OAKLAND — When 26-year-old Barbara Millard was anointed by her father last year to be president of his $1.5-billion-a-year ComputerLand chain of retail stores, it looked like an old-fashioned case of nepotism with a couple of contemporary fillips: she was a woman and she was very young.
With the industry beginning to slump, dealers getting restless and the Millard family's control being challenged in court by outside investors, it might have seemed an outlandish appointment. But when Daddy owns the company, it's like they say about the gorilla: he sits wherever he wants.
Quickly, ComputerLand's problems deepened. It lost the court case in March and was forced to publicly entertain thoughts of bankruptcy because of the huge damage award. Owners of hundreds of ComputerLand franchises, buffeted by the slump after years of rapid growth, revolted over distasteful corporate policies.
Finally in late September, giving in to dealers' demands, father William and daughter Barbara Millard handed in their resignations from the two top management posts at ComputerLand. He remains chairman and she was made president of the family holding company, IMS Associates.
Today, colleagues of Barbara Millard describe her as capable and savvy beyond her years--a better manager than her autocratic father. But they say that other people's perceptions about her youth and her status as the boss' daughter undercut her skills.
"She was a quick learner and a very savvy individual. What went awry was that this was the toughest year the industry has ever seen, and much of the network (of franchise owners) looked to corporate for leadership and guidance," says Michael Shabazian, a veteran IBM executive who headed ComputerLand's U.S. division until he quit last month after numerous disagreements with William Millard.
"That's where her lack of experience and knowledge of the industry caught up with her. From the franchisees' point of view, there was an issue of credibility with her. They didn't have much contact with her. All they saw was she's 26 years old and the daughter of the chairman, and they look around and said, 'Wait a minute' ."
Whatever the store owners think, Shabazian says that inside the company she was a skillful operator who regularly did battle with her father and was uniquely able to sway him. He said she successfully pitched several management proposals on franchise issues that did away with some of her father's "sacred cows."
Great Interior Lineman
"She used me and the staff that way," Shabazian says. "In many ways she was a great interior lineman. She opened up holes and let us run through them."
Ironically, the woman whom dealers assumed was a mere mouthpiece for her father is now credited with persuading William Millard that both had to step aside and bring back former president Edward Faber as the chief executive--the move that headed off a threatened mass defection of store owners in late September.
"Ultimately, that is who he listened to," said Bruce Burdick, owner of 11 ComputerLand stores in the Kansas City area. "The final point was when Barbara said, 'Hey, Dad, it's time to do it.' If that turns out to have been the right thing, they go down in the record book as good managers."
Millard herself is not one to dwell on such questions. The eldest of three daughters, she quit college in the first quarter of her freshman year, joined the family business and hasn't looked back. She is tall, engaging and self-assured.
Now a ripe old 27, Millard cheerfully dismisses 1985 as "a hell of a year"--she is also in the midst of what she calls an amicable divorce--and is already on to other things. She has been dispatched to tangle with the wily lawyer who defeated her family in court as a high-stakes battle continues for control of the Millard empire, recently valued by Forbes magazine as a $480-million prize. And she has been handed a new job that she views as a chance to expand the family's little-known manufacturing subsidiary to feed products to ComputerLand stores.
Her fall from the presidency, in other words, wasn't exactly a fall from grace. William Millard, 53, is still chairman and owns at least 80% of the company's stock. He declined to be interviewed, but colleagues suspect that eventually, if the family empire remains intact, the idea is for Barbara Millard to be running the whole show.
Won't Fade Away
"She's not going to fade into the woodwork," said Vincent O'Reilly, the former president of ComputerLand's corporate affairs division, who lost his job in the recent shake-up.
In an interview in her office at ComputerLand headquarters here, Millard said her biggest problems were the industry slump and the court fight that raised the specter of bankruptcy in dealers' minds. But she agreed that she could have better dealt with those crises if she'd been perceived differently.