Innovator, activist, philanthropist
“I was recruited to Wall Street because of my Emory MBA.”
Belk, scion of one of Charlotte, N.C.’s most philanthropic families, graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1971. He was planning to study for his MBA there, too when a dean at UNC suggested Emory offered something different. “It had the best finance program in the country,” Belk, 70, says.
“I was recruited to Wall Street because of my Emory MBA.” He still sounds amazed by the job offers. His father, however, was unmoved.
“You are going to sell underwear,” his dad reminded him. (Cue the laughter; Belk has a big laugh.)
Belk’s years at Emory coincided with the beginning of the computer age. He even met Tom Watson Jr., the legendary president of IBM, through one of his professors. He liked the idea of innovation and creating efficiencies.
He would prove exceptionally good at selling not just underwear but everything Belk offered.
That included women’s wear. His dad and uncles told him he’d start as a women’s wear buyer. He reminded them he was a rugby player, he recalls with a big laugh. “I don’t know anything about women’s fashion,” he told them. He needed to learn every aspect of the business, they said.
Rather than heading to Wall Street, Belk moved to tiny Elizabeth City, N.C. for his first in-store job. Next, he moved to the slightly bigger Kinston, N.C. Wherever he went, he outsold the competition. “I was aggressive,” he says. “I was making 16 cents on the dollar, while most department stores were content with 3 or 4 cents on the dollar.”
He once sold 22,000 pairs of sandals in a town of 20,000.
The secret: experimenting and taking smart risks. “If I found something that was really hot and sold out in a few days, I’d reorder,” he recalls. “An average retailer might reorder 12 of that item. I’d go for 5,000. If you want to break new ground, you can’t do the same thing you’ve always done.”
He once sold 22,000 pairs of sandals in a town of 20,000. He ordered them in several colors, and a number of women bought more than one pair.
Belk was among the first to care about the retail experience. He noticed on a scouting mission to a mall outside Washington, D.C., that every store looked identical. “What store are we in?” he asked his companions. It looked like every other store they’d been in. So, he set out to distinguish Belk stores.
He also noticed bored husbands hanging around while their wives shopped. So, he put comfortable leather couches and TVs — tuned to ESPN — in Belk’s men’s departments.
“Does that make men buy?” people asked.
“Somewhat,” he’d say. “But that’s not the point. Our staff gets to know them, and that’s even more valuable.”
“I wanted to set a mood. I wanted to relax your mind.”
Over time, he saw wives come to the men’s department to tell their husbands they’d finished shopping. “But the game’s not over,” he says husbands would often say. “Go buy something else.” (More laughter.)
Carousels and aquariums — more Belk ideas — made shopping at Belk fun for a notoriously fickle audience — kids. “I wanted to set a mood,” he says. “I wanted to relax your mind.”
The Belk family ultimately sold their empire to a private equity firm, and Bill Belk branched out to other ventures (and adventures), including joining the board of Sonic Automotive, a Fortune 500 company and the fifth largest auto retailer in the country.
He’s inspired by his travels — he’d just returned from the Galapagos Islands when we met — and by philanthropic work, which focuses primarily on the arts, healthcare and education.
Belk’s career path may have been chosen for him. But his outsized success? That was largely up to him. And he says he owes it to a top-notch business education — both in the stores his grandfather founded and in the classroom at Goizueta.