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CarMax founder, family hope for Alzheimer's cure

By By GREGORY J. GILLIGAN

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Richard L. Sharp thrived on being a visionary.

"All of my life, I've been the curious one. It's a good thing to have," Sharp said recently, adding that he always looked for new or different ways to do something.

For instance, Sharp, who led Circuit City through dramatic growth in the 1990s, was the mastermind behind CarMax, the used-car superstore concept that Circuit City developed and that is now the nation's largest retailer of used cars.

Sharp remembers how he came up with the idea for CarMax and the problems the chain faced in the early days. He also recalls CarMax's first buyer — Robert S. Ukrop of local grocery store fame, who bought his son a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

But Sharp and his wife, Sherry, know that someday in the very near future he won't recall those facts and many others.

Sharp, who celebrated his 66th birthday last month, suffers from early-onset Alzheimer's.

He was diagnosed in October 2010 but knew for a couple of years before then that he had the symptoms.

"I was faking it to people," Sharp said in the living room of his Goochland County home last week, adding that his grandfather, father and uncle had Alzheimer's.

This morning, CarMax will dedicate its first store — on West Broad Street at Interstate 64 in Henrico County, which opened 20 years ago this September — to Sharp for his contributions to the chain and the community and for his business acumen.

"He was a great leader," said Tom Folliard, who has been CarMax's president and chief executive since 2006 and was hired by Sharp as one of the chain's first employees. "He was a very motivational guy. He could come to a meeting and you felt good about working there. Rick always had this aura."

Sharp served as CEO of the now-defunct Circuit City chain from 1986 to 2000. During his tenure, he turned the regional consumer electronics chain into a powerhouse as one of the nation's largest retailers.

He oversaw a team at CarMax as its chief executive that changed the way used cars are sold in the U.S.; Goochland County-based CarMax now has 120 used-car superstores in 60 markets.

As a founding investor and chairman in Crocs Inc., the manufacturer of those popular cloglike, rubberlike shoes, Sharp helped lead the company from obscurity in 2005 to worldwide fame.

"Rick is one of the two or three most brilliant people I've ever met in the business world," said former CarMax CEO Austin Ligon, a co-founder of CarMax who worked with Sharp to refine and develop the used-car retail concept.

"He's an extraordinarily courageous entrepreneur, willing to take a risk when he sees an opportunity in a way that's unusual, particularly for someone who also ran a large established business," Ligon said.

"I have this disease," Sharp said in a powerful voice during the interview last week.

"If we don't find a way to find a fix and find a cure, you won't be able to build enough buildings to house" all of the Alzheimer's patients who will be diagnosed with the disease, he said.

Sharp has his good days and his bad days, he and his wife said.

When speaking, for instance, he leaves out words in a sentence or can't finish a thought. His wife finishes it for him. Sometimes, he mixes up words — for instance, during last week's interview he referred to Hewlett-Packard as "Hewlett Power." Other times, his wife has to jog his memory or correct it.

"We take one day at a time. Sometimes, we take one afternoon or one evening. And things can change drastically from one time to another," said Sherry, who married her high school sweetheart in August 1968.

"It is a hard road, a hard path for everybody, not just for Richard but our family, the girls and grandchildren, and everybody," she said.

"There is nothing short of giving up. You have to do what you can and go out fighting," she said. "We will cross that bridge of Richard not recognizing me some day. I can't imagine what that will be like."

But the Sharps are trying to make a difference.

Since 1999, they have donated more than $5 million to Alzheimer's and neurological research, most of it at Johns Hopkins Medicine, the medical school and hospital complex in Baltimore where he served on the advisory board.

The couple is in the process of creating a national foundation to promote the collaboration and development of Alzheimer's research. The goal is to raise in excess of $100 million — and be a major player in finding a cure for the disease.

They hope the foundation — likely to be called the Stay Sharp Foundation — will launch this year. In the meantime, his two daughters created the Stay Sharp Fund at the Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia to begin raising funds.

"Our goal and our family's goal is to find a cure. There are so many people affected by it," Sharp said.

Many researchers across the world are looking for cures, his wife said, but they are working alone and not collaborating with others.

"They are hiding it to be the first to find the cure or to find what is causing it for financial gain or recognition," she said. "We have a team of people working together to collaborate to get out and find all who are doing research and to get them to collaborate."

Even though the disease is genetic in his family, Sharp wonders if the environment played a role in his case.

