Tim Belk’s first job when he graduated from business school at UNC Chapel Hill was running the toy department at a Belk store in Gastonia, in what’s now Eastridge Mall.
That’s where he learned his first lessons in leadership – including one from a Rubik’s Cube.
“You get out of MBA school, thinking you’re supposed to run the world. They don’t teach you as much about people,” says Belk. He announced Wednesday that he’s retiring after 35 years at Belk, including 12 as its CEO.
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At the Gastonia store, Belk set an audacious goal for his team of associates of selling one Rubik’s Cube to each customer. He believed it could be done. Belk says his team was pretty close to hitting its goal when one employee stepped into his office, imploring him, “You have to stop this.”
The problem was toys, including Rubik’s Cubes, are a seasonal business, Belk said, that blow in “like a flash flood” before demand quiets down in other parts of the year.
“I was working them pretty hard, until I realized that we needed to come together as a team,” Belk says. “You have to bring along your people with you. You can’t move too fast.”
Letting employees pitch in their own ideas, thus making plans theirs as well as his own, was one of the lessons that stuck with Belk in his early years at the company his grandfather started in Monroe 128 years ago.
You have to bring along your people with you. You can’t move too fast.
Tim Belk, retiring CEO of Belk Inc.
Another bit of the executive’s education came from his uncle, John Belk, Charlotte’s four-term mayor who also served as Belk’s CEO before Tim took over in 2004. Belk drilled his nephew on the importance of working face-to-face with customers, as well as resilience when times get tough.
“He said, ‘It’s important for you to take a real job, and learn to get knocked down and pick yourself back up,’” Belk says. “When we went through the recession, I thought about Uncle John a lot. That was a tough period.”
But Belk weathered the Great Recession. Profits improved, and the company started spending more on modernizing stores and on its IT and e-commerce systems.
“We came out of the recession with half a billion of cash on our balance sheet and we began to really invest in the company. But for two years, it was hard,” Belk says.
Belk, 61, says his decision to leave his family’s company was his own, one he reached in late May. That’s almost six months after a New York private equity firm called Sycamore Partners closed on its $3 billion purchase of the department store chain.
“I’m feeling good about the progress we’ve made, the relationships we’ve established, the value Sycamore is adding to Belk,” the outgoing CEO said. “I feel really good about where Belk is today and the prospects for Belk going forward, I think, are really strong.”
After he retires in July, Belk says the plan is to slow down for a bit. He has two children who are each engaged, and two that recently graduated from college.
He’ll remain on the company’s board of directors. And he says he doesn’t see anything changing as far as his family’s strong civic engagement with the Charlotte community is concerned. That includes work through the Belk Foundation, local universities including UNC Charlotte and Presbyterian churches.
Tim Belk doesn’t know what his next move will be. But he says there will be “a Chapter Two out there, and a Chapter Three.”
“I’ve been working hard for a long time, and it will be great to have a question mark in there,” he says.