Ben Treanor

The last few hours at the Circuit City corporate headquarters were tense, confusing and full of tears. I worked there right up until the day the nation’s second-largest consumer electronics retailer announced that it was liquidating. When I arrived at my cubicle the morning of January 16, I discovered that my laptop’s access to the Internet was being blocked by corporate security. I popped my head up to check with my co-workers and quickly discovered that mine was not an isolated problem. Having suspected the worst for weeks, this was the moment we knew it was truly over.

Within the hour, the news was breaking on TV and radio, and was apparently plastered on the front page of all major media Web sites, from Yahoo! to CNN. Every corporate employee soon received an e-mail from our acting CEO, Jim Marcum, asking us to report to the auditorium. We had already received most of the details from loved ones, who had called our cell phones after seeing the headlines, but we still packed ourselves into the standing-room-only room to hear what would happen next.

Listening to Marcum speak through a microphone, we learned that a few of us would stay to help tie up all the loose ends involved in shutting down a Fortune 500 company. But most of our services would no longer be required, effective immediately. We would receive more details in the departmental meetings that would follow. I worked in the training department and had little doubt about where I stood in the fallout. Liquidators were taking over the stores that day, and I was not optimistic that they had any desire to invest in sales training. I exchanged knowing looks with team members.

Circuit City, previously the No. 2 electronics retailer with 566 stores in the U.S., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Nov. 10, 2008, and began liquidating its assets in January.

The silver lining was that we were not actually terminated that day. Instead, we would receive 60 days’ notice of termination. Even though most of us would no longer be reporting to the office, we would be paid through March 21. It wasn’t severance, but a two-month cushion was a welcome parting gift from a company that was shutting down because it had no money. We consoled each other with these thoughts during our good-bye hugs and handshakes. And then, for most of us, there was nothing to do but go home and start thinking about the next phase of our lives.

Actually, that’s skipping a step. Before leaving the building for the last time, we needed to gather our personal belongings from our cubicles. During most corporate layoffs, I believe that the company provides the departing employees with cardboard boxes to transport their possessions to their cars. Circuit City’s collapse was so sudden and total that no such provisions were made. Navigating through the aimless masses of former colleagues, I managed to locate a white cardboard box full of empty three-ring binders in a kitchen cabinet three floors below my department. I dumped the binders into a closet and headed back upstairs. Some of the ex-employees I passed in the stairwell were sobbing; some were angry and loud; still others simply looked dazed. All had one thing in common: They wanted to know where I’d found the box.

Three months have passed since that last day in the office. My Circuit City paychecks dried up a few weeks ago. I feel fortunate because I have a savings account and no children to feed. What I don’t have is confidence that any governmental stimuli will right the economic situation in Richmond anytime soon. Virginia’s capital city is home to more major companies than you might expect, but prospects for employment at these places are not rosy. Philip Morris = layoffs. CarMax = hiring freeze. LandAmerica = bankrupt. In fact, my only Circuit City co-workers who have landed new jobs have had to relocate. For me and many others who call Richmond home, moving across the country for a job is not a palatable option. Which means it’s time to make our own options.

They say that a down economy is the best time to start a business or return to school, and I have decided to pursue the former of these options. Running my own Web design and marketing company never occurred to me as a history major at UVA. Even during three years with Circuit City, where I worked on everything from the Web site to sales training to buying cameras, I thought of it only rarely. But circumstances have changed, and as of January 16, I now find myself in a world that does not resemble the one I entered when I walked down the Lawn five years ago.

And so I spend my weekdays in my city apartment, editing business plans, designing a company Web site, brewing my own coffee and navigating the governmental channels necessary to legally establish a business here in the Old Dominion. My first five years in the working world revealed that my UVA experience prepared me for challenges I never could have imagined as a student. As I begin all over again, the first few days of my journey find me sometimes confident, sometimes nervous and always full of excitement.

Special Report: The University and the Economy

This article appeared as part of a larger section on how the recent economic turmoil is affecting UVA and its alumni. Read more:

  • On the Front Lines
    Alumni and faculty experts share their perspectives on how we got into this situation—and how to get out of it.
  • Time and Money
    A timeline tracks how the University has weathered economic ups and downs throughout the years.
  • In the Classroom
    As economic events unfolded, some professors threw away their syllabi and kept pace with breaking news.
  • Students Speak
    Learn how some students are coping with the economy—with video.
  • Your Financial Health
    Assess your personal finances with a quiz from McIntire professor Karin Bonding.
  • A Different World
    A first-person perspective on how Circuit City’s collapse altered the career path of one alumnus.