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John Belk, Built Retail Giant

John Montgomery Belk, who died Friday at 87, molded the family-owned Belk department store chain into a retail empire in the South.

John Montgomery Belk, who died Friday at 87, molded the family-owned Belk department store chain into a retail empire in the South.

The chairman emeritus and former chief executive officer of Charlotte, N.C.-based Belk Inc. built the business on traditional values, close community ties and bringing better assortments to smaller cities and towns avoided by the competition. He steadfastly kept the retailer aloof from the takeovers and consolidations that overwhelmed and reshaped the U.S. department store industry in the Eighties and Nineties.

“John Belk was a member of a great retailing family and a retail pioneer,” Leonard A. Lauder, chairman of the board, the Estée Lauder Cos., said in a statement. “When he and his late brother, Tom, entered the business, Belk was a small regional chain of partner-operated stores catering to the lower-middle-class market. Today, it’s an upper-middle-class retail powerhouse with consolidated merchandise. John and his brother’s leadership created a retail revolution in their region.”

Belk, who led the retailer for 50 years, died at his Charlotte home. Darrell Williams, the company’s manager of executive communications, said Belk had been in good health and the exact cause of death had not yet been determined. A memorial service was held Monday and the burial was private.

He retired as chairman and ceo in May 2004. During his tenure, the Belk business was criticized for staying on the sidelines in a rapidly changing industry where expansion and acquisition opportunities abounded. However, the strategy kept his stores performing steadily above the fray.

“There was none of that dog-eat-dog mentality,” said Laurence C. Leeds Jr., chairman of Buckingham Capital and a ceo of the former Manhattan Industries, once a major vendor to department stores. “An order was an order, a deal was a deal. He may have been aristocratic, but he was in the fine sense of the word.”

Leeds described Belk as “a superb human being, a true gentleman and one of the most gracious men I’ve ever met. He was kind enough to invite me on at least three occasions to the Masters [golf tournament] in Augusta [Ga.]. He had a wonderful way of combining friendship and business that really isn’t done anymore,” although his family is “carrying on the tradition.”

Belk was born in Charlotte on March 29, 1920. His father, William Henry Belk, founded the company in Monroe, N.C., in 1888 and Belk joined the company in 1945, after serving as an Army infantryman during World War II, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War.

He began working in the Belk store in uptown Charlotte, and subsequently held key top management positions in the company’s central buying office organization, known as Belk Stores Services Inc. He became president of various Belk store corporations in the Fifties before rising to ceo.

For many years, Belk had a peculiar setup, as it evolved into a conglomeration of 112 separate corporations of varying footprints and different names. The company was centralized into Belk Inc. in 1998 and emerged stronger.

Things changed with the ascendency of a third generation of Belks to run the company, including John Belk’s three nephews, Thomas “Tim” Belk Jr., chairman and ceo; H.W. McKay Belk, co-president and chief merchandising officer, and John “Johnny” Belk, co-president and chief operating officer.

Most significantly, the company finally caught the acquisition bug, purchasing the Saks Inc.’s Southern Department Store Group and Parisian divisions in 2005 and 2006 and extending the company’s reach to large urban areas such as Atlanta, Birmingham and Jacksonville, Fla. The 47 Proffitt’s/McRae’s units and 27 Parisian stores brought Belk to a total of 310 units with sales of $3.7 billion last year. The retailer has grown across the South, Southwest and mid-Atlantic regions.

John Pomerantz, who ran the former Leslie Fay and is now an industry consultant, said when he was doing business with the Belks, “there were still a lot of regional department stores, but a lot have since disappeared. Not Belk. They had the customer loyalty and the good prices. People felt they were being treated fairly. That was the important thing. John had a lot of integrity and he also brought the business into smaller cities that other retailers didn’t and seemed to know how to localize the stores.”

In addition to his retail career, Belk was deeply involved in the community, serving as the mayor of Charlotte from 1969 to 1977. He maintained a high profile in civic affairs throughout his life.

