Follett Higher Education Group Community College of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania
Tom Christopher took a roundabout route to community college. He started college at the University of Pennsylvania but dropped out after a year—"I just had one of those disastrous years freshmen years kids have sometimes" says Christopher—and followed up on his mom's tip about the brand-new Community College of Allegheny County starting up back home in Pittsburgh.
In the fall of 1966, Christopher became one of CCAA's first students. "The college was so new we actually had class in a local high school after the high school kids went home, so all the classes were evening classes," said Christopher, who credits CCAA for making him get his act together. "My experience helped me get my feet on the ground—to understand the importance of setting goals and the discipline it takes to do something well."
The CCAA also rechanneled Christopher out of the pre-med course he embarked upon at Penn and into the business curriculum that eventually led him in his present position as president of the Follett Higher Education Group, the largest operator of college and university bookstores.
In fact, he had retail in his blood. "I've always worked since I was a little kid," said Christopher. "I had a paper route, and I stocked the shelves in parents' corner grocery store. When I was at CCAA I worked part-time at Joseph Horn, a Pittsburgh department store. I had a lot of retail jobs growing up, so I guess some of it rubbed off on me."
After obtaining a B.B.A. in economics at Kent State University, Christopher landed a job at Pier 1 Imports. "I saw an ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer with the headline, 'If you can breathe fire and walk on water, we want you!' and thought this sounded just goofy enough for me." Christopher wound up spending 19 years at Pier 1, first working in and then managing stores, traveling extensively to Asia and Europe as a buyer, and eventually rising to executive vice president of operations in charge of stores, real estate, distribution, logistics, and financial planning.
Christopher's next stop was chairman, president, and CEO of Bookstop, Inc., based in Austin, Texas, a pioneer book superstore. "There were individual superstores around the country at the time—Barnes & Noble had a couple in New York, and Borders in Ann Arbor—but this was the first chain superstore concept," said Christopher. After Barnes & Noble acquired the privately held firm, Christopher spent five years as president of the B&N Retail Division (Superstores).
Christopher next joined Restoration Hardware as president, chief operating officer, and director. "At the time, it was a tiny company with four little stores in California, and the founder, Steve Gordon, was looking for investors and somebody to partner up with him who had more formal experience in expansion and rolling out a retail concept," said Christopher. Under Christopher's leadership, Restoration Hardware grew from $4 million in annual sales to a publicly held operation with $370 million annual sales.
In 2002 Christopher joined Follett, a family-owned firm that ranks 133 out of the Forbes Magazine 500 largest private companies. Follett runs some 750 college bookstores—about one-third of them at community colleges—but you may not know it to look at them. "Most of our stores don't have the Follett name on them," said Christopher. "We really try to reinforce the brand of the institution, so at Notre Dame, for example, it would say 'Notre Dame Bookstore,' and you'd have to do a little digging to find out that we operate the store."
His experience at Follett has supplemented his already high esteem for community colleges. "We have bookstores in about 250 community college campuses across North America," he said. "I go there and see what they do, how they serve the community, their links with the local firefighters and police and folks in the medical profession, and how the community college adds to the glue of a community. I think community colleges have a special place and that their mission is critical to the welfare of the country."