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Family Dollar

  Family Dollar
bringing change
by Mark J. Miller
December 17, 2009

How do you make $7 billion annually? Two bucks at a time, if you are Leon Levine, who opened the first Family Dollar in 1959 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Levine believed that he could build a successful business from providing quality household products as well as food and clothing for $2 or less.


Today, the stores allow items to be purchased with food stamps – in addition to cash and credit -- in order to serve the low-income market surrounding its store. A driving credo still powers the organization today: “The customers are the boss, and you need to keep them happy.”

By the end of the 1960s, there were 50 Family Dollars in four states and Levine was bringing in more than $5 million in sales. Today there are more than 6,600 stores, 27,000 employees that generate over $7 billion in revenue. The “less than $2” products have changed as well. Now 90 percent of the store’s merchandise is below $10. Family Dollar is also just finishing its 50th anniversary celebration.

Levine came from a family of retailers, so starting up his own shop was the natural thing to do. He designed a master floor plan for all of his stores so shoppers and employee could go into any store and instantly recognize the layout and know where certain items were located. When determining where to build a store, the organization requires that there be at least 8,000 low to low-middle-income families in the immediate area. In rural areas it covers a one-mile radius of the location.

Family Dollar went onto the New York Stock Exchange in 1979 with common stock being offered at $14.50 a share. Each one of those is now worth about 162 shares. The influx of cash allowed the pace of expansion to skyrocket.

FD joined the Fortune 500 in 2002, had its cash dividend increase for 30th straight years in 2006, and finished first in the S&P 500 in 2008.

And even if there is a load of dough flowing through the Family Dollar food chain, the retailer and its website try to remain as simple and straightforward as possible for its everyday consumers who aren’t necessarily concerned with stock prices and floor-plan theories. The orange of the front page of its website is warm and comforting. The overcrowded content has the slight feel of a grocery store circular: familiar, full of options, trusted, and safe.

One of the most helpful items on the site since consumers cannot buy anything online is a store locator. Visitors just type in an address and the closest stores pop up.

Another way that Family helps to further its own image as a family-focused organization is by giving numerous small grants throughout the more than 660,000 neighborhoods it serves. The grants are usually for $250 or less but they are focused mainly on providing food, clothing, and shelter to low-income and low-middle income families, including senior citizens, minorities, and at-risk youth.

Though Leon Levine retired in 2003, Family Dollar is still a family-run business. He handed it all over to his son, Howard. Howard actually left the company for nearly a decade after his father fired him in a management shakeout. He returned in 1996 at the age of 37 after serving as president of Best Price Clothing Stores Inc., a group of ladies’ apparel retailers, and being a self-employed investment manager. Howard is now the chairman and CEO of the company. He is decidedly not living the way his customers do. In 2008, he received $4.1 million in salary and other compensation.

Despite the CEO’s salary and any family politics the Levines have lived through, Family Dollar rolls on. The renowned brand continues to be a place where financially struggling families -- much of America’s population right now -- can go and find the basic tools they need for everyday life, whether it’s garbage cans or stuffed animals.

And that’s priceless.


Mark J. Miller writes a daily sports column for Yahoo! Sports and is a contributing writer to Crain's BtoB's Media Business magazine. His work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, ESPN, The Washington Post,, I.D., and Glamour, among others.

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