The transcript from this week’s MIB: Cal Turner Jr., CEO of Dollar General is below.
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This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
BARRY RITHOLTZ, HOST, MASTERS IN BUSINESS: This weekend on the podcast I have an extra special guest. His name is Cal Turner, Jr. He was the CEO of Dollar General. He ran the company for 37 years and he is just full of charm and wisdom and just homespun, down-to-earth common sense.
He tells wonderful stories about how his father and his grandfather moved into the retail business, the trials and tribulations of that and of running a family business with all of the rifts and sibling rivalries that creates. He is just a very straightforward honest person who has a lot of interesting things to share.
I think he is not only humble but knows how to express in the way that gets the most and best work out of the people who work for him. So, I found this to be a charming conversation and I expect you will also.
With no further ado, my conversation with Cal Turner, Jr.
This week, I have an extra special guest. His name is Cal Turner, Jr. and he has been the CEO for Dollar General for 37 years. He began in the family business in 1965 and after he served a few years in the Navy, he came back to the family business to work in the warehouse, sweep the floors eventually rising to the chief executive position.
Dollar General under his reign expanded from 150 stores and sales of $40 million to over 6,000 stores and sales in excess of $6 billion. He is now retired and is the author of, “My Father’s Business: The Small-Town Values That Built Dollar General Into a Billion-Dollar Company.”
Cal Turner, Jr., welcome to Bloomberg.
CAL TURNER, JR., FORMER CEO, DOLLAR GENERAL: Thank you, Barry. The way you talk makes me interested in hearing what I’m going to say.
RITHOLTZ: As I think a lot of people are. So, let’s go back to the beginning. You start in 1965 literally sweeping the floors. I wasn’t exaggerating, right? You write you picked up a broom and that’s where you began.
TURNER: I swept floors long before 1965.
TURNER: It was in early ’50s. I was born in 1940. The company was born in January. The company was born three months earlier. So, the company and I are about the same age.
RITHOLTZ: About the same age. And the company grew up with you when you began sweeping floors at that early age. Did you know the family business was where you’re going to be working the rest of your life?
TURNER: No. I resisted it. I saw how hard my father worked. I knew that he was sweating. He’d wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweat afraid he couldn’t pay off the banks. He was over expanding. The timing happened to be right because it was right after the second World War.
TURNER: And it works. It did work.
RITHOLTZ: Now, your grandfather started a business, J.L Turner and Son Wholesale before the war. How — what happened with that?
TURNER: Yes. Well, Luther Turner, my papa, was wonderful. He only had a third-grade education, Barry, and he had three younger siblings and his father was tragically killed and Luther was 11.
Now, he was the head of the family. The farm was heavily mortgaged and he had to make it all work out for everybody.
RITHOLTZ: Wow. And that’s at age 11.
TURNER: At age 11 with only a third-grade education and what Luther had going for him is that he assumed, since he only had a third-grade education, that everybody he met was smarter and he should learn something from everybody he met.
RITHOLTZ: You know, regardless of your education, that sounds like an intelligent humble approach to dealing with the world.
TURNER: Well, it certainly was his and I consider Luther Turner to be the smartest person I ever knew.
RITHOLTZ: So, what gave him the courage to start a company? He’s recently married. He’s got a new born baby. He’s broke. You mentioned he wasn’t, you know all, that wealthy when he launched the company. What made him think, I could do this?
TURNER: Well, I don’t know if he ever thought I could do this. He was the hardest working man I ever knew. He tried to learn from everybody and he tried to learn from life because he was so limited in his education and he saved something out of every check.
RITHOLTZ: Good advice these days.
TURNER: And if Luther Turner hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have been the financial backing my father needed when both of them started the company. They started the company because they found a big brick building at half price. A Turner will buy anything at half price.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. I can appreciate that. Deep down inside, the Turner family are value investors, aren’t you?
TURNER: Indeed. Indeed.
RITHOLTZ: So, he finds his brick building, where was it located and what did he think the potential clientele for this building could be?
TURNER: Well, the building was in Scottsville, Kentucky. It’s a third of the way, north of Nashville, Tennessee on the way to Louisville. And he thought that would be a great place for a wholesale business.