At least three former Circuit City executives have been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's in recent years or have died of it.

Sharp is convinced there is some connection.

"It makes you wonder" about the odds of at least three company officers getting the disease at such a young age, he said.

Sharp has been described over the years as an innovator and forward thinker who is driven, competitive and intense.

"To me, he was an extraordinary person: a dynamic, hard-charging and intensely competitive CEO, yet modest and self-effacing, quick to give others credit for success while keeping any blame for himself," said W. Stephen Cannon, chairman of the Constantine Cannon LLP law firm in Washington and former general counsel for Circuit City.

"Rick is the consummate optimist, and he approaches every business or personal challenge with quiet dignity, courage and fierce resolve," Cannon said.

Michael Marks — the former longtime CEO of Flextronics International Ltd., which designs, builds, ships and services electronics products worldwide — said Sharp is intensely competitive. Sharp was a founding investor in Flextronics and served on its board from 1993 to 2008.

"Rick has all of the attributes that make for a great leader," Marks said. "He's smart, personable, not egocentric, incurably curious about all things. He's one of these people who seem to know something about everything. He makes very fast decisions and always honors his commitments."

Sharp also is someone who has made it largely on his own with his smarts and passion. He came from a modest background living in Alexandria, where his father was a federal government worker.

He dropped out of the University of Virginia after three semesters studying electrical engineering in 1966. U.Va. did not offer computer science, and that's what he wanted to do.

"One semester, I went to class and I got B grades," Sharp said. "The second semester, I had no interest."

Rather than attend class, Sharp spent time playing poker and pool. "I was a pretty good poker player."

An idea germinated for Sharp in the early 1990s on a flight to Richmond after giving a speech at a J.D. Power conference: What if Circuit City got into the auto business?

Sharp and other Circuit City executives realized that the chain would have superstores in every major U.S. market by the turn of the century if it continued its rapid pace of store growth. It needed a plan for growth after 2000.

Sharp, Ligon and a small team eventually decided on operating used-car superstores with large volumes of inventory in a no-haggle selling environment. The project was dubbed "Sharp Motors" and "Honest Rick's Used Cars" internally before CarMax became public.

"Sherry, my dear sweet wife, I think she was looking for the loony bin for me" after telling her about the idea, Sharp said.

"I just couldn't make the connection between used cars and the electronics business," his wife said.

Even Folliard, now CarMax's CEO, thought the idea of stocking 400 to 500 used cars a month was crazy.

"My thinking was that these guys are out of their minds. Nobody does that," he said in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article a decade ago.

When CarMax opened its first store in 1993, it had plenty of naysayers, including those on Wall Street who said the concept would not work.

Billionaire entrepreneur H. Wayne Huizenga opened AutoNation used-car dealerships in 1996 to compete against CarMax. But AutoNation left the used-car megastore business in late 1999, saying it could not make money.

"He had the guts and the fortitude to go to the Circuit City board to get the money commitment and to have the personal commitment to make sure it became the company it is today," Folliard said recently. "We had a lot of ups and down along the way. But Rick pushed forward regardless and said this is going to work. He had a long-term perspective."

Sharp was never content with the status quo. Innovation was in his vocabulary.

In the years after creating CarMax, Circuit City under Sharp's leadership got into the home-security business, tested the installation and repair of home air-conditioning and heating systems, and considered opening large furniture stores.

It created a venture that sold a digital video disc rental system called Divx. After pouring more than $200 million into the venture, Circuit City pulled the plug on Divx in 1999 because it failed to get support from Hollywood studios and other retailers.

Former executives, board members, Wall Street analysts and retail observers have said Sharp took his eye off Circuit City's operations during those critical years, which was one reason why the chain eventually failed in 2009.

Sharp takes exception with that characterization. Those comments, he and his wife said, irritate him.

"It is a sad thing" that Circuit City is gone, Sharp said. "They made some stupid decisions after I left."

Sharp was 27 when he started his computer services company that designed point-of-sale terminals. He sold the business six years later.

Having passion is key for any future entrepreneur, he said.

"Richard will tell you whether you have money or no money, you can't go into a business or start your own company without having passion about what you are doing and the skill and hard work and be willing to make sacrifices," his wife said.

"And you lose a lot of money," he said. "I have written off a bunch millions and millions, I can tell you that" over the years.

But Sharp said entrepreneurs must take risks and not live life with regrets — and always look to the future, as he did.

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

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