I doubt you have heard of Leon Levine. You might have if you were an executive in the retail industry. At age 22, back in 1959, Mr. Levine founded Family Dollar, a discount chain store in rural low-income areas. RVers who have spent much time on the road have likely shopped at the stores. Often, they are the only place to buy basic necessities for miles around.
The company is now under the Dollar Tree umbrella. Together, the two chains operate more than 16,000 stores in 49 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. Family Dollar operates 8,293 of them, which is more than 3,658 more stores than Walmart.
Mr. Levine died three weeks ago at age 85. I learned about him in the Wall Street Journal, which ran an obituary.
I loved a vignette about him as reported by the Journal. It inspired me. And it made me laugh (in amazement) at the young man’s creativity. More in a moment.
I don’t know how many biographies, autobiographies and case studies I have read through the years about successful people and companies, whether in business, science, publishing or politics. It’s hundreds. With rare exceptions, the people were all innovative, motivated, ambitious, determined and highly creative. They saw opportunity where others did not, and then found a way to satisfy it. In business, Ray Croc saw “hamburgers”, Harland Sanders saw “chicken” and Sam Walton saw weakness in Kmart.
Leon Levine took action
Mr. Levine saw the opportunity (according to the Family Dollar website) to “offer his customers a variety of high-quality, good-value merchandise for under $2.” But he didn’t just see opportunity, he took action.
But where to locate his stores? Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, would fly around potential locations in a small airplane. Nothing wrong with that. Mr. Levine’s answer was to also look down, but from ground level. He looked at streets. Specifically, he looked at pavement.
Now, how could that possibly tell him anything about where to open a store? Pause for a moment to think about it. I doubt you will guess correctly.
Looking at pavement
As I said, Mr. Levine looked at pavement to help him choose locations for a new store.
He observed the pavement to see if there were signs of oil stains! The more stains, he figured, the more cars in the area that were driven by people who could not afford to fix leaks, in other words “low income people,” his target customers!
How do some people, like Mr. Levine in this case, see clues and/or opportunity where others do not?
The reason I tell you this story, I suppose, is because the story of Mr. Levine inspired me. People who do amazing things inspire me. People who see opportunity and do more than just talk about it inspire me. Most people are just talkers.
The RV industry could use some people like that. Is there another “Leon Levine” in the crowd?
Read more of Chuck Woodbury’s essays
Thanks Chuck for the “rest of the story”. Somebody had to fill Paul’s shoes.
His claim to fame is selling smaller quantity for more to poor people that in the long run end up spending far more than they should for what they get. Why should anyone celebrate that? Not to mention the products are literal toxic garbage and just ends up in a landfill. Yes, Dollar store products are highly toxic compared to other stores –look it up!
Leon Levine was a highly successful businessman but his legacy is a lifetime of generosity to his community. The Leon Levine Foundation has in the past 43 years provided over $300,000,000 in funding to wonderful causes in the greater Charlotte, NC area and the entire region. These include the Levine Cancer Institute, Levine Children’s Hospital, Levine Museum of the New South, Shalom Park in Charlotte, along with decades of grants to education, the arts, and charities of all types. There are lots of rich people around but precious few who have shared or given back as much as Leon Levine. He came from quite modest beginnings and he never forgot the people with those leaking old cars who made him wealthy. While his success in the highly competative retail industry is notable, there are Family Dollar Stores everywhere in this part of the country, it is his dedication to making the world a better place that will long be remembered and appreciated.
Thank you Chuck for another great informative story.
My first guess to your question was to look down to see where did the pavement end, and that would be at the end of town. (Maybe close to the same answer?)
One could also say fossil fuels helped create this small empire. While the ‘mom and pop store’ complaint is priceless, it ignores the fact that many of the people working at these stores are also moms and pops. Rational people pay attention to things like economics and efficiencies. No one has ever lived in a time of no change.
When my children were growing up, I always told them not to walk though the oil spots in the parking lots where the cars parked and track the black oil into our car on their shoes. I taught them to pay attention to pavement for a different reason. I never thought we were poor.
I go to the one near our home because you don’t have to get dressed up like you are going to the Wal Mart.
Have you seen the way people dress to go to Wal Mart? If you are dressing down to go to Family Dollar then you’ll probably be naked.
Sarcasm online is dead George… good intelligent humor is slowly being lost…🥳🥳🥳
Like https://www.boredpanda.com/people-of-walmart/ ?
“Dollar stores (Tree, General, Family) as well as Walmart have helped gut small town America for decades. Drive through any dying small town downtown. I guarantee you there’ll be one of these stores on the other end of town, sucking the life out of the mom-n-pop stores that once thrived there.”
Nope. That is incorrect. The mom and pop stores were run out of business by their customers taking their business to another merchant that offered more merchandise, better pricing and/or value.