Actually, it was a terrible place, but it’s where he found a building for half price and that was it, J.L. Turner and Son Wholesale Dry Goods.
RITHOLTZ: And what became of J.L. Turner and Son Wholesale Dry Goods?
TURNER: Well, it had one employee that was my father and my dad would take samples of the merchandise as a wholesaler to all the retailers in these little baby towns in Kentucky and Tennessee. And after the second World War, he found that they were not interested in buying more of the lady’s panties that he had, the prices had dropped after the war.
And he wanted to sell them some more and they said, “No, Cal. We’re not going to buy anymore until we sell what we’ve already bought from you.” He said, “But the market is going down. You need to lower your cost and buy some of my panties.” No. They wouldn’t do it.
So, he came home and he said to my grandfather, “Daddy, we have to go under retailing. We’ve got to be directly in touch with the customer.” And I think that’s a good principle of retailing, stay directly in touch with the customer.
RITHOLTZ: So, all of this leads to your tenure at the company which we’ll discuss in a minute but what motivated you to say I’m retired, I’m kind of bored playing golf or tennis or sailing or whatever, I know I’m going to sit down and write a book. What was the motivation for that?
TURNER: Well, that’s a bit of a long story. The first book I was involved with, the publisher asked the senior pastor of our church and me to write a book on followership from the perspective of the preacher, that was he is.
TURNER: And the practitioner, that was my part of the book. And in doing that book, I met a ghostwriter Rob Simbeck who became fascinated with parts of my story that couldn’t go in that book and he’d say, we’ll put those aside for your book.
Well, it took him two years to convince me to do a book and then it took both of the six years to write it. But that’s — the result of it is my father’s business.
RITHOLTZ: Let’s talk about this as a family business. Most family businesses don’t make it to the second generation. What made Dollar General the exception?
TURNER: My loving father.
RITHOLTZ: You give him all the credit.
TURNER: I got the affirmation of the real Cal Turner. I was junior. But he was the real Cal Turner and he would say things about me like, well, Cal Jr. is smarter than I am, and that would prove who’s really smart, it’s the father who says that about his son knowing he worked the bejeebers out of the sale to prove that his father is right.
RITHOLTZ: It sounds like your dad was a good manager of people and children.
TURNER: He was and I would be sweeping one aisle in the warehouse and he would convene his associates in the next aisle I had just swept and he would say, “Have you ever seen a floor swept as well as this one?” And Cal Jr. was in the next aisle just sweeping away and grinning from ear to ear.
RITHOLTZ: That’s fantastic. I love that sort of stories.
TURNER: That’s a good father.
TURNER: That’s a good father.
RITHOLTZ: And he — you don’t know that he’s doing this on purpose.
RITHOLTZ: And everybody else they’re were kind of smiling and thinking.
TURNER: Yes. Yes. Yes.
RITHOLTZ: Look what he’s doing —
TURNER: And that’s the only job I had in the company of the many I had that I know I did well.
RITHOLTZ: Well, you did pretty well as CEO. We’ll talk about that in a few minutes.
TURNER: Well, thank you.
RITHOLTZ: Let’s talk a little bit about the whole concept of dollar pricing. What made Cal Sr. so adamant that we’re going to sell nothing for more than a dollar and that’s that? What was the thinking behind that?
TURNER: Cal Sr. was a country boy who observed what the city boys did in retailing and he noticed the Louisville and Nashville, Tennessee department stores would run big full color ads once a month, dollar days sales. Everything priced on the even dollar.
And he knew those city boys were making money with those sales or they wouldn’t spend that much money on the add. So, he got his group together and said, “I have the idea for a new concept, a new kind of store. It can be a dollar store and the slogan can be every day is dollar day and we can make retailing simple. We can make value pop for the customer because we’ll sell everything for a dollar. You do know that one dollar is the best price point God ever made and that would be what will build our store around. What do you think?”
