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    T. Ortega Gaines, ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

    T. Ortega Gaines - T. Ortega Gaines, ogaines@charlotteobserver.com
    Howard Levine at the Matthews headquarters of Family Dollar.
  • Talkfromthetop_Levine

    Observer file photo

    Diedra Laird - Observer file photo
    Howard Levine, Family Dollar CEO, shows the company's visual merchandising facility at its corporate campus in Matthews.
  • Talkfromthetop_Levine

    Observer file photo

    Diedra Laird - Observer file photo
    During Howard Levine's 12 years as Family Dollar CEO, the company has more than doubled its number of stores and steadily increased the payout for shareholders.

Howard Levine: A family man

By David Perlmutt

Posted: Tuesday, Jun. 21, 2011

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No joke, Howard Levine is saying about his first dream. As a boy, he wanted to grow up to play professional basketball.

In high school in the mid to late 1970s, he’d played point guard – sharp passer, quiet court leader – at Charlotte Latin: “I loved the competition. Working for something and trying to get better. I loved the team aspect. It’s easier to go out and play a round of golf. It’s just you.

“It was much harder to build a good team and get a win.”

Problem is, when he stopped growing up: “I was 5’9” – my wife says that’s stretching it. More like 5’ 8 1/2”. I figured that wasn’t going to work out so well.”

So Levine chose the only other team sport he knew well: Family Dollar, the discount retail empire his father, Leon, had built from scratch and into which Howard was indoctrinated from practically the time he turned a year old in 1959. That was the year Leon opened his first store on Charlotte’s Central Avenue, using a $6,000 loan.

Howard started out “testing” (actually playing with) the toys as a child. And, as a teenager, he mowed grass at the old Family Dollar offices on Rozzelles Ferry Road in west Charlotte.

Now he runs the whole empire.

“This is a team sport,” Levine, 52, says, rolling back into a chair in his office at the sprawling, modernist Family Dollar headquarters on Monroe Road in Matthews. “This company would run great without me. It’s all about our team here. And the way we work together to shape it – that’s very motivating.

“It’s fun. It gives you a sense of belonging, a sense of community. A sense of accomplishment. I never had to think about what I wanted to do. Dad was always, whether he meant it or not: ‘You can do anything you want to do.’

“But if you’re going to run the family business,” Leon Levine would advise his oldest child and only son, “you’d better be good at it.”

Lessons well-learned

By all accounts, Howard Levine is very good at it.

Since 1998, the year he was named CEO at 39, Family Dollar more than doubled its number of stores to nearly 6,900, and steadily increased the payout for its shareholders. Yearly revenues have climbed by almost $5 billion, to $8 billion – making the Fortune 500 chain the eighth-largest, in revenues, in the Carolinas.

In the lingering recession that has sucker-punched many companies, Family Dollar has continued to thrive, planning to open 300 more stores this fiscal year and renovate existing stores to boost sales.

The son learned his lessons well from his father.

His tutelage started early. Just after Howard turned 7, his mother, Barbara, died of breast cancer – leaving Leon a single father of three children: Howard and younger sisters Lori and Mindy. At that point, Family Dollar had less than 30 stores in four states, with annual sales of about $5 million. Leon was constantly on the road building the business.

As a boy, Howard often went to work with him, either in the car traveling to another Carolinas town, or to the office. His earliest memory of Family Dollar was store number 17 on South Boulevard. Leon built offices in the back and while he worked, Howard played in the store.

“I was the quality tester; it was an unpaid job,” Howard says. “That’s the way I was able to spend time with Dad.”

As he got older, Leon’d take him on real estate buying trips to the next small town in the Carolinas, Georgia or Virginia. All the while, Howard was learning.

“We often had other people with us,” he says. “It was fun getting out and hearing the terminology and the business things they talked about. It opened up a world for me – whether or not I understood it at the time.

“But from those trips, I knew what my dad did, and I liked it. I got an understanding of business and what you’re here for: Early on you learn you’re here to make money. If you don’t, you have lots of problems.”

Quiet and driven

Growing up, Howard didn’t live the life of a rich kid. His earliest memory was living in a two-bedroom apartment behind the Cotswold shops. Leon preached bargain shopping. Howard often wore clothes from Family Dollar.

“I knew we did well; I knew we lived well,” the son says. “But I didn’t get a new bike every year. At 16, I got a ‘doo-doo’ brown Chevrolet Impala that a district manager had driven over 100,000 miles, with the front seat caved in. I loved that car. A couple years later, I got an upgrade: a blue Chevrolet Impala – with the front seat caved in.”

Since Leon was gone a lot, Howard made his own lunches to take to school. He was no stranger to a washing machine. “Growing up in my father’s house, you had to be very independent,” Howard says. “I didn’t get everything I wanted. I was treated like any normal kid. I was taught value.”

At Latin, classmates recall a quiet, driven teenager. Same was true on the basketball court. “He was determined, competitive,” recalls cousin Daniel Levine, now president of Levine Properties. “He didn’t like to lose.”

During summers in high school at Latin and college at UNC-Chapel Hill, Howard worked in the business. Not the cushy jobs. He’d mow grass outside the company office. Or unload rail cars of paper towels and toilet paper. As he got older, Leon assigned him to relieve store managers so they could take summer vacations.

Being the boss’s son made it awkward for Howard. “I didn’t love working in the stores summer after summer. I’d go to my father and say, ‘Dad, this guy is twice my age and I feel awkward telling him he needs to take out the trash.’

