Published: March 1, 2015 | Bradenton Herald
Bealls is the venerable, family-owned Florida department store that’s based in Bradenton.
I wrote a series of stories that covered the different aspects of the company’s operations—department stores, outlets, failed experiments, new concept Bunulu and more. I also developed story ideas for colleagues to complete to enhance our coverage—philanthropic endeavors, involvement with spring training baseball and its advertising studio.
The main piece was turned into a multimedia package using a combination of archival photos, a gallery of ads through the years, video, text and fresh photography. The online editor assembled the pieces together for the newsroom’s first attempt at using Sinclair for vivid display.
This project was like a gift from me to the community that I covered and the newsroom because the package published after I left the paper.
Here is the text of the story, as you never know when CMS and servers change at newspapers.
Published March 1, 2015
BRADENTON — Through the world wars, boom times and reinvented retail, Bradenton’s Bealls has thrived for 100 years.
“It’s no easy feat for any business to celebrate 100 years, especially in an industry where change is the only thing that is guaranteed.”
– Matthew Shay
President and CEO of the National Retail Federation
On April 17, 1915, a 22-year-old R.M. Beall opened a dry goods store in downtown Bradenton, steps from an old wooden dock that extended from 12th Street to the Manatee River. What began as the Dollar Limit has turned into one of the longest-running family-owned and -operated department stores in America. Only a handful of family-run department stores are still around — like the 156-year-old Weaver’s in Kansas — but none match the size and success of Bealls.
“It’s no easy feat for any business to celebrate 100 years, especially in an industry where change is the only thing that is guaranteed,” said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation. “The Beall family has built one of the most recognizable and respectable retail brands in the industry, and there is no question that much of that success has come from generations of hard work, the establishment of a family-centered culture, and the company’s commitment to their customers and the communities they serve.”
Today, Bealls has 535 department and outlet stores that total more than $1 billion in sales and 11,000 employees nationwide. Bealls is also Manatee County’s second-largest employer with 1,924 workers.
Yes, Bealls has had opportunities to be acquired by other retailers. But the family saw the benefits of reinvesting profits and maintaining a family feel — even when hiring leaders outside of the family.
“We believe in growing by reinvesting our earnings into our business,” said Bealls Inc. Chief Executive Officer Steve Knopik, who worked for Bealls more than 20 years before becoming CEO in 2006. “We believe in our talent and hiring the best people we can, and giving them the freedom to use their skills to be successful.”
Beginnings for Bealls
The Beall family had a long lineage of retailing, even before the family settled in Florida.
R.M. Beall’s father Oscar Augustus Beall ran a general store in Moultrie, Ga., where R.M. worked from age 12 to 18, until the boll weevil crises devastated cotton crops and forced his family to move.
The Bealls first settled in Ocala in 1910, where R.M. worked at a furniture business and a bank and then operated a commissary for a lumber yard in Martel.
In 1914, R.M. Beall and his father opened the drygoods Globe Store in Palmetto. The company’s name was Bealls-Theus at the time, in part because O.A. Beall’s stepfather John Calvin Theus was involved in the business after running his own Theus’s Dry Goods in Palmetto. R.M. Beall opted to open his own Bradenton business: the Dollar Limit Store in the former Braden Hotel Building on the corner of 12th Street and Third Avenue.
History of the company’s growth is being rewritten even in its 100th year, as some information was lost. Bill Webster, director of public and government affairs for Bealls, has spent the last three years researching the company’s history for the 100th celebration. Webster is a brother-in-law to chairman R.M. “Bob” Beall II.
It turns out that Beall’s second store was not at Westgate Shopping Center on Manatee Avenue as long believed — an ad in the Manatee River Journal advertised a Dollar Limit Store in Sarasota in 1922.
“It was located on the corner of Main Street and Palm Avenue,” Webster said. “It was successful from 1922 through 1926. But when Florida’s boom ended precipitously in 1926, Sarasota was really hit hard.”
It appears Beall closed the store in 1927 and consolidated it with the Bradenton store, Webster said.