And they were unanimous, “Cal, it won’t work.” Everybody hated it. Yes. He’s said, “Well, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do? We’re going to take a store where we have failed operating a junior department store, Springfield, Kentucky. We’re going to open a dollar general store and if that store succeeds where we previously failed, that’s a pretty good test.”
And so, we opened in Springfield, Kentucky. He got to his friend in Nashville, Tennessee who was stuck on pink corduroy to cut that corduroy up into man’s pants.
RITHOLTZ: Pink corduroy, man’s pants.
TURNER: Pink corduroy pants–
RITHOLTZ: In Kentucky.
TURNER: –for $1.
TURNER: $1. Now, yes, they wear pink but, yes, the farmers would buy them at $1, somebody visited Springfield, Kentucky and said, it’s amazing, this whole town seems to have a pink cue about it and it’s a whole — those brawny farmers wearing pink corduroy pants for one dollar.
RITHOLTZ: So, he worked directly with manufacturers to come up with ways to create merchandise that could be sold profitably at a dollar as opposed to what can I go out and buy that.
TURNER: Absolutely and that was a brilliant merchandising strategy, start with the customer in mind and work with your vendors to create a value the customer needs. Let them be your partner. My dad believed that vendors were great partners and that was an opportunity for development of the company, the partnerships that you could form with vendors even.
RITHOLTZ: So, the first store where the previous general store had failed opens up with the announcement “Dollar General. Every day is a dollar sale day.”
TURNER: Well, the previous store was probably Turner’s department store or something like that.
RITHOLTZ: But it did hadn’t turned the profit.
TURNER: It hadn’t turned the profit and this new store had the yellow and black sign that said, “Dollar General Stores. The town’s most unusual store.”
RITHOLTZ: And how long was it before everyone realized, hey, this is a really good formula.
TURNER: About four days.
RITHOLTZ: That was it. Less than a week.
TURNER: That’s how long it took him to open the store.
TURNER: And that’s how long he gave me to open a new store when I first came with the company, four days.
RITHOLTZ: Not from start to finish probably for you.
TURNER: From start —
RITHOLTZ: Wait, from — you got to build it.
TURNER: Absolute start. You know, you release an existing business.
RITHOLTZ: Got you.
TURNER: You pay him a dollar square foot.
TURNER: So, you’ll take any building they’ve got.
TURNER: And you’ll unload fixtures and merchandise on Monday and Tuesday and start putting it all out on Wednesday and Thursday and have it open Friday morning.
TURNER: Thank you. And, of course, my stores looked as if I had opened them only four days but–
RITHOLTZ: But nobody cared.
TURNER: They worked. The price was great.
RITHOLTZ: And so, the first store that was opened after — how long did it take before you have to check your receipt, you have to check the — was it apparent from day one where there lines out the door? How quickly did everybody realize this is a much better formula than the department store?
TURNER: The store when it first opened was so full of customers that they had to close the door.
RITHOLTZ: So, it’s instantaneous success.
TURNER: They had to close — yes.
TURNER: And they’d let — as they would let two customers out, they’d let two waiting people in.
RITHOLTZ: And that creates its own buzz and the next thing you know.
TURNER: Yes. Yes.
RITHOLTZ: So, you worked with your dad for a long time. What was it like working with your father?
TURNER: My dad was absolutely wonderful. He was an only child who seemed to be adopting more brothers and sisters all of his life and he had in mind from the very start that I would be the one to run the company after him. I didn’t have that in mind.
RITHOLTZ: You had other siblings obviously.
TURNER: I had — there were two boys and two girls and I was the oldest boy and I was the one who got his name.
RITHOLTZ: And so, therefore, you are the natural person to —
RITHOLTZ: –to take the mantle.
TURNER: But I’ve always referred to him as the real Cal Turner because he was.
RITHOLTZ: Let’s talk a little bit about your role as CEO. What did you like best about doing that job? What brought the most fun to you as CEO?
TURNER: The people side of the business. I was fascinated with our customers. When I’d clerked in our store, I discovered that hardworking farmers were smart as they could be. They had to survive and I was convinced that my dad was right in saying we have the smartest customers of all because they’re struggling and they have to be smart.
