Celebration Corner: Bealls' 100th anniversary

By Barbara Spector

The Brandenton, Fla.-based retail chain celebrated its centennial with a documentary film and several special events in the spring of 2015.

The Business: Robert M. Beall opened the Dollar Limit, a dry-goods store in Bradenton, Fla., in 1915. Because inflation forced him to raise prices, in 1918 Beall changed the name to V ("Five") Dollar Limit. A bank took ownership of the store during the Great Depression, but Beall continued to operate it and regained full control in 1940. That same year, second-generation member E.R. Beall joined the business; he left for four years to serve in the Army Air Forces during World War II. In 1946, E.R. Beall rejoined, and the store changed its name again, to Beall's Department Store.

E.R. Beall spearheaded the expansion of the business into shopping centers—particularly centers that were anchored by a Publix grocery store—beginning in the 1950s. Founder R.M. Beall, who questioned the expansion strategy, continued to manage the original downtown store until shortly before his death in 1979. When the building was sold in 1987, proceeds from the sale were used to establish the R.M. Beall Sr. Foundation, which supports projects related to young people and education.

E.R.'s son, Robert M. (Bob) Beall II, joined the business in 1970. E.R. Beall retired as president and was succeeded by Bob Beall in 1980, the year the company opened its 20th store. The company first entered the off-price market in 1983 with an ultimately unsuccessful store called Just Labels. In 1987, half the Just Labels stores converted to Bealls Outlet stores; the others were sold to a management company and shuttered. The Bealls Outlet concept succeeded where Just Labels had failed. A second chain, Burkes Outlet, was created in 1998.

The first Bealls store outside of Florida opened in Arizona in 1992. E.R. Beall retired as chairman in 1994; he died in 2000. The first non-family CEO took office in 2006, and Bob Beall became chairman. Today, Bealls operates more than 530 stores in 16 states and generates annual revenues of more than $1 billion.

The Family: Bob Beall, 72, is chairman. His son, fourth-generation member R.M. (Matt) Beall, 37, joined the company in 2004 and is now working in merchandising. Bob Beall's brother-in-law Bill Webster is the company's director of public and government affairs. Conrad Szymanski, grandson of the founder and cousin of chairman Bob Beall, worked for Bealls from 1979 until his retirement in 2012. Bob Beall's sister Beverly is active in the Beall Family of Foundations.

The Celebration: The Manatee (Fla.) County Commission declared March 24, 2015, as "Bealls Day," and a commemorative mural depicting the Dollar Limit's first day of business was unveiled on the site of the original Bealls store; a historical marker was later placed near the site.

Several celebratory events took place on April 2015, the centennial month. On April 14, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet issued a resolution recognizing the centennial. That same day, all Bealls stores opened early, with special promotional discounts for customers. Contests were held throughout the month, giving customers a chance to win $100 gift cards and other prizes. Centennial anniversary items exclusive to Bealls were available for sale.

On April 17, Bealls employees and special guests gathered at McKechnie Field, home of the Bradenton Marauders (the Class A-Advanced minor league affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates) for an anniversary celebration, followed by a game in which the Marauders played the Juniper Hammerheads. Bealls Inc. founder R.M. Beall was instrumental in bringing baseball to Manatee County in the 1920s.

A documentary film, Bealls: The First 100 Years, had its premiere on May 4 at the Manatee Performing Arts Center. The film was produced by Manatee Educational Television with help from the company's executive team.

Chairman Bob Beall says watching the documentary was "very moving for me. It was memory lane, as they say, going back to my granddad and my dad, and so it was very meaningful."

The Bradenton Herald, Bealls' hometown newspaper, covered the company's history and celebratory events extensively. The planning team for the anniversary celebration scoured the newspaper's archives to find early Dollar Limit and Bealls advertisements. "I had never seen a lot of those ads," Bob Bell says. "The ads were unique. I think they expressed my dad's personality. They were sort of personal, in a sense."

The Response: Bob Beall says that a centennial celebration "was something I was not too much in favor of; I didn't think anyone other than ourselves would be particularly interested." He adds with a laugh, "But our people put together a great celebration, with lots of moving parts, and it was great fun, and I was wrong, of course. I ended up really enjoying it."

Employees and family members alike had a good time at the celebrations, Beall says. "I think it's meaningful that the company is a family company and that we intend to keep it that way," he says. "And I think [the anniversary celebration] was probably a confirmation of that, in a way, although that wasn't our intention. I think that was very positive.

"I was very happy with what we did," Beall says. "I think a key is to make the community be a little more aware of us, but primarily, to give our teammates a feeling of inclusiveness and that they're full participants in all of this—which they are, of course."

The Future: On Aug, 28, 2015, Bealls launched a new store, called Bunulu, targeted toward upscale consumers. The first three Bunulu stores opened this year in Estero, Jacksonville and Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

"I think the challenge is how fast technology is changing, and keeping up with that, and keeping our formats fresh," Bob Beall says. "And we don't expect everything to succeed. But we will continue to experiment, like we did with the outlet stores."

Copyright 2016 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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