“He just said he grew up that way and I just needed to deal with it. He’d say, ‘If you want to be in my position one day, that’s what you’ve got to learn how to do.’ I learned at an early age how to manage people. I learned a lot about the business, because I did the jobs.”

After graduating from UNC in 1981, armed with a business degree, Howard returned to Charlotte and Family Dollar.

He started off assisting merchandisers buy goods. Gradually he began to work his way up to merchandiser and merchandising supervisor. By 1987, at 29, Howard was Family Dollar’s senior vice president for merchandising, advertising and distribution.

A public falling out

Then he abruptly left Family Dollar in a very public split.

Leon told reporters that Howard had resigned. Howard told reporters he’d been dismissed. He said his personal relationship with his father had deteriorated into “an intolerable situation.”

“We did have a falling out, but nobody pushed me harder than I pushed myself,” Howard says now. “I had a bug to try to something on my own. At the time, there were other personal challenges between the two of us. So I thought the best thing to do was to go off and see how we did without each other.

“It was hard on him and hard on me.”

Howard moved to Philadelphia and started a chain of discount women’s clothing stores – no piece over $10. Suddenly, he was faced with doing everything: Securing loans, renting space, negotiating with salesmen and building a business from scratch – just like his father.

“I loved doing it,” he says. “And made a go of it for a while. But eventually, my dad was basically pushing me to come back.”

One day, Howard was outside one of his stores unloading a truck when he spotted a Family Dollar real estate hunter on the street. “He said ‘Your dad wants us to find a location on this street. He wants to put you out of business,’” Howard recalls.

The Philadelphia company soon folded. And in 1996, after nine years away, Howard returned to Family Dollar the heir apparent.

After running his own business, Howard came back with renewed respect for his father.

“It was healthy for both of us for me to establish my own identity,” the son says. “Starting my own business; it’s damn hard.

“It gave me a greater appreciation for what he went through.”

Intensely private

Perhaps because the father-son relationship was limited by the business, Howard works hard to center and balance his life between work and family.

He is determined to be engaged in the lives of his four children – two older ones (ages 23 and 18) from a first marriage, and two younger ones (7 and 5) with his current wife. That part of his life is intensely private.

But it’s clear two things make him tick: family and Family Dollar.

“Howard has a deep commitment to making sure that business thrives and grows,” Daniel Levine says.

As board chairman and Family Dollar’s largest single shareholder, Howard recently led the rebuff of a $7.6 billion takeover bid by a New York hedge fund. In leading the charge, he put aside his family ties, he says. “It was a business decision,” he says. “The fact that I grew up in the business, sure I had personal feelings. But they weren’t relevant to this business decision. I had to do the right thing for the business and the shareholders.”

Like his father, Howard is hands-on and competitive at work, a man bent on expanding the empire. Daily, he eats lunch in his office, inviting two or three employees from various parts of the company to join him. It’s a way to stay in touch.

He’s seen as a methodical CEO, sweating details and making decisions only after all options are weighed. He starts each morning reading the previous day’s sales, and, like his father did, often drops in on stores unannounced to see what customers are buying and thinking. He’s also known to visit stores of his company’s biggest competitor, Dollar General.

And like his father did for him, he buys toys or clothes for his younger children from Family Dollar. He’ll pick up pajamas for himself.

“He enjoys being a Family Dollar customer,” says Jim Kelly, Family Dollar’s president and Howard’s closest advisor. “It helps him understand how successful we’re being here as an organization.”

Outside work, he guards his privacy, prefering to spend time with his family instead of going to social galas that Charlotte’s other millionaires feel compelled to frequent. “Howard is so overwhelmingly focused sometimes on the business, that it’s an extended part of his life,” Kelly said. “But he is an active father, too. He makes time for their sports, or school events.”

Beyond work and family, he cheers on his alma mater’s basketball team and spends his away time on the golf course, usually at Quail Hollow Club. “He’s very competitive,” Kelly says. “You’d better bring your wallet.”

When his oldest son, Brian, was deciding on colleges, Howard let him make the decision as long as it was well-thought out. Brian’s now a Duke graduate – anathema to any Tar Heel fan. Howard smiles: “I failed him as a father.”

A different style

Lately, he’s taken up the family avocation – philanthropy.

Leon Levine and wife Sandra have given away millions through their family foundation to schools, museums, hospitals, the facilities that comprise Shalom Park and nonprofits helping the poor. Their name is on at least two dozen buildings in the Carolinas, and recently was affixed to the uptown cultural campus between South Tryon and Church streets.

Almost like a DNA transfer, Howard made a big splash recently, giving a $250,000 challenge gift to the American Red Cross that brought in another $500,000 from two donors. In January, his foundation pledged $500,000 to UNC to fund Jewish studies.

The son says the father preached: “If you’re fortunate enough to be in the position to give back, you do. It wasn’t a hard thing for me to understand. My dad set the example and I thought it was an outstanding example.

“People say it’s easy to give away money. But to do it right, you’ve got to be thoughtful.”

The father also taught him to approach philanthropy like a business: “He knows what he’s giving to. He makes sure that what he’s giving to is going to use his money in the right way.”

Their philanthropy is also about their Jewishness. “In the Jewish faith … you learn from childhood to give back in many different ways,” Daniel Levine says. “Howard has seen that generosity come through his father. He feels compelled to participate as well.”

Yet Howard doesn’t expect – nor want – his name to hang on buildings.

“One of the challenges in the position I’m in, is it’s hard to have a private life,” he says. “People want to recognize my father and Sandra for what they’ve done. I have a lot of respect and appreciation for what they’ve done.

“My father has a style, I have a different style. I’m a private man.”

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