TURNER: And so, my idea was that we could recruit great associates, our employees, from that customer base and they could help us to build a company that would really succeed because we build with associates who understood the customer and to help us to understand the customers.
RITHOLTZ: Because they were the customer essentially.
TURNER: Yes. And I realized that problem-solving genius exists where the problem does. Those are the people who can help you figure out answers that you need in a retail company.
RITHOLTZ: What was your least favorite part about being CEO?
TURNER: Well, that’s — let me think what my least favorite part was. I know. My least favorite part was having to fire somebody.
RITHOLTZ: Everybody says that.
TURNER: My least favorite part. I like everybody and I want everybody to like me and —
RITHOLTZ: Every now and then, someone doesn’t work out. You have to make a tough decision.
TURNER: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: Now, at one point in time, the company was on the verge of some really serious financial problem.
TURNER: Indeed, it was. Yes.
RITHOLTZ: Tell us a little — and you discussed it in the book. Tell us a little bit about the backgrounds of that and how you avoided Chapter 11 and what you had to do.
TURNER: Our company had over expanded and we were actually in trouble as a company and this large public company had the problem with the CEO and the COO didn’t agree on change that needed to be undertaken fast.
RITHOLTZ: And tell us exactly who the COO was.
TURNER: The COO was my younger brother Steve Turner.
RITHOLTZ: So, not just a random person. This is your kid brother.
TURNER: Yes. And in the book, I have described that is life’s toughest decision and it was for me the decision to fire my brother. It was hard and I was aggravated at God for my being in that decision-making dilemma.
TURNER: And my prayer became very irreverent because I told God exactly what I thought about him or her as I was having to go through with that.
RITHOLTZ: Right. Now, you’re churchgoing, God-fearing man. You talk about your revelation in the book and when God first came to you. How do you go from that to being angry at God? That’s so inconsistent with everything else I’ve read about you.
TURNER: Well, the God I worship knows what I’m thinking even before I think it.
TURNER: And if I’m angry, how dare Cal Turner, Jr. speak in sweet holy language in his prayer when God already knows what I’m thinking.
TURNER: So, I have to have the integrity even with God, especially with God.
RITHOLTZ: OK. That’s fair. So, how do you go from that to reaching the decision, hey, kid brother, this ain’t working, we got to move on?
TURNER: Well, it took our family between six and eight months to process it because our whole family process that decision.
TURNER: And they were all hoping Cal Jr. would get over this.
RITHOLTZ: And did he?
TURNER: He did not because he read some scripture that said, I am the vine and my father is divine dresser that which is dead. He cuts away that which is fruitful. He prunes so to bear more fruit and I thought, thank you, Lord, one brother has to be cut away and this brother has to be pruned and be more fruitful.
TURNER: I’ve got my marching orders. Thank you.
RITHOLTZ: So, how did your brother take this and did that cause a rift in the family that didn’t heal for a while?
TURNER: Of course, it caused the rift. Of course, it did. It was painful. It was hard on everybody. But my brother actually helped me to do it.
RITHOLTZ: And how was that?
TURNER: He said, Cal Jr., this is my family business, too. If you do this, you’re going to deny me my birthright. But brother, you’ll have to step up to the plate and fire me and live with that the rest of your life. And I said, I do.
Some people used that to get married. I used it to get divorced from my brother in the business.
RITHOLTZ: And what’s the happy ending at the end of the story?
TURNER: The happy ending is that Steve Turner blossomed in his independence of the family retail business and he proved who he was and what he could do and I am so proud of him and that wouldn’t have happened if that really tough decision hadn’t been made. But I’m convinced because the decision was based on scripture, it was made well.
RITHOLTZ: So, everybody loves a happy ending like that.
TURNER: Yes but it took a long time.
RITHOLTZ: I can imagine.
TURNER: A long time.
RITHOLTZ: Your dad was essentially your mentor and your teacher. What did you learn about running a business from you father?
TURNER: Well, I learned business from my father, Barry, but I learned leadership principles from my mother.
RITHOLTZ: Really? Tell us more.
TURNER: And from all the women in my life. For example —
RITHOLTZ: That’s very interesting.
