The Family Behind Family Dollar

Howard Levine, chairman and chief executive officer of Family Dollar Stores, turns 50 years old this year too. He was born shortly before his father Leon founded the discount variety store in Charlotte, N.C. Howard Levine has served as the retailer's CEO since 1998 and as its chairman since his father retired from that role in 2003. Leon Levine still listed as chairman emeritus by the retailer has

Howard Levine, chairman and chief executive officer of Family Dollar Stores, turns 50 years old this year too. He was born shortly before his father Leon founded the discount variety store in Charlotte, N.C. Howard Levine has served as the retailer's CEO since 1998 and as its chairman since his father retired from that role in 2003.

Leon Levine — still listed as chairman emeritus by the retailer — has been described as a “virtuoso” merchant who showed a talent for retail ever since he was a young boy. The third son of Russian immigrants who settled in Rockingham, N.C., Leon Levine grew up hanging around with his brothers at The Hub, a small department store there owned by their father Harry.

Although Harry Levine died when Leon was only 12, the precocious youngster helped his mother and brothers run the store and would appoint himself executive vice president, complete with business cards and letterhead, at age 15, according to a biography. Leon was a college student when he and his brother Sherman purchased and operated Union Craft Co., a local manufacturer of bedspreads. After selling that business, the brothers relocated to Charlotte, where another sibling, Alvin, had recently founded the Pic n' Pay discount shoe chain.

While Sherman founded a menswear business, Leon reportedly had become intrigued by a retailer in Kentucky that priced all of its merchandise for under $1. His interpretation of that concept, which he dubbed Family Dollar, opened in November 1959 and sold nothing priced more than $2. He was 22 when it opened.

Leon grew Family Dollar with ambition and verve. He shopped for merchandise — and for real estate — with the eye of a bargain-hunter and with shrewd negotiating skills. According to one account, Levine could divine locations for his stores by inspecting parking lots of area retailers for oil stains — if shoppers in the area drove cars that needed repair, he figured, they were probably the right demographic for Family Dollar.

Family Dollar had its first public stock offering in 1970. By the end of the 1970s, sales exceeded $100 million. In the early 1980s, Howard Levine, who like his father grew up around a family-run retailer, had joined the company as a buyer and was later named senior vice president of merchandising. But not everything went smoothly for the family or for the retailer.

According to an account in Entrepreneur magazine, Howard's knowledge of merchandising, pricing and product selection “weren't up to his father's standards,” and friction developed between Leon, Howard and Lewis Levine, a cousin of Leon's who then was a president of the company. At around the same time, the rise of large discounters like Wal-Mart Stores had undercut Family Dollar's prices and considerably compromised its performance. Reportedly at odds with Leon over how to address the situation, both Lewis and Howard Levine left Family Dollar in 1987. And though growth continued, performance was erratic into the 1990s.

The adoption of an everyday-low-pricing strategy — and the abandonment of heavy advertising and promotions — beginning in 1994, eventually revived Family Dollar's fortunes. Howard Levine patched things up with his father and rejoined the company in 1996 as part of a new management team supporting the new positioning. In a decade away from Family Dollar, he'd started a discount clothing chain and worked as an investment consultant.

Howard Levine would be named CEO in 1998 and preside over the most rapid period of growth in the company's history, opening more than 500 new stores a year and expanding into urban centers — a pioneering move among chain stores. He also has overseen a merchandising evolution in which department store staples like apparel and shoes have given way to fresh food. Today, Family Dollar operates about 6,600 stores in 44 states and does annual sales of about $7 billion — with more than 60% of revenues coming from food and consumable items.

Leon Levine in the meantime has become well-known for his work as benefactor in and around Charlotte, supporting such institutions as the Levine Science Research Center at Duke University and the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte. The latter institution highlights significant cultural, social and business events in the post-Civil War South, a story the Levine family and Family Dollar continue to contribute to after 50 years.