The past 100 years have seen war and peace, economic booms and a Great Depression, and dramatic social and political change.
A constant through all these changes has been a family-owned company that started in Bradenton, Fla., in 1915. Bealls has navigated the turbulent waters of the retail industry for a century. While other retailers have capsized, Bealls, which has 535 department and outlet stores nationwide, is sailing smoothly.
“I do think about that,” said Robert “Bob” Beall II (BSBA ’65), of the company’s storied history. “We just had a senior management retreat where we talked about where we’re going as a company. As I listened to the conversation, it struck me how incredibly far we’ve come. It’s certainly a far cry from when I started in the back room of our second store when we had three people in all.”
To last 100 years in the retail industry, Bealls has been led by three guiding principles that have been passed down generation after generation.
The first was the family’s insistence to reinvest its earnings back into the company. Bealls’ growth has been steady throughout its history. The company remained true to its Florida roots and did not open its first store outside of the state until 1992—a Bealls Outlet store in Arizona.
Yet, it was the company’s Outlet stores that helped Bealls through the most recent financial crisis. While business at the company’s Florida-based department stores slowed, its Outlet stores—now in 16 states—thrived.
“Florida was amongst the hardest-hit states,” said Bealls Chief Executive Officer Steve Knopik (BSBA ’77). “Bealls Outlets cushioned the blow. That geographic diversification was helpful to us.”
Another prized value at Bealls is its dedication to a healthy work culture. Knopik has been with Bealls since 1984 and as CEO since 2006. Despite overtures from other companies, Knopik said he’s never seriously considered leaving Bealls.
“Nothing else ever really appealed to me,” Knopik said. “I grew up in this town, and I have roots in Sarasota. This is a tremendous opportunity. We’ve had so many new and interesting challenges to work through, at no point was I ever bored.”
It’s that special culture that has kept Bealls a family-owned business. The Beall family has rebuffed numerous attempts from competitors to merge or be bought out. Looking back, Beall said it was the right decision.
“You look at where we are now, and we’re much better off,” Beall said. “We’ve continued to grow. For our stockholders, it’s been a much better outcome.”
“Our employees are extended family, and they know and appreciate this,” said Robert M. “Matt” Beall III (BSBA ’01), who is Bob’s son and a Divisional Vice President and General Merchandise Manager at Bealls. “It has become a cultural point of differentiation to be a family-oriented company. For this reason, we are able to attract a lot of wonderful talent to our organization.”
The third principle—and the one closest to the Beall family’s heart—is giving back, especially when it comes to education. The R.M. Beall Foundation has provided hundreds of college scholarships to Bealls employees and their dependents. The foundation’s “Bealls and Whistles” program supports special school projects in the state of Florida, and it also supports students seeking criminal justice educations at the State College of Florida and the Manatee Technical Institute’s Criminal Justice Academy.
The Beall family’s generosity also extends to Warrington. The family established the Egbert R. Beall/Bealls Department Store Faculty Fellowship to support marketing faculty; the Bealls MBA Fellowship Fund, an endowment to support MBA students; and the E.R. Beall Professorship of Logistics and Supply Chain Management, to support faculty in the Department of Information Systems & Operations Management. Additionally, Bealls has been a loyal supporter of the College’s David F. Miller Center for Retailing Education & Research for years.
“My dad went to UF, my sister went to UF, I went to UF,” Beall said. “We’re Gators. Plus, we do a lot of recruiting at UF, probably more than at any other college.”
Bealls, which also operates Bealls Outlet and Burkes Outlet stores, is not resting on its laurels despite a century of success. In addition to enhancing its e-commerce reach, the company is launching Bunulu, a boutique-like store that should appeal to younger customers. Bunulu is scheduled to debut in the fall.
“The challenge is to create unique and inspiring experiences for our customers, and have your brand stand out,” Knopik said. “We work very hard at that. It requires constant energy and attention to try to stay a step ahead.”