Family Dollar CEO gives $45 million to build his legacy foundation

Howard Levine in his Family Dollar office announcing his new charitable fund, March 19, 2015. Howard Levine is using 600,000 shares in Family Dollar stock to create his own foundation, endowing it with $45 million to help social needs in Charlotte. It will be managed by Foundation for the Carolinas and give out up to $2 million a year.
Howard Levine in his Family Dollar office announcing his new charitable fund, March 19, 2015. Howard Levine is using 600,000 shares in Family Dollar stock to create his own foundation, endowing it with $45 million to help social needs in Charlotte. It will be managed by Foundation for the Carolinas and give out up to $2 million a year. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Family Dollar CEO Howard Levine has added $45 million to a charitable fund at Foundation for the Carolinas, establishing him as one of the biggest individual philanthropists in the Carolinas.

Total assets in the Howard R. Levine Foundation, created in 2010, are now $65 million, qualifying it as one the state’s largest donor-advised funds. Under such funds, Foundation for the Carolinas holds the money while Levine recommends who should receive grants.

The size of the charitable donation carries a bitter irony: The 600,000 shares of Family Dollar stock Levine used for the gift were far more valuable because of a drawn-out takeover fight that ultimately resulted in the sale of the longtime family-run Matthews-based company to a competitor.

Indeed, the donation was in progress last fall even as a bidding war for Family Dollar played out between Dollar Tree and Dollar General. In January, shareholders approved an $8.5 billion sale to Dollar Tree. Family Dollar will operate as a subsidiary, with Levine at the helm for at least two more years of the company founded by his father.

Levine was the largest single shareholder of Family Dollar stock at the time of the sale, owning 8.8 million shares, or 7.7 percent of the total, then worth about $672 million. In 2010, when Levine first opened his foundation, Family Dollar stock traded for less than $40 per share. The takeover fight began the following year, and the stock began a steep rise, eventually trading at nearly $80 per share.

While many factors were behind the sale, Levine has repeatedly pointed to one fact in particular – a customer base of people earning less than $40,000 and struggling to rebound from the recession.

Levine has declined an interview request from the Observer about Family Dollar’s sale. However, he talked last week about his decision to expand his giving, saying the Dollar Tree sale accelerated the timing but did not otherwise affect his charitable vision.

He and his wife, Julie, expect to give out at least $3.2 million annually from the fund, with a focus on nonprofit programs that help low-income people and struggling families.

One way to put Levine’s new philanthropic status into perspective is to note that he can give away $1.2 million more annually than Foundation for the Carolinas typically does through its Charlotte discretionary fund.

“Howard Levine will be a major player in philanthropy in this community. Period,” said Holly Welch Stubbing, an executive vice president with Foundation for the Carolinas.

The announcement coincides with news that Levine and his wife are also giving $1 million to support Foundation for the Carolinas’ plan to renovate the historic Carolina Theatre on North Tryon. The gift puts the total raised at $25.8 million toward a $35 million goal.

Foundation for the Carolinas says Levine’s fund is now large enough to rank No. 2 among the 1,116 personal/family funds that it manages. The nonprofit foundation won’t identify the No. 1 fund.

Levine said he intends to take a personal approach to helping the community. He and his wife plan to look for causes to help, rather than wait for charities to come to them. That will include picking up the phone and personally calling charity leaders with offers of aid, he said. Most of the money likely will stay in Mecklenburg County.

Seeing the difference

An example of Levine’s style for giving occurred last fall when he donated $100,000 so the Arts & Science Council could continue field trips for third- and fifth-grade children to historic sites, the opera and the ballet.

“I literally picked up the phone, and a voice says, ‘This is Howard Levine, and I’m concerned about field trips. Can we talk?’ ” recalled Robert Bush, president of the Arts and Science Council.

“My reaction? Sheer joy. He talked about remembering his own field trips as a child and how important they were to him. That’s the kind of man we’re dealing with here. This gift came from a place deep in his past that he still fondly remembers.”

