We have in our midst, in North Florida, a company that, country wide, operates 14,000 stores, and generates annual sales of $22 billion. Yes, every day is dollar day at the Dollar General.
Dollar General had its origins in a wholesale dry-goods business that Cal Turner, Sr. started with his father in 1939. Cal Sr. was a retail wizard. The first Dollar General opened in Springfield, Ky., in 1955. It was a small store for a small town, with all the products selling for a dollar or less. This was an era of transition in American retailing. The dry-goods stores and corner groceries serving rural America were giving way to the discount store and later the super center, which combined food with the discounter’s vast array of products.
Smaller towns, with merchants unable to buy in bulk, thus unable to compete dollar wise, were often left behind. The elder Turner’s bare-bones format filled that vacuum, as shoppers paid cash for the bargain goods he bought opportunistically as close-outs or irregulars and stuffed into his Scottsville, Ky., warehouse.
Cal Junior joined Dollar General in 1965, after college and a tour as a Navy officer, and quickly became his father’s right hand. He became president of the no-frills retail chain in 1977.
Cal Junior recognized that the hard-pressed customers who patronized Dollar General were also hungry for bargains on other basic needs-items like toothpaste, detergent and even a limited assortment of food. That insight drove the company’s break-neck expansion.
By the 1980’s, Dollar General was operating thousands of stores, often in towns too small to support a Walmart, as well as in urban neighborhoods whose residents also struggled to afford necessities.
Mr. Turner, in 1989, took the organization to Nashville, Tenn., where he found it easier to recruit talent.
Along with its personal chronicle, My Fathers Business, a book by Cal Turner, Jr., on Dollar General, offers a primer on bargain-driven mass merchandising. A low-margin enterprise demands discipline, and all the strategic planning in the world can’t overcome poor execution. Cal Senior had laid down rules for his managers, among them: “Work hard. Be honest. Don’t drink on the job. Don’t screw the help.” Cal Jr., revised some of those edicts and discarded others. He recognized that “the real genius in the company lay with the employees.”
Mr. Turner writes with touching candor about the challenges of sustaining a family business. The hard choices he has to make to keep the business going affect other family members. The time comes when he has to confront his father, the chairman, when the older man resists plans for a new management information system. On one occasion, Cal Senior calls Cal Junior on the eve of a board meeting. “Son,” he says, “if you even take that proposal to the board, I may resign.” The very mention of computers to Cal Senior was “like waving red in front of a bull,” Turner recalls.
My Father’s Business turns on the trials and tensions behind an unusual father-son team, set against a backdrop of corporate change common to many growing companies.