It’d be easy to think a family business launched during World War I that goes back four generations is reluctant to change — something must be working to last that long.
But Matt Beall, the fourth-generation leader of Bradenton-based retailer Bealls, is guided, in part, by a lesson learned from his grandfather, Egbert “E.R.” Beall. “He told me if you’re still doing what you did last year today, then you will fall behind,’ Matt Beall says.
That advice drives Beall, 44, forward. His tenure as CEO started in December 2019 and since then he’s overseen a multitude of changes, both big and small. Some are tangible, like in the names of the stores. Other tangible changes are less visible to customers, like replacing the company’s 100-strong fleet of cars with electric vehicles, which is about two-thirds complete, and ending the use of pesticides for landscaping on the corporate campus. And other changes lean more intangible and internal, like increasing training opportunities and pushing employees to be more entrepreneurial — a big task with a payroll of 15,000.
The most recent big change at Bealls, with $1.87 billion in revenue in 2022, is in store names. What was Bealls Outlet and Burkes Outlet, with over 600 locations in 23 states, is now simply bealls. And the 68 non-outlet stores in the Sunshine State are now under the name Bealls Florida. Those changes were announced in April, and by late June stores that had undergone the changes were seeing a 9% increase in foot traffic, Beall says. Sales were up 5% at those locations. “It was a big investment, and we feel like it’s going really well,” Beall says.
One element of the brand name change Beall displayed behind the scenes was patience. He says he’d been thinking about a change that would simplify and connect the names better for at least a decade, as he worked his way up in the company. Upon being named CEO he began to hold a series of meetings and sessions with senior executives and others to discuss the pros and cons. Longtime executive Tianne Doyle, named president of the company in March, was on board. But Beall says for something that significant “we needed buy-in from the executive team and others.”
One more giant change in the company, both internal and integral to operations, is it’s dumping its old legacy software system, which was at the end of life, for an Oracle cloud system. “This is a massive, massive undertaking,” Beall says, “If you’re not in this organization, it would be hard to understand all that’s involved with this.”
The Beall name has been a constant in the company since R.M. Beall opened a small-town five-and-dime in Bradenton in 1915 with, according to the company’s website, “one single purpose: outfitting families for less.” R.M. Beall’s son, E.R. Beall, joined the business in 1940. And the third generation, Robert “Bob” Beall II, led the company as president from 1980 through 2006. In the time between Beall II left the CEO position and Matt Beall took over in 2019, the company was led by longtime executive Steve Knopik — the only non-Beall to oversee the business.
Matt Beall, in seeking to make his own mark on the company, says it was critical to work his way up. That started in the stockroom of the Manatee Avenue Bealls store in Bradenton when he was in high school and college. “People see you are willing to do anything and they know you are not above anyone,” says Beall, quipping that since his dad started as a janitor, he had a “step up.”
Beall had a short stint outside of Bealls after college, as an assistant buyer for Ross Stores. Then, starting in 2004 as a buyer for the outlets, Beall worked his way up in the business. His experience includes serving as a store manager and working in nearly every corporate function, including buying, planning, marketing, exclusive brands, finance, logistics and store operations.
Beall says five or 10 years ago he put a lot of pressure on himself, given his name, spotlight and expectations. Some of that might go back to when he was a kid and teenager with his family out meeting people: They would ask the young Beall, 'are you going to be in the business someday?’ Beall recalls. “I would say yes, and they would say ‘don’t screw it up.’”
More recently, Beall says while the “legacy history of this company is extremely cool when I take the time to reflect on it,” he spends his time looking forward not behind. Looking way into the future, Beall has four kids, and says he won’t pressure them to join the company. “I want them to decide on their own,” he says, adding there are 15 next-generation Bealls across the family, from three months to 22 years old, who could enter the business.
On his own future, Beall is excited about what technology can do to help Bealls become even more customer-centric. He also believes the company’s brands outside the spotlight from the department stores and outlets, specifically Home Centric and Earth Rugged Outfitters, are well-positioned to grow.
Then there are the threats inherent in running a big and complex business in a fast-changing industry. “There’s always something to think about coming around next,” he says. “It’s retail. If you’re not thinking about what could happen next, you are failing as a leader.”