UA Business Hall of Fame 2016: William T. Dillard II

UA Business Hall of Fame 2016: William T. Dillard II
William T. Dillard II (Dillard's)

William T. Dillard II

Chair and Chief Executive Officer
Dillard’s Inc.

Many people hope to grow up with an inspiring mentor, father and boss in their life. William Dillard II had all three in one person. He capitalized on that, learning the business and life lessons he would need to thrive in a time when major hurdles would face the family company.

Bill Dillard’s is a story of opportunities taken and challenges faced. His time leading Dillard’s Inc. has seen an Arkansas company maintain its corporate headquarters here and still compete with landmark rivals in the upscale retail market such as Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Dillard saw economic downturns rock the world economy. Leaders less committed to furthering the family legacy might have sold and moved on. But Dillard continued to grow his family’s business which started with a single five-and-dime store in Nashville, Arkansas, into a company that today operates 297 upscale department stores in 29 states.

Born in Nashville on March 4, 1945, Bill Dillard is the son of Alexa and William T. Dillard, who founded Dillard Department Stores in 1938. He’s the oldest son and has been joined in the company by brothers Alex and Mike and sisters Drue and Denise.

Bill Dillard began working part time in his father’s retail operations while still in school. In 1966, he graduated from the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration as an accounting major. Two years later, he earned a Master of Business Administration from Harvard University.

He began his career at Dillard’s in 1967, joining the board of directors the same year. Seeing an opportunity to utilize computers, Dillard introduced data processing as early as 1973, when he became executive vice president. Dillard was praised for being a computer whiz long before other companies began using computers, with one of his first moves the computerizing of purchase orders.

From 1977 to 1998, Dillard was president and chief operating officer. He succeeded his father as chief executive officer in 1998 and was named chairman in 2002.

During his first years as president, Dillard was closely involved in merchandising decisions as well as in the day-to-day store operations of the growing company. Today, he remains well known for this approach, visiting each Dillard’s location every year, walking the stores with managers and merchandisers, listening to customers and providing direction.

The decades that followed presented the company with multiple opportunities for growth as well as unprecedented challenges. Under Dillard’s direction, the company grew rapidly through store construction in key markets combined with multiple acquisitions of smaller department stores. In 1998, Dillard led the company through its largest acquisition with the $3 billion purchase of The Mercantile Stores Company, a Cincinnati-based retailer operating 103 stores under 13 nameplates.

Dillard implemented dramatic changes to merchandising strategy to make Dillard’s a better competitor in the changing retail landscape of the 1990s. Key initiatives included the introduction of the company’s exclusive brands, which constitute over 21 percent of sales, and upgrading Dillard’s merchandise to include higher profile, more upscale brands while improving customer service.

Under Dillard’s leadership, the company reduced its debt from more than $4 billion following the Mercantile acquisition to its current level of approximately $800 million. A key part of the company’s strength is built upon an industry-leading owned real estate portfolio, manageable debt and a conservative financial policy.

Through his more than 40 years of full-time service, Dillard possessed an unmatched knowledge of the company’s operations and the retail industry. This and his service on the boards of other public companies, like Acxiom and Barnes & Noble, provides invaluable insight to the Dillard’s board, and his expertise in real estate matters and store location enables him to provide leadership and insight into this critical aspect of the retail business.

Dillard’s alma mater is a major recipient of his philanthropy, which reflects his passion for retail and includes projects such as the Supply Chain Management Research Center and the Information Technology Research Institute at the Walton College. He increased the value of the college’s Dillard Department Store Chair in Corporate Finance, originally funded by William Dillard Sr. Dillard also has contributed to athletic programs and facilities at the university as well as to the Old Main Renovation Project for which the Dillard Floor in Old Main was named.

In April, Dillard received the Chancellor’s Medal from the University of Arkansas. He served on the university’s Campaign Steering Committee and the Corporate and Foundation Relations Committee of the Campaign for the Twenty-First Century and is a member of the Executive, Campaign Steering and Corporate and Foundation Relations committees for Campaign Arkansas.

He follows his father, William Dillard Sr., into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. The elder Dillard was inducted with the inaugural class in 1999.