William Dillard, founder of department store chain, dead at 87

Friday, February 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ William T. Dillard Sr., who built one the nation's largest retail chains out of a modest store he started at the end of the Depression, died Friday. He was 87.

Dillard's said its founder died at his Little Rock home.

Dillard was the chairman of Dillard's Inc., formerly known as Dillard Department Stores. The chain he started in 1938 with a 2,500 square-foot store in southwestern Arkansas now has nearly 350 stores in 29 states.

In 1989, Fortune magazine called the chain ``a quiet superstar ... family run, highly computerized, extremely competitive and great for investors.''

``He was quick to foresee the trend toward suburban shopping malls vs. the old downtown environment,'' Ray Kemp, the company's retired vice chairman, said in March 1994.

Dillard was born Sept. 2, 1914, in Mineral Springs, a small town 110 miles southwest of Little Rock. His father owned a country store, and by the time Dillard left home for college, ``I knew what I wanted to do,'' he said in 1984.

He graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in business administration and earned a master's degree in business administration from Columbia University in 1937. He went to work for Sears Roebuck and Co. in Tulsa, Okla., then returned to Arkansas nine months later and opened his first store in Nashville, Ark.

During the first year, the store did $42,000 in business and he made a $3,000 profit. Last year, Dillard's had sales of $8.7 billion and was the nation's third-largest upscale department store chain, behind Federated and May.

The family still runs the chain and holds four of the 12 seats on the company's board. Dillard had turned over the day-to-day management of the company to sons William II, Mike and Alex.

Dillard served in the Navy during World War II. By 1948, he had made enough money to open a department store in Texarkana. He sold the Nashville store and opened two more in Magnolia and Tyler, Texas.

By 1960, Dillard once recalled, he was 45 and making more than $500,000 a year. ``But I wasn't satisfied. I wanted to be a leading department store owner.''

So he moved to Tulsa and bought Brown-Dunkin, which was heavily in debt. ``It was the best gamble I ever made,'' he said. ``In 18 months I stopped the losses, refinanced and made it whole.''

Before computers, Dillard had store managers call him every night with a total of the day's receipts. When one manager said he had a slow day because of bad weather, Dillard said, ``If I had wanted a weather report, I would have called the weather bureau.''

In 1963, Dillard and some associates bought Pfeifer's of Arkansas, then one of the state's leading stores. Six months later, he bought Blass Co., another leading Arkansas store in downtown Little Rock. Dillard moved to Little Rock and established his headquarters here.

``Mr. Dillard will long be remembered as a man of tremendous vision and success in the world of retailing, but more importantly, he will truly be remembered as a man of honesty, integrity and absolutely loyalty,'' the company said.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.