Hugs for Charlie — Take one and pass it along

“[Charlie] never wanted the spotlight,” long-time friend and colleague Al Kraus noted in an online post, recalling a conversation with Charlie Bowlus over a drink one night in 1994, at the end of the very first ECRM show. “His first show had maybe 80 people. ... I asked him if he made any money on the show. He said, ‘I don’t know, but a lot of people did business, and it was a hell of a party.’”

Within hours of the time Drug Store News first reported the tragic loss of ECRM founder and CEO Charlie Bowlus, the story already had become the most-commented-on news item on since we launched the site in 1998. As this issue goes to press, more than 50 Drug Store News readers had already shared their memories of Charlie’s life and career — and how his friendship improved their own lives and careers — in posts on and on our Facebook page, as well as in direct letters to the editor. More than 100 others had shared their thoughts in a special online memorial bulletin board on the ECRM Marketgate website. In total, it’s enough for an entire issue of Drug Store News. And you better believe, it would be one BIG issue.

That Charlie Bowlus created ECRM from some crazy idea he had for how he could use the Internet to make it easier for retailers and vendors to buy and sell, and that all of this grew from five people working out of his home, is a testament to the fact that if your dream ain’t bigger than you, then you ain’t dreaming big enough.

And if that were the whole story, that would be impressive enough.

But behind the ECRM experience is a massive investment in technology and perhaps an even bigger investment in people — and not just because the company has grown to more than 200 associates. Charlie invested of himself — he invested in each of the people that ever rolled up their sleeves and went to work with him or for him; he invested in their careers and, in some cases, their personal lives, too.

That is clear in all of the comments from Charlie’s friends and colleagues. There are a lot of car stories, like the time former ECRM-er Anita Fontana and Charlie left “the rental car with the keys in it” in a no-parking zone in front of the airport “and ran like hell.” They made their flight. “I don’t think I ever ran so hard or laughed so hard,” she said.

David Horvat remembers driving with Charlie in San Diego in the mid ’90s, trying to find their hotel at an NACDS conference. Charlie took a shortcut through a parking lot and blew out the tires on the security spikes. Limping up to the hotel valet, the parking attendant told Charlie he had two flat tires. “No I don’t. I have four,” Charlie said as he tossed him the keys and handed him a $100 bill. “Take care of this for me.”

And there are a lot of stories about family, like ECRM-er Melinda Young, who remembers how Charlie finally got her boyfriend to propose to her, by leaving him a five-minute voicemail as the “voice of God.”

Or, Teah Weiss, another original “Charlie’s Angel,” who remembers the day she needed to tell Charlie that she would need to scale back her workload to address some health issues and trying with her husband to have a child. “His answer, ‘We’ll figure it out,’” she said. “Then he asked me to just sit tight for a minute and he and his son, Mitch, talked. Then Charlie handed [us] a check and told [my husband and I] to go on vacation and make a baby.”

And almost everybody has a story about Charlie Bowlus’ hugs. Like so many others, the first time ECRM-er Maria Di Franco met Charlie, “He was wearing jeans, had a big smile and gave me a hug — not what I expected from the CEO.”

To be sure, Charlie Bowlus wasn’t your typical CEO. And like the EPPS meetings he created, he packed a lot of living into 64 short years of life. Not just anybody can be Charlie Bowlus — and that’s an understatement. But there’s one thing you CAN do.

“If you met Charlie, you have had a hug,” Al Kraus noted. “If you ever met someone who has not, please pass it on. A hug from Charlie will stay with you forever.”

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