TURNER: –when I was a teenager, my mother would often say to me, son, for a good boy, you get into a lot of trouble. My mother taught me to separate the person from the problem and people can come together to solve the problem better.
So, when I got into business with my dad and something would go wrong, he was of the old school and he’d say, “Who did that?” and I’m going to say, “I’m not going to tell you, daddy.”
He said, “Do you know who did it?” “Yes, sir.” “Tell me.” “No. I’m not, daddy.” I’ll throw my mother at my father. I said, “Now, daddy, we’re not going to say who did it when something goes wrong. We’re going to say what happened and who needs help to fix it. Because anytime something goes wrong, daddy, there is never any one person.”
TURNER: “Several people were involved. So, let’s not look for one person to blame. Let’s build a company of problem solvers where people establish relationships to help each other.” And my dad would say, “Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm.” And I could see from the expression on his face that I have not yet made a complete sail.
RITHOLTZ: Did he realize you were basically channeling your mother back at him and–
TURNER: No. I didn’t tell him that. I was young and green but I knew not to spring my mother on my father.
RITHOLTZ: But that was a very pragmatic approach to problem solving making it about the issue not the person.
RITHOLTZ: If you have a person problem, well, that’s a whole different conversation. But if something just happened to go wrong, let’s fix it rather than make it about who did what.
TURNER: Well, the personal problems usually result in something going wrong. But you can solve the personal problem better if you all concentrate on the problem, not the person.
RITHOLTZ: That makes a lot of sense. So, you ran a public company for a long time. Do you — let’s go back to the day the company went public. When did you go IPO?
TURNER: December of 1968 because my dad just decided it was time to take J.L. Turner and Son public and “By the way, son, we’re going to change the name to Dollar General Corporation.” “Daddy, we’re taking Turner off of the name. I kind of hate it.” “Yes. Our company needs to be identified with our stores.”
So, Dollar General it was and he said, “You take it. You run with it.” So, we went public. We had no chief financial officer. We had no consolidated financials in the company. We had no budget.
But Cal Jr., you’ve had accounting courses and you handled Wall Street so you take and go public. Well, I’m glad I was naïve enough to think I could do it because I had to do it. So, we went public.
And in January, somebody said something about an annual report and I said, what is an annual report? They explained what it was and I said, OK, well, I’m the only one who can write it. So, I went in my office and closed the door and sat down and wrote the first annual report.
RITHOLTZ: What about annual meetings with shareholders, how did that go?
TURNER: Well, in the early day, we had them in Scottsville. Kentucky and we’ve invited everybody to come to Scottsville, Kentucky. Not many showed up.
RITHOLTZ: Well, that’s where the company was headquartered.
RITHOLTZ: So, why wouldn’t you go to town?
TURNER: Yes. We had in Scottsville, Kentucky. We had to grow up as a public company. We had to grow up as a family business that could learn the best way it could be professionally managed.
There is a lot of trial and error, a lot of hard work. But we had wonderful people to help us figure that company out.
RITHOLTZ: So, you had to get a CFO, you had to get a head of investor relations, you had to get a marketing. What was that process like adding these people or not?
TURNER: No. We didn’t have to get them. My dad thought I could do whatever needed to be done. That shows he’s overconfident–
TURNER: –in his son. And so, we evolved and those persons were added in time probably–
RITHOLTZ: But not right away. Normally, companies load up with those folks before they IPO. It took years and years before these people showed up.
TURNER: It did indeed. It certainly did.
RITHOLTZ: So, you were wearing a lot of hats. You are acting as CFO, liaison to Wall Street, investor relations, what job weren’t you doing?
TURNER: I can’t think of a single job I wasn’t doing and I think that’s why there’s no hair on top of my head now.
RITHOLTZ: But who better to be CEO than someone who knows literally every aspect of the company?
TURNER: Well, I have most of the jobs in that retail company myself and I was not good at a single thing I did except sweeping the floor.
TURNER: And I developed a respect for the people who do those jobs well and I said, “Look, we all know how I got this job. I’m the boss’ son. I’m over my head and I need your help. I respect what you do. I like how you get the work done in this company. Let’s learn together and you have my commitment that we will share the success with you if you help us build this company.”
