Leon Levine’s Legacy

Leon Levine was born on June 8, 1937 and was raised in Rockingham, North Carolina, with his three older siblings: Dorothy, Sherman and Alvin.

During his childhood and adolescent years, the Levines owned The Hub, a department store selling clothing and soft goods in Rockingham. The Hub provided a young Leon with many important lessons in the retail industry, which would serve him well later in life.

At The Hub, he learned the importance of buying quality merchandise at low prices. As a self-promoted Vice President, he learned how to manage dozens of employees. Lastly and most importantly, he learned that the customer was the most important factor in the success of a retail entity. Perhaps Leon’s most substantial mark on The Hub was his creation of a Bargain Basement to sell discounted closeouts and overruns from the store above. This kind of initiative marked his character and proved his talent for discount retail.

However, before Leon would embark on his remarkable Family Dollar journey, he first owned and operated a chenille bedspread factory in Wingate, N.C. Again, more retail lessons: selling in bulk, manufacturing and distribution. These lessons provided the confidence for a 22-year-old Leon to pursue a new and exciting avenue to support his wife, Barbara, and young family.

Leon had heard of an operation in Tennessee that had an interesting concept: small, self-service stores with no goods more than $2. After a visit and meeting with the President, he was impressed but knew that he could be successful with a similar but improved model.

In November of 1959, Leon created the first Family Dollar Store in Charlotte, N.C., with only a $6,000 investment, which represented all of his assets. It featured a wider selection of merchandise than its Tennessee competitor including soft goods, in which Leon had gained his expertise at The Hub. It also fit its niche well as larger chains were leaving neighborhoods for larger markets, creating a perfect need for his 6,000-8,000-square-foot stores. The concept caught on, and only a year later, Leon opened his second location to begin one of America’s great entrepreneurial stories.

In 1966, breast cancer tragically took his wife, Barbara, leaving Leon to raise their three children, Howard, Lori and Mindy, while continuing to grow his chain. And grow it did. In 1970, Leon had about 50 stores and took the Family Dollar Stores stock public. It never needed any additional capital beyond its initial $6,000 investment in 1959 and was now worth more than $15 million. Family Dollar Stores quickly became a “darling of Wall Street,” initiating dividends in 1976 and increasing every year after that for decades. While the strategy continued refinement, the success it had created remained constant. Leon coined the phrase, “polishing the stone,” to indicate he had a successful strategy but constantly looked for ideas to provide better value for his customers. It worked and in 2003, when Leon retired as Chairman and CEO, the chain had grown to more than 4,600 stores with $1.1 billion in revenue.

In 1978, Leon married his wife, Sandra, with whom he has a daughter, Amy. Sandra saw firsthand the tremendous growth and success of this retail empire. Always very active in her community, she was a strong supporter of Charlotte’s cultural, educational and Jewish organizations. Through her work on numerous Boards and her unique vantage point, she was ideally positioned to help build The Leon Levine Foundation.

Leon started The Leon Levine Foundation in 1980 with a modest sum of money. Always charitable, he felt it important to continually give back to the community that had helped him become so successful. As time went on, his contributions to the Foundation continued to grow until it was measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This size created the opportunity for substantial impact, which is what Leon had always envisioned. Following his 2003 retirement, Leon began his second career: building The Leon Levine Foundation into one of the country’s largest and most impactful philanthropic organizations.

That impact is best evidenced by the successful grants and strategies that have been guided by Leon’s life and business experience. Directors and staff learn early on that every dollar that they are entrusted must be considered for its best and most effective use. Leon’s sense of expansion and leverage can be seen through the numerous challenges and collaborations he engineers for grant programs, large or small. Most importantly, what shines brightest is a focus on compassion and improving the human condition.