a personal fundraising letter to people within the industry and was floored by the response. His eyes mist up when he reports, "Our biggest competitor - Newbury Comics - gave."
In a sense, Brett Wickard has taken the sense of community he found at Bowdoin and imparted it to his business, making Bull Moose Music an integral part of each community it serves.
"I cannot imagine a better place to open retail space than Maine," he says. "People like to shop locally, and they get to know your story quickly. I could never have pulled off Bull Moose in Illinois."
And while Bull Moose Music could grow much faster and much bigger, Brett Wickard is content for the moment to enjoy what he has created. Oh, he'd open a couple more stores in a heartbeat if the right deal came along, but he's committed to "smart growth."
"I'm not going to grow just for growth's sake," he insists, but then he adds a thought that lets you know Brett Wickard is still the same practical idealist who arrived at Bowdoin back in 1986. "A business should always be aggressive," he says.
"I believe our economy is like a steamroller, and you're always running in front of that steamroller. We still plan to take over the known universe. We really do."