RITHOLTZ: I love that philosophy. I’m going to have to adopt that. That sounds like a very realistic and practical approach to getting the best out of the people who are working for you.
TURNER: Well, it was my approach at beating over my head.
RITHOLTZ: So, it comes from a place of honesty but it also happened to work out well.
TURNER: Yes. And they believed me because I think they it was over my head.
RITHOLTZ: They knew you were telling the truth when you said I don’t know what I’m doing.
TURNER: Yes. Exactly.
RITHOLTZ: That’s fantastic. So, you go public. When you came in as CEO, there were 150 so stores. What was that expansion process like up to as many stores as the company has now?
TURNER: Well, we could open a store in less than a week and if the store didn’t work, we could close it in a day and move on. We were short-term leases.
RITHOLTZ: So, you’re willing to throw stuff up against the wall, see what works–
RITHOLTZ: –and if it didn’t work, shrug and move on and if it worked, you could put more resources into it.
TURNER: Yes. And we would do the occasional acquisition, if we could get good store leases in the process, more places to open our store. And my dad would always be the great buyer. He’d buy all the opportunity buys and we’d be overstocked with whatever he bought. So, we had to open more stores. You needed more shelves to sell it.
TURNER: Yes. And he used to laugh about how bankers — how retailers could pull the wool over the eyes of bankers by saying, look, if I can open more stores, I’ll have more places to sell my merchandise. If it doesn’t sell here, I’ll sell it there. Well, if it doesn’t sell here, chances are–
RITHOLTZ: You’re not going to sell out there.
TURNER: –you’re not going to sell it there.
RITHOLTZ: So, you mentioned acquisitions. I’m assuming part of the reasons to go public is to use the stock for these acquisitions.
RITHOLTZ: You get a new group of companies, a new group of stores and new group of managers. So, you’re also hiring talent as well.
RITHOLTZ: How did that acquisition process work over as many years as you were deploying that?
TURNER: Well, it was always based on the marketing opportunity afforded by an acquisition prospect. Could we get stores where the leases would work for us and when we needed–
RITHOLTZ: So, close to specific factors. Sure.
TURNER: Yes. And that was our entire basis for doing acquisition.
RITHOLTZ: Location didn’t matter, you didn’t care like any town, any population?
TURNER: Well, that evolved. My dad used to think our prices and merchandise are so compelling that we can open the store anywhere and some of the buildings he leased, he’d say that about them, they were just places most retail wouldn’t pick.
And as the company evolved, we got a little more particular about where we would put our stores, but he still only wants us to pay a dollar square foot per year.
RITHOLTZ: Did that — how long did that work out with — how long was that price point able to–
TURNER: Well, two or three years.
RITHOLTZ: That was it?
RITHOLTZ: Eventually, the landlord started raising —
TURNER: Well, you — it’s supply and demand. There’s no supply of opportunity to open store at a dollar square foot anymore (inaudible).
RITHOLTZ: Right. Right. So, you had actually start paying up for that?
RITHOLTZ: Was there any methodology to we want to expand either geographically east or west or what was the thought process, where were you looking or was it just traveling around the country, working with your partners, your vendors, you would say, hey, this is an area that looks ripe for acquisition or expansion?
TURNER: Well, we wanted to open the stores where we understood the customers. So, they were primarily in Kentucky and Tennessee at that time and yet opportunity to expand elsewhere was compelling and we would go where we could get the cheap rents.
RITHOLTZ: So, who is your competition in those early days? That was around the same period Walmart was blowing up.
TURNER: Yes. Well, we always considered our competition only to be everybody else who was in retailing.
RITHOLTZ: The entire retail sector was your competition.
TURNER: Yes. And the landscape of retailing provided all kinds of competition and there’s a lot — there was a lot of carnage among retailers, there always has been. If you don’t stay connected to the customer as a retailer and if you aren’t meeting a customer need with your store, your days are numbered.
RITHOLTZ: That’s very sage advice. I have a ton more questions for you. Can you stick around a little bit?
TURNER: Of course.
