William T. Dillard, Giant of Retail, Dies at 87

by Lance Turner  on Friday, Feb. 8, 2002 12:00 am  

William T. Dillard, founder of the Dillard's Inc. chain of department stores based in Little Rock, died Friday. He was 87.

James Freeman, senior vice president and chief financial officer, announced Dillard's death to company employees Friday afternoon in an e-mail. He said Dillard "died peacefully in his sleep this morning at his home in Little Rock."

Skip Rutherford, Dillard's spokesman, said the funeral will take place at 11 a.m. Monday at Trinity Episcopal Church at 310 W. 17th St. in Little Rock. Ruebel Funeral Home of Little Rock is handling the arrangements, he said.

Dillard and his wife, Alexa, have five children: William Dillard II of Little Rock, who is chief executive officer of the company; Drue Corbusier of Fort Worth; Alex Dillard of Little Rock; Mike Dillard of Little Rock; and Denise Mahaffy of Little Rock.

All of his children work for Dillard's Inc.

"Dillard will long be remembered as a man of tremendous vision and success in the world of retailing — but more importantly, he will truly be remembered as a man of honesty, integrity and absolute loyalty," Freeman wrote in the e-mail to employees.

William Dillard is considered a giant of Arkansas business. In 1999, he was among the first four members inducted into the University of Arkansas' Sam W. Walton College of Business Administration's Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. His fellow inductees were Charles Murphy Sr., retired chairman of Murphy Oil Corp. of El Dorado; Jackson Stephens, chairman of Stephens Inc. of Little Rock; and the late Sam M. Walton, founder of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville.

William Dillard relinquished his role as CEO in 1998 when he was 82, leaving an executive team of younger Dillards, headed by William Dillard II, to run the company day-to-day.

Dillard's is the third-largest operator of upscale department stores in the United States, behind Federated and May.

Dillard's has about 340 locations in about 30 states and caters to middle- to upper-middle-income customers, selling name-brand and private-label merchandise, with an emphasis on clothing and home furnishings.

Listening to Customers

William Dillard was born Sept. 2, 1914, the son of a merchant who spent his life in Mineral Springs.

According to an authorized history of Dillard's Inc., William Dillard always wanted to follow in his father's footsteps, but he realized he'd have to move beyond Mineral Springs and eventually the state to build the company he wanted.

He did just that.

William Dillard spent several months in the Sears Roebuck & Co. training program. He used his father's name for his first store, T.J. Dillard & Co., in Nashville, the county seat of Howard County. He founded the store in 1938. He was only 23.

In 1956, William Dillard stretched beyond state lines with the purchase of the Mayer & Schmidt store in Tyler, Texas. In 1960, he bought a failing operation in Tulsa, Okla., and soon turned it around.

His most notable early acquisition, however, was the Joseph Pfeifer Department Stores in Little Rock and Hot Springs in 1963. At the time, William Dillard had wanted to buy Gus Blass Co., which had stores in Little Rock and Pine Bluff. The family refused to sell, so he instead bought the Pfeifer stores.

In 1964, however, William Dillard purchased Blass, probably for about $3.5 million (though no purchase price was mentioned).

Dillard's Inc. went public May 9, 1969. The offering raised more than $4 million for the growth of the company.

In the last 30 years, Dillard's has grown to a well-respected department store chain with locations throughout the country.

In 1998, the company made its biggest purchase, buying Fairfield, Ohio-based Mercantile Stores Co. in 1998 for $2.9 billion.

"The most important thing in running a successful business is to have customer confidence," William Dillard told an audience in Mineral Springs in 1985. "You've got to satisfy your customers, and most important, you've got to give your customers their money's worth."

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