A Good Kid

“Did I agree to this interview?” Howard asked as I entered his office.

“I suspect not.”

Howard often tilts his head back and laughs out loud, and he did so now, but I knew he was not comfortable with being “on stage.” Before local and national television cameras, before large crowds, he will speak passionately about Family Dollar stores, Family Dollar customers, and Family Dollar team members, but when it comes to talking about himself, our chief executive officer is painfully shy. He honestly does not understand why Barron’s magazine has named him to their 2009 list of top thirty CEO’s in the world. He feels that the success of this company reflects not on himself, but on Family Dollar team members as a whole. Given his instinct for self-effacement and his natural reserve, it is to his everlasting credit, therefore, that as an interviewee, Howard was gracious, attentive, forthright and good-humored.

I was also struck by the fact that, although many voices are incessantly vying for our CEO’s attention, the impression he gave me during our interview was that he had nothing to do all day but sit and talk with me. He was as generous with his time and attentive to me as he might have been with a CNBC news reporter. The ability to pull this off is a princely trait.

“I understand you were born on Christmas day?”

Relaxed in his chair, wearing an open-collar white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Howard gave his roguish chuckle. “I had to be. It was the only day the store was closed.”

It is no secret that Howard’s father, Leon, was dedicated to his work. Howard’s own career with Family Dollar began at a very early age. He began in merchandising and advertising. At the age of three, he had already exhibited a set of objectives and competencies that uniquely qualified him to model the Denise the Menace suit that was selling for $2 in his dad’s store.

In the early sixties, as Family Dollar stores trickled into South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia, Howard continued to be a key contributor to the growth of the company. As soon as Dad brought him to the store, he trotted down the toy aisle and went to work quality testing the toys.

When Howard was seven, his young mother died. Howard had to learn now to fend for himself, and for his five- and two-and-a-half-year-old sisters. He put the cereal on the table, spread the peanut butter on the sandwich bread, poured detergent in the washing machine and turned the dials. Lunging here and there, he kept up with the toddler, in the house, in the yard, at Myrtle Beach, where his family vacationed every summer. His mother’s parents had moved to Charlotte to help out, but in the absence of adults, he was in charge.

Some Saturdays Leon took Howard with him to the office. The boy liked to scoot back in a chair and listen to his dad and his uncle talk business. He liked to visit stores with his dad, and to ride with him, chin lifted to the car window, when Leon scouted locations for new stores. He absorbed his father’s words like a sponge, with no conscious awareness that he was learning.

Though heir apparent to a very promising business, Howard was not spoiled. As soon as he was tall enough, his dad made him mow the lawn at the Rozzell’s Ferry Road offices and warehouse (where he and his little sisters played hide and seek). Every summer of his high school years was spent working in a Family Dollar store. He knows how hard the work is.

“I didn’t study much,” Howard said of his high school days at Charlotte Latin, then added quickly, “I liked school, I always attended my classes and did my assignments, but I didn’t study all that much. For me, it was BASKETBALL and then academics.” He shifted in his chair. “I did all right.”

“I mean, I was a good kid…no drinking or trouble of any kind. We were all well-behaved. Nobody ever had to tell me, ‘Do your homework,’ do this or do that. I knew what I had to do and I did it.” With his elbows on the arm of his chair, Howard pressed his fingertips together, shrugged, and smiled.

He had learned early, I thought, to sit quietly while Dad and the company’s executives talked business, to stand quietly like a grownup while Dad negotiated a lease agreement, or instructed a store manager in assembling a display. To go straight home from school and do his homework. To pose soberly with his dad, in suit and tie, as cameras recorded milestones in Family Dollar history. He knew that his dad was watching him, but he could not know how intently.

Leon observed his son, as point guard and team captain, lead his team to victory; Leon shrewdly observed his son’s progress to All State Basketball Player. The broken nose, broken fingers and broken teeth didn’t matter, nor the fact that Howard wasn’t going to have the height to play for the Tar Heels. What mattered was that his son was a competitor, that he played to win.

After all, running a retail business is all about calling the right plays. And, as Howard said significantly, “Score is kept.”

In 1975, Leon bought out the inventory of the defunct apparel retailer, Robert Hall, and in a temporary “store” on Independence Boulevard just off the 51 interchange, prepared to run a summer-long liquidation sale. Leon put his seventeen-year-old son in charge of the store. “Learn the stores,” his Dad insisted. “The business is in the stores.”

At night, after supper, Leon and his boy discussed the day’s events. Howard sat facing his father. “But Dad,” he said urgently. “How can I interview people who are twice as old as I am?”

“Don’t let that bother you, Howard. I had the same problem when I was a kid in my father’s store. Don’t worry about that.”

The store was open from 9 a.m. to midnight. “I liked it,” Howard said. “I mean, I liked the freedom I had to be creative, to make the decisions about how to set up and price the inventory, but the hours were tough…and summer’s, well…basketball season.” He smiled, his eyes squinting at the ceiling for a moment.  “There were times when I didn’t think I’d make it. I’d think to myself, if running this one store is this hard, how does my dad handle so many stores? And that’s when I realized how big this thing was. I mean, growing up, I knew my dad had a good job and made good money, but I really had no idea how big this thing really was.”

