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1864: William Henry Belk is born.
This story first appeared in the March 18, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
1888: Belk, now 24, opens his first store in Monroe, N.C. He uses $750 in savings, a $500 loan, and $3,000 worth of goods taken on consignment. Believing an impressive name is a must, he calls his store the New York Racket Store.
1891: Dr. John M. Belk gives up his medical practice and joins his brother as a partner in the business. The brothers begin to develop expansion plans.
1893: The second Belk store opens in Chester, S.C., followed by a third in Union, S.C., a year later.
1895: William H. Belk moves to Charlotte, N.C., to open the fourth store, which would become the company’s flagship and headquarters.
1900: Sarah Houston, a cousin of William H. Belk’s wife, joins the company in Charlotte to start the millinery department, and becomes a pioneer for women in the company. Over the course of a 50-year career, she becomes a top manager of women’s ready-to-wear.
1924: Now with 30 stores across the South, Belk opens a buying office in New York.
1927: A buying office is established in Charlotte.
1928: Dr. John M. Belk dies at age 62 and a memorial fund is founded in his name. It is the predecessor to the Belk Foundation philanthropic organization.
1931: Belk’s first private label brand — Red Camel — is introduced. Blue denim overalls are the first product.
1933-1942: In a period of aggressive expansion, 111 stores open, bringing the total number of stores to 190. No Belk stores are closed during the Great Depression.
1949: The company now generates $126.7 million in sales with 279 stores.
1952: William Henry Belk dies at age 89. His six children take on different roles in the leadership of the company.
Mid-1950s: John and Tom Belk, sons of founder William Henry Belk, become the chief executive officers of the company.
• They begin the transformation from bargain store to fashion retailer, developing relationships with manufacturers of national apparel brands. They lead the migration of Belk stores from older downtown buildings to modern expanded stores anchoring suburban malls and shopping centers throughout the South.
1955: Belk Buying Services is incorporated to provide buying and other support services to the stores.
1956: The company acquires the 50-unit Efird’s department store company of Charlotte.
1957: Belk opens its first shopping center store, at the Friendly Center in Greensboro, N.C.
1962: Teaming with rival retailer J.B. Ivey & Co., Belk buys 500 acres of land in Charlotte to build SouthPark Mall, the city’s first major regional shopping center.
• The company marks its 75th anniversary.
1967: A single logo unifies the Belk brand. The store sheds its bargain image for one of fashion. The big “B” spreads all over the South.
1970: A 220,000-square foot flagship is opened in the new SouthPark Mall.
• A centralized corporate data center and credit center opens in Charlotte.
1972: Electronic point-of-sale terminals begin to replace traditional cash registers.
1975: Sales of Esteé Lauder cosmetics start at eight units.
1987: Polo Ralph Lauren is introduced in seven Belk stores.
1988: Belk, now with about 350 stores in 16 states, celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Early ’90s: The company continues acquisitions of store chains as well as trimming unprofitable units.
1996: With its acquisition of 42 Leggett department stores, Belk has become a network of retail corporations forming a $2 billion empire with 265 locations in about 12 Southeast states. The 107-year-old Belk is the largest family-owned department store chain in the country. Among its units are Belk-Matthews, based in Gastonia, N.C., with 13 stores, and Belk-Simpson in Greenville, S.C., with 26 stores.
1997: Tom Belk dies at age 71.
1998: On May 2, the company consolidates 112 store corporations into one. The combined company has about 600 stockholders and starts to file financial reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
1999: Belk consolidates 13 operating divisions into four expanded divisions headquartered in Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C.; Greenville, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla. It also completes a store swap with Dillard’s to strengthen its competitive position in key markets including Columbia, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.
• 206 Belk stores generate a total of $2.1 billion in sales.
2004: John M. Belk, former Charlotte mayor and son of company founder William Henry Belk, retires after nearly 60 years as ceo, opening the door for a new generation to take the reins. Three sons of Tom Belk are named to corporate positions: Thomas M. “Tim” Belk is named chairman and ceo; H.W. McKay Belk becomes president and chief merchandising officer, and John R. “Johnny” Belk, president and chief operating officer.
• Belk posts an 11.3 percent increase in net income to $124.1 million and an 8 percent boost in sales to $2.45 billion for the 2004 fiscal year. It opens 14 stores in 2004, adding 964,300 square feet, and completes eight renovations and three expansions.
2005-2006: Belk acquires three key department store chains — 47 Proffitt’s/McRae’s units and 27 Parisian stores — from Saks Inc. for $907 million. This gives it deeper penetration into existing markets and inroads into new ones, including Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala., and Jacksonville, Fla. The company has a total of 300 units with an estimated $3.15 billion sales in 2006.
• McRae’s and Proffitt’s are re-branded as Belk stores.
• The company sells its credit card business to GE Money Bank, launching a long-term strategic marketing and credit services alliance.
2007: John M. Belk, chairman emeritus, dies at age 87.
• The upscale Parisian chain is re-branded as Belk.
2008: The expanded and updated belk.com Web site launches with wide assortments of fashion apparel, accessories, shoes, cosmetics, home and gift merchandise. A new e-commerce fulfillment center begins operating in Pineville, N.C.
• Kathryn Bufano joins the company as president of merchandising and marketing. She had previously held executive and merchandise management roles with Vanity Shops, a junior chain based in North Dakota; Sears; Dress Barn; Macy’s, and Lord & Taylor.
2009: The company consolidates its four store-operating divisions into three divisions with division offices located in Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala., and Raleigh, N.C.
2010: Belk’s corporate brand identity gets a makeover with a new logo and tag line: Modern. Southern. Style.
• Kathryn Bufano is named president and chief merchandising officer, succeeding McKay Belk, who extends a year-long sabbatical and relinquishes the title but remains vice chairman and a director. Bufano is the first woman and the first person outside the Belk family to hold the title of president and chief merchant.
• 305 stores generate a total of $3.5 billion in sales.
• The company implements multimedia marketing and social media strategies that include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, e-mail, mobile phones and a Belk blog.
• The e-commerce fulfillment center is expanded by 117,000 square feet.
2011: The company becomes the title sponsor of the Belk Bowl college football postseason game played in Charlotte, N.C.
2012: The “flagship” strategy launches as part of its $600 million program to reach sales of $6 billion by 2017.
• Belk signs Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for a branded sportswear collection called Made Cam Newton, launching in spring 2013 in 133 stores.
• The Ocean & Coast private label men’s line launches.
• The Southern Designer Showcase program begins. It will promote 15 Southern designers — winners of a contest — in 44 stores for three months, starting in spring 2013. Some of them are established brands and others are just starting out. Some are still in school, and Belk is going to produce their lines.
2013: The exclusive Cynthia Cynthia Rowley collection launches with in-store shops in 149 doors, and includes apparel, handbags, jewelry, scarves, accessories and small leather goods, priced $80 to $200. Shoes are on tap for fall.
• The company marks 125 years in business, with 300 stores, 29 million feet of retail space, and $4 billion in sales annually.
Sources: Belk Inc. and WWD Archives