The Bradenton Dollar Limit store moved to Manatee Avenue in 1924, and its name was changed — because of inflation — to the V Dollar Limit, as in Five Dollar Limit. During the Great Depression in 1932, the family lost store ownership to the bank, but saved up enough money to pay back the $40,000 note and regain full control in 1940. The family still managed the store despite the change in ownership.
R.M. Beall’s son, Egbert Ruffin Beall, joined him that same year, after he earned his accounting degree from the University of Florida. E.R. Beall then volunteered with the Army Air Forces during World War II for four years and returned in 1946. That year, the store became Beall’s Department Store. Decades later, a design firm encouraged the company to drop the apostrophe to just become Bealls.
R.M. “Bob” Beall II, chairman of Bealls Inc. and retired CEO, recalls how he wasn’t quite sure if the dollars would add up in those early days with his grandfather at the helm.
“He bought the dresses at the time and we just went to market, and he sat and wrote an order and we went to the next place, and he sat there and wrote the order,” the 72-year-old Beall told the Bradenton Herald. “He really had no idea what he was spending, but it somehow seemed to work out. Maybe he knew more than I thought he did about what he was doing.”
Beall’s father, on the other hand, was more of a numbers guy, and he led Bealls’ expansion efforts.
R.M. Beall and E.R. Beall amicably split when debating the merits of doing business downtown, or in a new Publix-built strip mall to be built on Manatee Avenue called Westgate Shopping Center.
“It was a struggle at first. There wasn’t much out there. Manatee Avenue was a two-lane road and it was mostly woods.”
– R.M. Beall II
Bealls Chairman of the Board
“It was a struggle at first,” Beall said. “There wasn’t much out there. Manatee Avenue was a two-lane road and it was mostly woods out there, but it grew over time. My dad was able to make enough money over time he could invest in additional stores.”
Conrad Szymanski worked for Bealls from 1979 up to his retirement in 2012 that included stints as Bealls Department Stores president. He closed out his career as Bealls Outlet president. He has also been one of the company’s and family’s historians. He is the grandson of founder R.M. Beall and cousin of chairman of the board Bob Beall.
“It’s amazing we’ve been able to grow the business to the size it is and kind of navigate all of the potential pitfalls that might have occurred that would have caused another company to have to sell their business or go public,” Szymanski said.
Szymanski credits his uncle E.R. Beall for increasing Bealls’ presence, starting with its successful expansion to Westgate Shopping Center in 1956.
“Egbert started that growth process, but it was a conservative growth process,” Szymanski said. “Very limited to the cash the company was throwing off, just fairly conservative because they retained that history of the Great Depression.”
In 1979, Beall’s had 18 stores under E.R. Beall’s leadership. As decision-making shifted to Bob Beall in 1980, growth accelerated again. Bob Beall became CEO that year, then added chairman to his title in 1994 when E.R. retired from that post.
“You talk about the 50 stores around at the turn of the (20th) century, one of them is left today and that’s Bealls. Burdine’s has become Macy’s, Mass Brothers, Robinson’s, Montgomery-Roberts, etc., have all gone away.”
– Conrad Szymanski
Former Bealls Department Stores president
“When you look back at what Bob has done, it’s a very rarefied business accomplishment to take this somewhat small regional chain and morph it into something professional enough to be competitive all this time,” Szymanski said. “You talk about the 50 stores around at the turn of the (20th) century, one of them is left today and that’s Bealls. Burdine’s has become Macy’s, Mass Brothers, Robinson’s, Montgomery-Roberts, etc., have all gone away.”
In 2006, Knopik was promoted as the first Bealls CEO outside of the family. He continued to redefine the company as a Florida lifestyle specialist, and continued the boom of the outlets with his hire in Dave Alves as outlet president in 2012.
Another Beall is waiting in the wings for his opportunity. Bob Beall’s son, R.M. “Matt” Beall III, is working in merchandising after joining the company in 2004 in the outlet division following a stint at Bealls Outlet competitor Ross Stores. Beall, 37, who has an MBA from Stetson University, will play an integral part in the company’s future.
“Matt is very bright and a very, very driven young man,” Knopik said. “I expect Matt to take on an increasing role to take over the company in the next several years. I’m hoping in the next five years we have a much clearer vision of Matt’s future role here.”
Deal or No Deal
Bealls’ success has attracted offers from other companies, but Bealls’ owners have never been seriously interested in selling, both Szymanski and Beall say.