The Levines plan to give away about 5 percent of the balance each year, with giving in the initial years expected to be about $3.2 million. However, the couple is reserving the right to give more. They also have the option of giving the entire amount to one cause, or even to create a nonprofit initiative, much like Foundation for the Carolinas did with the Carolina Theatre project.

Levine said he will spend the majority on social services needs, such as food, shelter and housing. He and his wife are also big supporters of education and Jewish causes.

Since creating the Howard R. Levine Fund in 2010, he has given away just under $6 million, including money for Loaves & Fishes pantries, the American Red Cross and a Hospitality House program that covers expenses for out-of-towners stuck in Charlotte because of a hospitalized loved one.

He also gave $1 million to help jump-start A Way Home, a new program that helps homeless families and veterans get more quickly into housing.

Asked what compelled him to set aside $65 million for the community, Levine cited the field trips as an example.

“Afterward, I got a package of individual, handwritten notes from fifth-graders, telling me how much they appreciated it. I get a lot out of that,” he said. “I saved those letters, and I showed my wife and my own kids. My family instilled in me the idea of giving back, and I’m trying to do the same with my own children.”

Two of the Levines’ four children are still at home, daughters ages 9 and 11. The oldest two are in their 20s.

Phil Berman, CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Charlotte, said Levine’s desire to see the good accomplished with his money has resulted in a series of gifts to his agency. This includes tens of thousands of dollars for a community center program that helps hundreds of elderly shut-ins with free meals and health needs.

“He doesn’t just give money and walk away. He wants to see how things are changing. He loves seeing the difference,” Berman said. “It’s like he has a personal stake in the things he gives to. He calls and he asks what else he can do to help.”

Inspired by his father

Levine said he has not discussed his $45 million donation yet with his father, Family Dollar founder Leon Levine.

Though Howard Levine credits his father as his inspiration, the two have taken a different approach to their charitable funds.

The Leon Levine Foundation is a private nonprofit, with its own office and staff. His son Howard is instead placing his money with Foundation for the Carolinas, a public foundation that takes legal control of the money. The latter approach means less control for the donor but higher tax deductions.

Leon Levine retired from Family Dollar in 2003. He founded his Leon Levine Foundation with wife, Sandra, in 1980 using what he called a “modest sum of money.” His foundation is now one of the largest private philanthropic organizations in the Southeast, with assets of about $300 million.

Among the many beneficiaries of his grants are the Levine Museum of the New South, the Levine Campus at Central Piedmont Community College, the Levine Center for the Arts, the Levine Children’s Hospital and the Sandra and Leon Levine Jewish Community Center.

A challenge to give

Howard Levine said his time spent running the Family Dollar chain of stores makes him feel connected to the people he’ll be helping with his money.

The chain’s 8,000-plus stores are typically found in blue-collar or low-income communities and offer discounted prices on necessities. His customers, he said, are people who’ve suffered financial setbacks from health problems, a lost job, or even something as simple as a broken-down car they don’t have the money to fix.

“I recall this one time, I was visiting a store on the South Side of Chicago, a tough area, and I stood out,” Levine said.

“This older lady, who I knew was struggling, came up to me and said: ‘Sir, do you know where you are?’ and I said ‘Yes, ma’am, I do.’ She said, ‘Well, just be careful, young man.’ She’s who I think of, and people like her. ... I find myself now in a position to help them.”

Levine said he may be picking the causes, but he’ll rely on Foundation for the Carolinas to help with the details, including checking to make sure donations are spent as expected.

The creation of his fund comes at a time when there are more than 4,000 nonprofits in Mecklenburg County, most of them scrambling for the same pot of grants and donations.

Similar personal funds run by Foundation for the Carolinas have been the backbone of a wide variety of recently launched projects in the community, including an initiative to raise standards of education on Charlotte’s impoverished west side and a charity working on behalf of young veterans discharged from the military.

Howard Levine hopes news of his investment in the community might encourage others to start personal charitable funds.

“Maybe I can set an example. There are plenty of people in this community that have had a lot of success, and maybe they can make their own decisions about setting aside money for others.”