When I first started seeing these stores, I assumed they were full of cheap chinese plastic junk. You know, future landfill trinkets. So I never went in them. Then I moved from the Rocky Mountain states to the South, where towns are REALLY spread out, and found they were like mini department stores. With everything from food to personal hygiene to garden supplies. But my favorite is the Dollar General, I’m too snobby for Family Dollar 😉
Thanks Chuck. Human interest success stories should inspire our young to think. Like the Fedex founder, J.C. Penney, Wards, Sears-Roebuck and all the others. A lot has been said about WalMart beating out local stores and even chains – One guy had a dream, a plan and the guts and where-with-all to just do it! Perhaps all the others had the same acumen – but not the drive! It seems the drive passes on with the founder; i.e., Penney’s, Sears, K-Mart, et al.
As to the drive “passing on”, I think it’s actually more of a given store not being able to keep up with the times. In part, it’s what you said, but more, I think, that those founders/owners didn’t create or change their business marketing, model, staff, etc. to change WITH the times to simply outlast them as creators.
Sears and Montgomery Wards, Penny’s, along with others, started as catalog sales “stores”. Then adapted to stand alone stores down town, then adapted and moved to shopping centers, then adapting again they moved into malls. (Remember, Shopping Centers and Malls started the demise of downtowns.) Sears, Wards, Penny’s half- heartedly felt they had to join the on-line sales. On-line sales, the new catalog sales that they evidently had forgotten what had gotten them started in the first place. They let Amazon overtake them in something they were once good at. They adapted and re-adapted but failed to see the need to once again adapt. Had they remembered their history they would have been the new Amazon. Had Messrs Sears, Roebuck Penny and Ward still been around they may have seen the future and adapted again, rather than the million dollar president who was only looking out for HIS future. Walmart has kept it in the family away from “public” predators, as has Lazydays RV in the RV world. In MANY areas, Dollar Stores did not kill Mom & Pop, they filled a total void – just drive thru the rural South where you find them in the middle of nowhere.
Thank you, Chuck! I always enjoy your essays and I’m very glad that you still write them. I wish you did more YouTube videos, but I’m sure that I have little understanding of how much work goes into each minute of one. Happy trails and safe travels! 🙂 😎
Dollar stores (Tree, General, Family) as well as Walmart have helped gut small town America for decades. Drive through any dying small town downtown. I guarantee you there’ll be one of these stores on the other end of town, sucking the life out of the mom-n-pop stores that once thrived there.
Yes and no. My brother-in-law and mother-in-law live in a small town in Florida. Walmart isn’t coming to town. NO big business is coming to town. There is a Dollar General and a Family Dollar / Dollar Tree, though. In fact, literally across the street from their house. It’s a life saver. If you need a stick of butter or a gallon of milk for a family meal at the last minute… it’s 30-45 minutes to the nearest “real” grocery store.
I think America needs to learn to control its spending. And I count myself among those numbers; I do, too, need to be better. If I go into a Dollar General, do I need a $35 stuffed unicorn? I can plan ahead so a $1.25 can of green beans, I can save at Walmart or Kroger and get a larger can for $0.79. It’s about planning and fiscal responsibility.
These stores provide a much needed service where others do not. How much more would it cost a low-income family on their vehicle to drive 45 minutes away in fuel and maintenance costs? Balance is key.
What an amazing story. Thanks Chuck. Not unlike the series on TV about the businesses that built America, or the foods that built America. All of these are amazing stories about amazing people – that we just take for granted.
Very interesting, well written article about a real entrepreneur. Just like Sam Walton. I never thought I would appreciate such people. But after visiting the Walmart museum in Bentonville, Arkansas and learning of the real man, he became a hero of sorts to me. While not humble in his business, he was amazingly humble in his home and lifestyle. So much so townsfolk complained that he ran around town in a beat up old 71? ford truck with his beloved dogs in cages in the back. When confronted with this he responded “What do they expect me to do, drive my dogs around in a Mercedes?” With exception to his business acumen, he lived a down-to-earth lifestyle. There are other examples. The museum proved to be an unexpected delight.
My husband worked in a local post office in Northwest Arkansas for 34 years. He visited with Sam Walton many times at the counter. Yes, Mr. Walton and family were community involved folks (and still are)! BTW, Sam worked for Ben Franklin 5&10 as a young man, he tried to give Franklin some business advice/ideas and was told that no changes were needed. So Walton opened Walton 5&10 which is where my family shopped when I was growing up. His first stores were small ‘mom & pop’ variety stores. Eventually he started the department store model and the rest is history.
Now another store is becoming popular? The store is called five below.
And now, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar and Dollar General are under attack because they build in the low income areas where their customers are located.
Maybe we saw the same NBC world news. They were bashing dollar stores for running smaller grocery stores out ( their words) . To me this just shows the one sided narrative of the media . Small towns around us had the small groceries leave 20-30 years ago leaving people having to travel to larger cities. I’m sure a lot of us are happy to see the dollar store.
The older dollar stores used to always be in run down neighborhoods – right next to Aldi.
Aldi? How wrong you are.
Way before current day… they catered to low income neighborhoods.
Great History. Still meeting people’s needs today
Great observation on the oil spots. I don’t know how that applies to low income on the freeways, but I have found that when you see an oil spot coming up on the highway it means you are about to hit a pretty good bump. In some cases, it may seem that the road engineers decided to make a launching pad for your RV. LOL
Thanks for the History lesson! Keep up the good work Chuck (and staff). I always look forward to your articles.