“If we looked back at any point in history and said, ‘What if we had sold at that point? Would we be better off today or worse?’ I think we would be worse,” Beall said. “I think that continues to be true, and I just see no point in selling it. And I’m worried about what might happen to the employees. They’re putting their lives into this, too.”
Beall is open to buying into another retail property, however. Still, it would have to be profitable and have a better return on investment than not acquiring the company.
“We would not be adverse to that if a good opportunity came along, but we have yet to see what I could consider a good opportunity,” he said.
As Bealls spread through Florida, the company debated how or when it could set its sights on other states. The department stores could still one day find its way to places outside the Sunshine State, as the outlet division has offered a lesson in doing business out of state.
The outlet division started in 1987 after a failed outlet concept Just Labels ended its four-year run. The new outlets turned into a successful venture, when Just Labels spun off half of its stores to become Bealls Outlets while the other half closed. In 1998, Burkes Outlets were launched as a made-up name to avoid confusion in Texas with an unrelated Bealls family operated stores.
Internet retailing for the outlets versus the department stores–and difference in physical size –led the company’s leaders on an expansion strategy that greatly changed the number of outlet stores.
The department stores had more competition for goods both in-store and online, making it tough to find real estate or a place in cyberspace.
During Szymanski’s tenure as Bealls Department Store president, the company in 2007 considered department store locations outside of Florida.
“We were actively contemplating other coastal locations moving into Georgia; moving into the greater Mobile area was of interest to us,” he said. “We were kind of considering that as a growth venue and also continuing to expand our Internet brand.”
Outlet stores could quickly spread because the online demand for off-price goods wasn’t there, Szymanski explained. Also, some brands — like Nike — could dictate where its outlet merchandise could appear online, a hurdle for outlet retail that heavily relies on big brands.
By the mid-2000s when these conversations arose, the department stores were entrenched in online retail, having accepted payments for goods online since 1997. The outlets didn’t sell merchandise on its website until 2014 when BurkesOutlets.com opened an online store. BeallsOutlets.com still doesn’t allow purchases.
That weak Internet presence for outlet goods industry-wide made it easier and more attractive to fill up 10,000-square-foot boxes from former drug stores, Szymanski said. Bealls Outlets later doubled its store size and saturated Florida in the early 2000s. There are currently more than 460 Bealls Outlets and Burkes Outlets open or under development in 13 states. The recession certainly made the decision easier, too, when shoppers looked for more affordable deals and retailers needed to cut costs.
“The return on investment became much better on the outlet stores,” Beall said. “We could really roll them out. The leases were shorter, the store decor was cheaper and we got a quicker return on the investments without the risk of a long, 10- to 15-year lease.”
Despite the success of the outlet division in terms of store count, the outlets move less volume than the department stores, Knopik noted.
“Although there are lots more outlet stores, each one is smaller and each one does less volume than the department stores,” he said.
Bealls outside of Florida
Still, could Bealls one day return to its plans of building department stores outside the Sunshine State?
“It’s not at the top of my list, but it’s on my list,” Knopik said.
Beall also said he hasn’t ruled out department store expansion, saying the company probably will go outside of Florida one day with some tweaks.
“I think department stores are going to be smaller than we had been opening for a while,” Beall said. “We’ve been opening 100,000-square-foot stores, and I don’t think there’s any need in the longer range for 100,000-square-foot stores.”
Instead, stores would probably be 30,000 to 40,000 square feet, executives said.
Lorna Nagler, president of Bealls Department Stores, foresees a refreshing redesign of the department stores coming, reorganizing by lifestyle and focusing on stocking stores for the communities they serve.
“We have the ability to be nimble and smarter about what that Florida lifestyle really is,” she said. “It’s very different from Sarasota to Jacksonville to the Panhandle. The nuances of the assortment and the brands that are relevant is something we’ve really been focusing on — to think differently and to think uniquely about each individual store.”
Until then, the company will spend more efforts driving its Bealls and Burkes Outlets in Arizona, Texas and other markets.
“There are many, many locations that don’t have Bealls Outlets or Burkes Outlets stores that could be real profitable for us,” Knopik said.