How family business FirstTech got to be the world's longest-running Apple dealer

The FirstTech store on Hennepin in the 1980s, left, and today.
The FirstTech store on Hennepin in the 1980s, left, and today.
courtesy FirstTech

In 1977, when the Zuckman family started stocking the Apple II computer, it was just another one of their products.

The three Zuckman brothers -- Arnie, Rick and Harvey -- had taken over their parents' electronics business, and sold all kinds of devices -- radios, television, stereos -- out of their Hennepin Avenue store. The personal computer was a natural extension.

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But back in 77, Apple wasn't the line-around-the-block-generating, passion-inspiring juggernaut it is now. Its only real market product was the Apple II. When FirstTech -- which was then part of the TEAM franchise -- got one on the shelves, it took Pete Paulsen, now the store's general manager, six months to sell.

"At that point, people didn't know what it was or how it could be used," Paulsen recalls. "The people using it were mostly hobbyists interested in programming." The machine itself cost around $1,600, but enough memory to make it useful could run into the tens of thousands.

"I don't know that we understood the full potential," Arnie Zuckman, one of the store's owners, says. When Paulsen finally sold the model that they had, no one celebrated; they just ordered another.

By 1981, though, Honeywell had started using the Apple II for engineering, and
as industries and businesses caught on, sales started picking up. Several local companies started an employee purchase program with FirstTech to encourage workers to get more familiar with the new technology.

Then the Mac arrived. It was 1984, and Arnie Zuckman, for one, remembers that when he and his brothers saw it, "Our jaws dropped. It was doing things in a way we had not seen before." At the time, FirstTech still carried other computers, but "as much as we tried,
we couldn't get enthusiastic about other products," Zuckman says.

Before long, FirstTech was stocking only Apple computers, and those sales had taken over most of the company's business: Minneapolis schools had started putting them in classrooms, and software like spreadsheets made the machines indispensable at work. In 1987, FirstTech hired Fred Evans, now the sales manager, as the first person with the company to sell computers exclusively.

Then came Apple's rough years in the 1990s. But while other retailers dropped the brand, FirstTech stuck by the rudderless company. As Zuckman explains, "We continued to believe in the product. It just worked." In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to steer the ship.

In 2001, though, Apple started rolling out stores of its own, and before long, there were four around the metro. Then, in June 2010, a shiny store popped up next to the Suburban World theater, just down the street from FirstTech.

courtesy FirstTech
In 2007, FirstTech received a plaque from Apple's COO, acknowledging the store as the longest-serving retailer.

Determined to make the relationship a positive one, FirstTech met with the new Apple team right away. Today, Zuckman insists that the close-to-home competitor hasn't siphoned off business: Apple products have become so much more popular in recent years that there are plenty of interested buyers to go around.

Instead, the two stores help each other out. FirstTech doesn't sell iPhones, so it sends those customers to Apple. Apple, in turn, refers people to FirstTech for repairs or older models.

In recent years, FirstTech has negotiated two major shifts: service and mobile. About a decade ago, when the florist next door moved out, FirstTech bought the lot and made it a service center. Today, more than half of the company's revenue comes from services -- technical training, repairs, security, remote monitoring of businesses' networks.

At the same time, mobile devices have started taking up a bigger share of sales. "The day the iPad was introduced," Fred Evans says, "it became almost overnight our biggest seller."

That's one of the perks of selling mainly Apple products. Even through the worst years of the recent recession, Apple continued to innovate, which meant, Zuckman says, that FirstTech's business continued to grow.

Through the years, there have been other perks, too. Back in the late 1970s, when
Apple was a fledgling company, the Zuckman brothers first heard about the Apple II at a trade conference. When the machine hit commercial production, Apple's then-president and one of its young engineers hopped a flight to Minneapolis to give the FirstTech team a crash course in the new technology.

That engineer was mostly silent. "He didn't say a word," Arnie Zuckman remembers. But when Zuckman met him again, later, the man was charismatic, intense. A leader. His name? Steve Jobs.

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