Best Buy's top Geek has left the Squad.
Robert Stephens, whose computer-repair business blossomed into Best Buy Co. Inc.'s Geek Squad, has resigned from the Richfield-based consumer electronics giant.
CEO Brian Dunn said Stephens, the company's chief technology officer, is moving to California to pursue other projects.
"Robert is also a born entrepreneur, and, frankly, I knew it was only a matter of time before his curiosity and his desire to create something new would lead him to look outside the walls of Best Buy," Dunn wrote in an e-mail. "And that time has come."
Dunn said Stephens will continue to advise Best Buy on potential acquisitions.
Geek Squad helped catapult Best Buy back into innovation and growth. The retailer used to offer customers tech support using store employees, known as Blue Shirts, but it had little success. All that changed in 2002 when Best Buy purchased the little-known computer repair firm founded by Stephens in 1994.
Writing in his blog, Stephens said he wanted to return to his entrepreneurial roots and start new companies.
"I never thought I would or could last this long" at Best Buy, Stephens wrote. "Hell, nobody did. ... Now I want to take what I've learned founding a start-up and combine it with the experience I gained working at a Fortune 50 company."
Stephens did not return a phone call seeking additional comment.
Retail observers say Stephens' departure deals a big blow to Best Buy. Not only does Geek Squad generate the lion's share of Best Buy's overall profits at a time when its core stores are struggling, Stephens gave Best Buy credibility in the eyes of the tech community, said Flora Delaney, a retail consultant and former Best Buy executive.
"He was the only one on the senior executive level who really loves and knows technology," Delaney said. "He could stand toe to toe" with any technologist.
Under Best Buy's ownership, Geek Squad grew into a thriving international business and cultural brand, best personified by its ubiquitous black and white cars and army of technicians who wore a white shirt, black tie, and black pants. (NBC's show "Chuck" paid homage to the Geek Squad with its "Nerd Herd," techies who worked at the local Buy More.)
"Geek Squad made it cool at Best Buy to service customers instead of just selling them," Delaney said.
Largest tech-support operation
Geek Squad has grown from 60 employees and nearly $3 million in sales to the world's largest tech-support operation with annual revenue of $1 billion to $1.5 billion, analysts say. Best Buy has used Geek Squad to expand its service offerings. Today, Geek Squad technicians do everything from installing and connecting devices to performing energy audits and customizing cars.
"The Geek Squad brand has become the preeminent service brand in retail and our spearhead in building service offerings not just in computing, but in home theater and a growing array of connected devices and technologies," Dunn wrote. "Today Services is one of our four global growth strategies -- a show of confidence that is built in large part on the success of Geek Squad around the world."
Despite its entrepreneurial background, Stephens excelled at working for a large corporation like Best Buy, said Dan Carr, CEO of the Collaborative, who has known Stephens for years.
"He was the rare entrepreneur who leveraged his opportunities after joining Best Buy and really elevated Geek Squad," Carr said.
'Not at all surprised'
In recent years, however, Stephens grew disillusioned with his role at Best Buy, Delaney said. As chief technology officer, he often had to glad-hand manufacturers and vendors, she said.
Despite its entrepreneurial rhetoric, Best Buy has become a "very bureaucratic organization built on titles," Delaney said.
"I'm not at all surprised he left the company," she said.
Thomas Lee • 612-673-4113