How an OSU marketing professor with an entrepreneurial bent challenged retailing orthodoxy-and changed the lives of everyone he met.

The volume of the crowd filling Chute Gerdeman's lobby on a late-winter evening was at a dull roar well before Alton Doody, the man of the hour, arrived. More than 100 people, most former Doody employees, had gathered to celebrate the life of a boss, a mentor, a friend--and to reconnect with colleagues from as far back as the late 1960s.

Finally Doody, weakened by cancer and in a wheelchair, made his way through the room, stopping every foot or so to exchange a handshake or share an embrace. Call it a "pre-morial," says Calvin Toler, a former business colleague. "Alton being Alton, he was predictably unpredictable, blazing a trail right to the very end."

Everyone in the room knew Doody didn't have long to live. But his death on March 2, at age 76, wouldn't extinguish the impact of an extraordinary life. Talk to Doody's friends, family and workmates, and it's soon apparent that to know the man was to be inspired by him, to be pushed by him, to be supported by him, to be mentored by him, and, not infrequently, to be aggravated by him.

Over the decades, Doody's appetite for enterprise took him from mass-market retailing to car showrooms to restaurants and culinary schools, even to the funeral business. His business insights were often brilliant, occasionally wrong, but never predictable or boring. And it's safe to say that all those whose lives were touched by Alton Doody--spouses, children, colleagues, students--were changed by the experience.

Theory Into Practice

A New Orleans transplant who moved to Dayton as a teen, Doody received a bachelor's degree from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1956, earned his MBA and Ph.D. from Ohio State University, then stayed at OSU to teach marketing. In 1964, Doody and fellow professor William Davidson formed Management Horizons, which soon became known as a leading-edge retail consulting group. A 1989 Columbus Dispatch article said Doody and Davidson "were called geniuses, brilliant, innovative and futurists by former colleagues."

Indeed Management Horizons often seemed prescient about the next big things in retail strategy and technology. In 1967, for example, Doody and Davidson predicted in a Harvard Business Review article that "retail transactions will be made by electronic telecommunications and push-button devices installed in private homes and hooked on-line to data processing networks." Hello, e-retailing!

Doody had an eye for talent. Denny Riga, fresh out of the University of Cincinnati and working for Continental Realty, met Doody while assigned to a Management Horizons project. In 1975, Doody hired Riga to design retail stores. "I was extraordinarily fortunate that he took a liking to me and respected my work and my skills," Riga says.

Kent Larsson, now a retired senior vice president of marketing at Odd Lots, emigrated from Sweden to Columbus in 1969 after Doody promised him a six-month gig in retail management at Lazarus. Doody "had not made any arrangements [with Lazarus]," Larsson recalls, "but that was typical of Alton."

Instead, Larsson became a research assistant for Management Horizons while earning his MBA at OSU. His four years at Management Horizons "was an exciting time," Larsson says. "Everything I learned about retail and marketing, I learned during that time period." Doody "wasn't into managing many things, so you had to be nimble. You had to be comfortable with change and ambiguity."

In 1976, after a dispute with Davidson and other partners, Doody left Management Horizons and started his own consulting firm, the Doody Company. For clients such as Zayre, Doody, his then-wife Carol Farmer, Riga and Peter Monash traveled the world looking for new concepts in store planning, layout and merchandising.

"The burnout rate was high, and blow-ups were frequent," wrote Columbus Monthly in a November 1981 profile of Doody. "I learned a lot from Alton," a former employee told the magazine. "But if I'd stayed another six months, I'd have been a basket case. The man simply doesn't know when to ease up."

Among those Doody mentored were Denny Gerdeman and Elle Chute, who worked for the Doody Company before joining Riga's Nexus America in 1982. (Riga had left Doody in 1980 to strike out on his own.) Chute and Gerdeman, who married in 1985, went on to become international stars in store design and design culture.

Joining the Doody Company "was probably one of the best decisions I've made," says Gerdeman, who left a job as a store designer for the Limited. "I'd worked closely with Les Wexner on the planning and creative merchandising of store design; Alton really brought the marketing strategy and strategic thinking into play. I learned a lot early on in my career from two very talented people."

