Belk CEO Tim Belk to retire, ending 128 years with family member at the helm

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Tim Belk, CEO of the Charlotte-based retail chain that bears his name, is retiring in July – ending 128 years of day-to-day family leadership of a company that grew from a shop in Monroe to the biggest department store chain in America.

Lisa Harper, a Durham native and UNC Chapel Hill graduate who previously served as CEO of specialty clothing retailer Hot Topic, will succeed Belk as CEO, effective July 5, according to a statement from the company.

Belk, 61, will remain on the board of directors. In an interview with the Observer Wednesday afternoon, Belk said the company’s headquarters will also remain in Charlotte. Belk employs about 1,400 in its corporate offices on Tyvola Road.

“I am actually feeling really good about where Belk is today, and I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress in the transition of ownership from the old Belk to the new Belk,” Belk said. “I thought for me, this would be a good time to do something different.”

Citing a rapidly changing retail environment, the chain sold itself to New York-based private equity firm Sycamore Partners in December for $3 billion.

The outgoing CEO is the last remaining member of the Belk family to leave the company.

Tim Belk joined the company in 1981 and has served as CEO since 2004. Over the years, he’s held a number of positions, including buyer, store manager, divisional merchandise manager for men’s and boys, senior vice president of human resources, and president of stores and real estate.

Over the decades, Belk family members have played major civic roles in Charlotte, including serving as mayor and chairing the Charlotte Chamber. In its hometown, the Belk name adorns a freeway, a college bowl game, the business school at UNC Charlotte and philanthropic initiatives.

“Tim Belk is a gifted leader who has taken Belk to new levels of success. He has positioned the organization to continue to succeed in the future,” Bob Morgan, Charlotte Chamber president and CEO, said in a statement.

Since the sale closed, several of Belk’s top executives have departed. Johnny Belk, Tim’s brother and former chief operating officer, left the company in January, as did Belk’s general counsel, Ralph Pitts.

Since the new owners took over in December, the chain closed stores in Culpeper, Va., Eden, N.C., and Union, S.C., and opened one in Euless, Texas. It currently operates 294 stores total. In 2007, Belk operated 311 stores.

On Wednesday, Belk said the company’s growth strategy remains unchanged: It will “always prune the under-performing stores,” and will work to increase market share and open up a few stores “in contiguous markets.”

Belk was Sycamore Partners’ first department store purchase. Its portfolio of stores consists mostly of investments in specialty apparel stores, including Hot Topic, where incoming CEO Harper served as chief executive from 2011 until this month. Harper will continue to serve on the Hot Topic board.

Belk legacy

Belk dates back to 1888 in Monroe, where 26-year-old William Henry Belk opened his first store, then called New York Racket. The store sold everything from one-cent items like pencils and fishhooks to workmen’s overalls straight from the wooden crates in which they arrived.

For years, Belk operated hundreds of department stores under different regional divisions and under separate leadership. Belk’s son John Belk, who would later serve four terms as Charlotte mayor, became CEO of one of the various Belk stores in 1953 and later consolidated them under one banner. He held Belk’s No. 1 spot until he retired in 2004, and Tim Belk, his nephew, took over.

Belk is among a growing number of Charlotte-area chains to change hands recently. Last year, for example, Matthews-based Family Dollar sold itself to Virginia-based Dollar Tree for about $9.1 billion. Howard Levine, son of the company’s founder, stepped down as CEO in January. Matthews-based Harris Teeter was acquired by Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. in 2014 for $2.5 billion.

Experts have said Belk was astute to sell itself when it did given the current challenges in the retail industry. Competitors have been beset by the growth in e-commerce, as well as by changing customer habits. Macy’s, for example, recently reported its worst quarterly sales since the recession. In the second quarter of 2015, the last time Belk disclosed its financial results publicly, the company reported a net income of $14.5 million and sales of $917.4 million.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta