How the Southern city helped launch a billion-dollar business.
At the age of 22, Leon Levine opened his first store, Family Dollar, in Charlotte, North Carolina. More than 50 years later, that single store has grown into a major U.S. business chain, with 6,800 stores nationwide. Throughout this success, Levine has remained committed to the city of Charlotte, where the Leon Levine Foundation has played a large philanthropic role in funding local institutions, groups and hospitals. In this interview, Levine talks about how Charlotte fostered his entrepreneurialism, why it's good for emerging businesses, and the role philanthropy can play in building on the city's strengths.
You’ve been involved in business in Charlotte for decades. What made the city a good place to start and run a business when you opened your first store?
Business has always been about family for us. Our original family business, the Hub, in Rockingham, North Carolina, was run by my father and mother; my brothers and I joined at an early age (I was 12). I opened the first Family Dollar store in November 1959 on Central Avenue in Charlotte.
Charlotte was ideal for many reasons. It was, and still is, the business center for the region. It was, and still is, a city of families. It has always embraced, encouraged and applauded new and bold ideas. I refined a dollar store concept I had learned about and consistently placed my stores in lower- to middle-income communities, knowing this filled a need for those like families in Charlotte.
Is it still a good place for entrepreneurs?
Charlotte is a remarkably open place for entrepreneurs. There is ready access to a diverse workforce, financial capital and engaged business leadership. In most Southern towns, you need to have lived there a few generations before anyone allows you to be a “decision-maker” or to carve out a significant place for yourself in the communities of business and philanthropy. But Charlotte has always been open and forward-looking. Newcomers and fresh ideas are the fuel of the city’s progress. Charlotte carries that open attitude into all aspects of business.
What hopes do you have for the future of the city?
Charlotte is a wonderfully optimistic place and a city of people that care about each other. We like the “never say no” spirit of the city for philanthropy, social issues and economic development. In the face of the economic downturn, Charlotte acted creatively and aggressively to bring back jobs and to support those who lost jobs. There is always work to be done, but we like being in a city that doesn’t try to ignore problems. Charlotte tackles issues and gets to work. That, with a legacy of corporate and personal philanthropy, is a foundation of which we are proud. I also like what I see as Charlotte works to diversify the employment base and aggressively recruit jobs in healthcare, defense, high tech and manufacturing. The city remains a strong financial center, but the broader base of employment bodes well for future growth.
Beyond the generosity of philanthropists like yourself, what does Charlotte need to stay a vibrant and successful city?
Charlotte needs to continue its focus on creating jobs and its commitment to social issues, public health and public education. This is our home, and the home of our children and grandchildren. I’m confident that the Charlotte region will continue its momentum and economic growth in the months and years to come.
Also, this is a generous community and the tradition of giving and volunteerism runs deep. But the needs in our community are also high. While many here really stretch to meet those needs, we can always do more. Everyone can give something, either their dollars or time. We believe Charlotte would benefit from even further engagement of its citizens and an enhanced focus on philanthropy.