RITHOLTZ: We have been speaking with Cal Turner, Jr. He’s been CEO of Dollar General for decades. If you enjoy this conversation, be sure and check out the podcast after this where we keep the tape rolling and continue discussing all things retail.
You can find that at bloomberg.com, Apple iTunes or Overcast, wherever finer podcasts are sold. Be sure and check out my daily column. You could see that at bloomberg.com. Follow me on Twitter @Ritholtz. I’m Barry Ritholtz. You’re listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.
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RIHOLTZ: Welcome to the podcast. Cal, thank you so much for doing this. I am enjoying this tremendously. I have a bunch of other questions to get to, but I only touched upon something that you spend some time talking about in the book and we really didn’t get to on the broadcast portion. And it’s your spirituality and how you had a moment that changed your whole life and you spend a lot of time in the book discussing that. Tell us — I think you were 11 years old at the time?
TURNER: Eleven years old.
RIHOLTZ: So tell us about that a little bit. I was intrigued by that. It’s interesting how Luther Turner’s life changed at 11 and how Cal Turner, Jr. — how the life of Cal Turner, Jr. changed at 11.
It was a summer Sunday evening and I was sitting in the beautiful twilight on my uncle’s front porch across the street from our church. I was waiting for my parents to pick me up and in that still wonderful twilight time, something came over me that I cannot explain. It’s nothing that I came up with but it what happened to me and it was based on the words of the old rugged cross and the conviction that while it was wonderful, that Christ had died for everyone. He had specifically done it for Cal Turner, Jr. and it was a big wow that changed my life.
I didn’t know what that meant but I knew from that time on, my life would be different. Now that I’m 78, looking back on it, I think it meant that I was always supposed to be asking the right question of life and I was forewarned that if I followed my lord, I would have a cross to carry. And —
RIHOLTZ: So I have to ask, what was your cross to bear?
TURNER: Well, my cross was splitting the family and the company by firing my brother. That was the best example of a cross. But now that I look back on those rough times in life, I find myself more blessed by them than the times of success.
RIHOLTZ: Well, success is easy. Failure is hard failure is hard.
TURNER: Failure is hard and sometimes it takes failure to learn lessons that should be learned which only failure can teach.
RIHOLTZ: So it’s biblical a little — not quite Cain and Able but the fight between brothers is fairly biblical. Years later, how did that resolve?
TURNER: Writing this book, “My Father’s Business” has been additional healing to the relationship between brothers. My brother loves the book.
RIHOLTZ: He does?
TURNER: He does.
RIHOLTZ: That’s lovely.
TURNER: And how I described the dilemma that we all faced, he had a role in life to live and I have one to live and when I read Timothy Keller’s book, “The Prodigal God,” I learned about the sin of the older brother in that parable about the prodigal son. The prodigal son gets forgiven.
RIHOLTZ: Not the older brother.
TURNER: Not the older brother who is —
TURNER: –who is self-righteous and who’s a people pleaser. And that’s who I was. I was a terrible older brother.
And that helped me to put it all together better in a way that gave my younger brother the credit he deserved.
RIHOLTZ: Did he realized how painful the process of firing him was to you? He obviously knows how he felt. Was he aware how it — you sound like — and what I read in the book, you agonized over this decision and it haunted you for a while even though you knew it was what — there can’t be two bosses. It had to be done. And even still, it haunted you for a while.
TURNER: Yes. But my brother understood how hard it was on his older brother. That’s why he said you’re going to have to fire me and live with that the rest of your life.
TURNER: And I do. I still feel the scar. Sometimes, you learn more from your scars.
RIHOLTZ: Sure. So how long was it before the family rift began to heal? How long did it — and it’s always continually healing. But when did you first start to say, all right, we’ll get by this.
TURNER: Well, to me, the healing began when my father called me about 24 hours after learning that I’d fired my brother and he said I haven’t slept since that call, son, but I realize now that just as an animal cannot live with two heads, neither can a company.
And you did what you have to do — had to do and I’m with you. You have my support. That helped the healing to begin.