At Doody Company, Gerdeman says, "There were a lot of creative people, and we had fun with each other. We enjoyed the energy. We brought in so many different disciplines--business planners, merchandisers, strategists, people who would design fixtures, architects, graphic designers, installation people, interior designers--it was the full gamut, and that's what I think made the projects so successful."

Ken Galloway, now semi-retired, recalls how Doody nudged him from finance to sales. Accounting "was all I had known," Galloway says. But Doody saw more potential, and Galloway ended up traveling the world for clients such as Target and L.L. Bean. Doody, he says, "pulled me out of my shell."

In 1983, nine company officers, including Galloway, purchased the Doody Company, soon renaming it Retail Planning Associates, or RPA. Galloway served as RPA president from 1987 through 1995.

CARS to Death Care

Not long after selling the Doody Company, Alton Doody was asked by Toshiro Yasumori, director of marketing and merchandising for Mazda of Japan, to help revamp Mazda's sales strategy. Yasumori was enamored of showroom prototypes he'd seen at German auto dealerships--prototypes designed, it turned out, by Riga's Nexus America.

"Alton called me and said, ‘It's time for us to get back together,' " says Riga. With architect Lajos Szabo, Riga and Doody formed the Center for Advanced Retail Strategies (CARS). "Within a year, it was a huge project, and within the next six to seven years, our little company brought in $25 million worth of income from Japan back into Columbus, Ohio," Riga says.

The consultants helped rearrange the dealerships' display lots in a good-better-best pattern, so consumers could distinguish among options. During this period, Doody also co-authored "Reinventing The Wheels, Ford's Spectacular Comeback," a book chronicling the automaker's recovery from near collapse in the 1980s.

In 1990, two years after starting CARS, Doody, Szabo and Riga started another company in the same Columbus office: Applied Retail Systems (ARS). As legend has it, Doody was at his summer home in Michigan when a neighbor, an owner of Hillenbrand Industries, asked what he'd been up to. When Doody described his work with CARS, "his reply was, ‘We really need a way to do that for my business,' " says Toler, then a sales rep for Batesville Casket Company, a Hillenbrand subsidiary.

As an introduction to the funeral business, Batesville sent Doody on rides with field sales reps, including Doug Gober. "I told him, ‘If you say a word, I'm going to kill you,' " Gober recalls. "I had no idea who this gentleman was. Here I was, this young green guy, and here he was, this experienced worldwide marketing guru, and I was telling him to shut the hell up." Luckily, Doody didn't take offense.

"What Alton did was really, for the first time since so-called undertakers stopped standing wood coffins on the wall, is actually pay attention to the environment," says Toler. "Alton was essentially applying some of his retailing expertise and knowledge to the funeral business by changing the carpet, organizing the stock in such a way that consumers could understand it." Doody also "brought modern lighting into casket selection rooms much like you would find today at Macy's or any premium department store."

In England, Doody and his colleagues stumbled upon a mortician who, limited for space, had split coffins lengthwise and mounted them on a wall. Doody modified the idea and ran with it, winning a multimillion-dollar contract to modernize the facilities of Service Corporation International (SCI), at the time the world's largest publicly held funeral chain with 700 funeral homes in Europe.

Between August and December 1996, the New Orleans-based Doody Group (founded shortly after the Doody Company sale) installed the vertical, split-coffin display system in 1,100 funeral homes in France and 550 in the United Kingdom, says Gober. In the United States, Batesville rejected the split-coffin display, but York Casket Company, a Batesville competitor, liked Doody's system so well that York bought the Doody Group in 1996.

The York display, reported the Wall Street Journal in January 2000, "not only makes it easier for consumers to buy caskets, but also raises the average sale by $200 to $400 per casket. One funeral home owner described the display system as "the first new innovation in caskets in 75 years."

Toler left Batesville and joined the Doody Group shortly before its purchase by York, later becoming national sales director. "Alton was, to me, very sweet, very gentle, very kind," he says. "He was somebody who freely shared his time, his knowledge and his fortunes with people, and I have to say that working with Alton was really the pinnacle of my funeral service career. ... We were changing an industry and we were helping people. Very seldom does that align."

Sweet, gentle and kind Doody may have been, but he still demanded total commitment. "I never worked harder for any company than when I worked for Alton. ... Oh my word, it was brutal," says Toler.