“I met John in the Eighties before the department store consolidation truly developed,” recalled Gilbert Harrison, chairman of Financo Inc., which arranges for companies to buy other companies. “I talked to him many times about selling the business or acquiring other businesses. But John truly loved the business and truly enjoyed the independence he had as a private company when the rest of the world was consolidating. He is probably the last of the true great owner merchant princes, in the tradition of the Marcus and the Dillard families.”

Jerome Chazen, a former Liz Claiborne Inc. ceo, now chairman of Chazen Capital Partners, said Belk experienced “enormous transition from a sleepy franchise-oriented organization to a very vibrant department store group.”

Chazen pointed out that Belk wore different hats in his lifetime. “He was the mayor of Charlotte, and when he gave up that position, they asked him to stay in city government.” He chose to stay involved in highway development. “He said he saw Charlotte growing and felt that if he knew where the roads were being built, he’d know where to put the stores,” Chazen said.

Jerry Lacy, ceo of JFL Corp., an Atlanta-based men’s wear firm, said, “Even before Wal-Mart, Belk was the hometown family department store, at least in the South.” Lacy, a former sales representative with Jantzen, who sold to Belk from 1982 to 1997, said Belk’s talent for luring the best people from other big stores to his management team contributed to the company’s growth. Belk was more open than others to new lines during the early expansion days of the company, he added.

Cathy Tucker, principle of Sheppard & Tucker, one of the largest multiline women’s better-to-bridge showrooms in AmericasMart in Atlanta, began her career as a Belk buyer. “John Belk was a strong, fatherly figure — firm, but mannerly like a Southern gentleman,” she said. “Anytime you were in a meeting where he was presiding, you wanted everything to be perfect. He was able to assess a complex situation and bring everything together with just a few sentences.”

Tucker added that Belk’s patriarchal management style would be difficult to implement in today’s complex world of fast-fashion, which requires delegation and quick decisions.

“John Belk led the company through much change and growth, and he was a true believer in family department store retail,” said Ned Goepp, vice president and general manager of Liz Claiborne Brands. “John Belk brought the kind of product to small towns in North and South Carolina that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Kaye Davis, executive director of trade shows and fashion for AmericasMart, worked under John Belk in the mid-Eighties as a buyer and fashion director. “John Belk had great instincts in knowing regional markets, knowing what product should go where.”

He attended Charlotte public schools and McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tenn., and received a bachelor of science degree in economics from Davidson College in 1943. He donated $28 million to the school, which made him the largest single benefactor.

Belk, who served as president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce in 1964, presided as mayor of the city as Charlotte grew into a major financial and distribution center in the Southeast, and a symbol of how business and government can work together. He applied his retail promotion skills to boost Charlotte as a center for air travel. After leaving city hall, he became a member of the Charlotte Airport Advisory Committee and its chairman in 1980.

His activism extended to other civic and business organizations, including serving as a chairman of the National Retail Federation, and as a director on several corporate boards, including Lowe’s, Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and Wachovia Corp. In 1973, he received retailing’s highest honor, the Gold Medal Award from the predecessor of the NRF, which was called the National Retail Merchants Association. Among his other awards, Belk received the Excellence in Management Award from the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, Charlotte Rotary Club and The Charlotte Business Journal in 1998. In 1981, the U.S. Interstate 277 loop around uptown Charlotte was named the John Belk Freeway. He was also a Distinguished Eagle Scout and was awarded scouting’s highest honors, including the Silver Beaver, Silver Antelope and Silver Buffalo awards.

Belk is survived by his wife of 36 years, Claudia Watkins Belk; a daughter, Mary Claudia Belk Pilon, and her husband, Jeffrey Neal Pilon of Charlotte; three grandchildren, James Montgomery Pilon, John Michael Pilon and Katherine Belk Pilon of Charlotte; brothers Irwin Belk and Henderson Belk, and a sister, Sarah Belk Gambrell.