After that summer, when Howard went off to college, he knew that he would earn a degree in business administration. Unlike so many kids who were groping their way toward an uncertain future, Howard had a road map to his. He had chosen his career. He had chosen Family Dollar.

After his graduation from UNC-Chapel Hill, Howard returned to Charlotte and his life’s work began.

He began as a merchandise trainee. “A typical day would be going home after work and having supper, then sitting down with Dad until midnight talking about the business. He taught me the three basic of retailing…be relevant to your customer, watch your inventory, control costs. And believe it or not, that holds true whether you have one store or six thousand.”

“Running this business,” Howard continued, “can get really complicated. I mean,  sometimes I think, how am I going to keep up with over 6600 stores? Then I remember those three basic principles of retailing—be relevant to your customer, watch your inventory, control costs—and I get my focus back.” He took another slug of coffee.  “You know, people think it’s tough running this business, but I think, compared to my training with Dad…” he shook his head sweepingly from side to side, “this is not nearly as tough as that was…”

For most of the two decades after his graduation from college, Howard worked for Family Dollar, progressing from senior vice president, merchandising and advertising, to president and chief operating officer.

Then, in 1998, Leon Levine gave up his chair as Family Dollar’s CEO to his son. Five years later he retired, and Howard Russell Levine, who had begun his career with Family Dollar modeling Dennis the Menace overalls, now took his seat as chairman of the board of Family Dollar Stores, Inc. He was not wearing overalls.

Howard has four children: a son in college and a daughter in high school, and a six-year-old and a four-year-old racing around the house. Once again, he is shaking cereal into little bowls, spreading peanut butter on sandwich bread and lunging after toddlers. And yes, like all of us, he sometimes stuffs a load in the washer on his way out of the house in the morning. In fact, he often takes his kids to school on his way to work.

We all have to balance our family life with our professional life, and your CEO is no exception. On his personal time, you may find him chauffeuring his son to swim class or soccer practice, or sitting with the little ones through Disney’s latest animated film.

Golf is Daddy’s therapy. “I’m not very good at it, but I don’t care. Just getting out there on a beautiful day with friends and having fun—that’s all I care about.” Getting away from work, Howard realizes, helps him clear his head, keeps him from getting lost in the maze of complexities of running a $7 billion dollar retail chain. His eldest son thinks he ought to try to improve his game. “See, Dad, I play the piano about like you play golf—but I take lessons….” Howard just shrugs and grins. He doesn’t say so, but I suspect that he doesn’t work at the game because then golf would be just that—work. Another arena in which he would have to keep score, to prove himself.

“What career might you have chosen for yourself had you not been who you are?”

He smiled from ear to ear. “An attorney. People who know me are going to be a little surprised at that.”

“Why would you want to be an attorney?”

“I like the debate, the give and take of ideas.”

“A good quality for a CEO to have,” I ventured.

Then I got down to the silly questions.

“What’s the most adventurous thing you ever did?”

Howard thought hard. Looked at the ceiling. Dropped his chin on his fist, idly swinging his chair from side to side.

“That’s okay,” I said, seeing the teen in training, the boy too focused on his responsibilities to have the leisure for adventure. “If you can’t think of anything, that’s the answer.”

To this day, Howard does not venture far from Family Dollar; he and his children and wife, Julie, vacation on the South Carolina coast or in the Caribbean. I expressed my surprise that he doesn’t just jet off all over the world.

He tried to explain. “I don’t want to be away from the business that long. I’d miss it. It’s like my family, my kids. If I was away from them too long, I’d miss them too much. I can no more go away and forget about Family Dollar than I can go away from my kids and forget about them. Family Dollar is my life. I like to keep my finger on its pulse.”

Obviously the word “family” in “Family Dollar” has a more personal and literal meaning for Howard Levine than it can for anyone else. Howard was only eleven months old when his father opened the first Family Dollar store. He and Family Dollar grew up together. In 1998, when his father offered him the driver’s seat for a retail chain numbering nearly 3,000 stores, Howard accepted what was, for him, a family responsibility.

By anyone’s estimation, the responsibility was and is formidable, but as Howard steers Family Dollar into its next half century, he realizes that he is not pedaling alone. He knows that he rides point for a team of champions. Just as he loves the give and take of debate, he loves the team play that is essential in running this great company.

And he delights in the race, where there is no finish line, but rather a future of illimitable possibilities. In this race the heat is always on, the competition is ferocious, the road sometimes treacherous. The wind roars in his ears. No small wonder, then, that in answer to my last question, “What is your favorite sound?”Howard gave a long sigh and said, “Silence.”

The he laughed, his eyes wincing slightly, as if he were a little embarrassed by the admission.

“There’s so much noise rushing in your ears all the time—Musak and computers and people talking and traffic and television. I realized how noisy the world is when Julie and I took a vacation in South Carolina and the place we stayed was so quiet…there was no sound. No boats going back and forth on the water, nothing. Nothing but maybe a bicycle going by. It was perfect silence.”

In this answer, Howard reveals his simple humanity.

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine perfect silence. The only sound is the soft shhhhhing of bicycle tires on a sidewalk winding between your porch and the shimmering sea.

In this silence, our hearts all beat as one.

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