A Foodie's Odyssey

Doody loved good food and good restaurants. Sometimes that meshed perfectly with his merchandising and design skills. Consultant Paul Seyler, hired to work on the funeral project, also helped redesign the food line at Piccadilly Cafeterias, which contacted Doody for help after reading the WSJ story. Without changing recipes or food selection, Seyler says, Doody helped the company increase sales by roughly 10 percent: "All we did was reorganize the presentation of stuff on the food line."

Doody bankrolled and advised his first wife, Sue Doody, when she launched Lindey's, the German Village landmark eatery. Sons Rick and Chris Doody, also with advice and financial assistance from their father, made a national impact with their Bravo | Brio chain. (See "Family Ties")

Doody's own food enterprises had mixed success. In 1985, he opened a Lindey's in Cleveland; it closed a year or so later. In 1987 came Bistro des Artistes, the precursor to Hyde Park Grille in Columbus. In 2002 Doody opened Voodoo BBQ, a small chain in New Orleans; two stores survive. In 2004 he started Culinaria, a recreational cooking school and private party house in New Orleans; Hurricane Katrina blew away that venture.

In 2007, Doody was hired as dean of the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. Local restaurateurs howled when Doody (who'd sold off his eatery interests) suggested Folse might take over food service at the nearby Bayou Country Club. Doody "had lived the majority of his adult life in the private sector creating business opportunities," says Nicholls State President Stephen Hulbert, "so it was difficult for him, initially, to adapt to being in the public setting where we have rules and procedures and everything that gets in the way of creativity. But he adapted extremely well, and he then applied his creativity to the world we live in and did some extraordinary things for us."

Doody helped create Le Bistro at the Carmel Inn, a student-run eatery; developed preliminary plans for a new culinary institute building; and led the campaign for state funding. He "played a singular role in helping us talk this through among faculty, staff and students," Hulbert says.

Doody's entrepreneurial zeal rubbed off on Folse students. "Many of them now want to own businesses or create businesses and products," Hulbert says.

After his cancer diagnosis in summer 2008 (a sarcoma found in his hip later metastasized to his lungs), Doody kept on working. "The dynamo that was Alton Doody, he didn't let it get in his way," says Hulbert. "There were times that he was wearing a chemo pack and he was still aggressively providing leadership to the institute."

Doody's time at Nicholls also was marked by an assistant dean's claim that Doody improperly used university resources in the catering of his stepdaughter's 2008 wedding. In federal court, "Every aspect of that case was either dismissed or went in the favor of the defendants," says Hulbert.

After leaving Nicholls in May 2010, Doody attempted to resurrect Culinaria as the New Orleans Culinary Institute, says Tim Williamson, CEO of the Idea Village, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurship in New Orleans. "It puts a smile on my face," Williamson says, "because Alton started as one of the original board members, he became an advisor and a mentor, and his most recent relationship was as an entrepreneur." Rick Doody says the family is working with a potential buyer in hopes that the cooking school can come to fruition.

Doody's Legacy

In announcing Doody as a 2003 inductee into the Institute of Store Planners' Retail Design Legion of Honor, Display and Design Ideas said Doody "is in large part a major reason why Ohio has become the retail and store design powerhouse it is today."

Riga, who helped organize Doody's "pre-morial" at Chute Gerdeman, says those attending "were part of a family that would be considered by most retailers in the world today as the greatest gathering of store designers, store planners, merchandisers and merchandise presentation specialists that the world has ever known. ... Virtually every single one of those people there, the businesses that they are involved in today germinated from Alton Doody's influence."

"I think there are a number of different industries, like the funeral business, where Alton's influence led businesses and people in those industries to think differently about what they were trying to do, to make money, create value and be successful, and I think those industries are never going to be the same," Seyler says. "He raised the level of professionalism and management throughout those industries."

"You guys have been tremendous friends," said Doody at the gathering in his honor. "You have done fabulous work. Most of us have become fabulous professionals for having known one another." Never bashful, he proposed his own namesake legacy: "The Doody Institute," a repository of industry wisdom, including his scholarship and the insights of his former colleagues. "Maybe something interesting will happen," he said, "and if it does, it will be a tribute to us all."

Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the June 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.