RIHOLTZ: Did you reach out to your brother afterwards and said here’s what we want to do? I don’t want this to cause a permanent scar — a permanent wound for the family? Here’s how we can heal?
TURNER: I did reach out to him. It wasn’t immediately done, though, because more healing in our rapport needed to occur before I could even do that.
RIHOLTZ: Sure. A little time and space has to allow —
TURNER: Yes. Sometimes —
RIHOLTZ: — for him to do that.
TURNER: Sometimes, you have to be sensitive to the time that’s needed to invest in a situation or a syndrome that time — time can help.
RIHOLTZ: That makes perfect sense. By the way, the book is filled with these lovely — I don’t want to call them stories because they’re true, just it’s a lovely set of vignettes well told and it seems like you had a very fascinating career running the family’s business.
TURNER: Thank you. I’ve never met anybody I consider equally blessed as Cal Turner, Jr.
RIHOLTZ: Well, that’s a charming sentiment.
Let me get to some of the questions I missed during our conversation. There’s a bunch of things I wanted to — wanted to ask. You mentioned — when I was talking about the time, the company was on the verge of Chapter 11, that the underlying cause of that was overexpansion and rapid expansion. So once you came to realize that was what you — what had put the company in danger, how did you get past it? How did you resolve that challenge?
TURNER: Well, we had been doing strategic planning for years but we weren’t able to implement it very well because we had two camps in the company, one for each brother.
RIHOLTZ: Right. And that’s no good.
TURNER: And we couldn’t coordinate the implementation.
So, after the younger brother left the company, we could get on with what we had said we wanted to do with the company and we could — but we had to move fast. It’s a good thing that the whole management team had been doing planning because I understood our agenda and we could implement it faster.
RIHOLTZ: So I’m curious about one thing and I’m sure listeners are as well. You said your brother blossomed after this event, what did he go on to do?
TURNER: My brother developed The Gulch in Nashville, Tennessee, which is an amazing development of the Downtown Nashville that we all know today and that has Steve Turner and his son, Jay, all over it. They did wonderful things for Nashville.
RIHOLTZ: So, he became a very successful real estate developer.
TURNER: He did, indeed. He did, indeed.
And he also blossomed in philanthropy. He and his wonderful wife, Judy, have done amazing things for the not-for-profit community, for downtown development, and they are deservedly very loved in the community of Nashville, Tennessee.
RIHOLTZ: Now, you mentioned philanthropy. I’m confusing — I don’t remember if it was you or your father, began taking a few shares of Dollar General stock and donating it to a foundation each year? Am I misremembering that?
TURNER: I don’t remember that, that he did that. My dad would give some of his stock to all the cousins year after year after year. Philanthropy, for him, was more of a family thing.
RIHOLTZ: OK. I might be confusing the two in my haste to get the book —
TURNER: Well, I can tell you what my dad did in philanthropy.
TURNER: At the end of his life, he woke up to the blessing of philanthropy because he saw his kids doing it. And he wants — he conducted a census of all of the churches in his hometown of Allen County, Kentucky, found that there were 91 of them and he gave $1000 to each church and they were overwhelmed because more than half of those churches had received the largest contribution in their history.
TURNER: And he said, son, it’s amazing. Look how cheap philanthropy is in Scottsville. You can’t buy that kind of goodwill in Nashville, Tennessee for $91,000, son.
RIHOLTZ: That’s amazing. He’s a value investor even when it comes to philanthropy.
TURNER: Indeed, he was.
RIHOLTZ: That’s charming. So you avoid Chapter 11 by taking these two camps and creating one camp with it. How long did it take to come out of that period of, hey, things are really — things a really dicey. OK, now, we feel like we’re on a firmer financial footing.
TURNER: Well, it took a good three years before I could see our turnaround work working.
RIHOLTZ: Three years. That’s a long time to feel like —
TURNER: It felt —
RIHOLTZ: — you’re on the verge.
TURNER: It felt like an eternity. Our company had gotten bigger. You can’t turn a bigger company around as fast as you can a smaller company.
And it’s interesting how that happened. My dad and I had another fight because the son of his head flunked a drug test. He was the only district manager in the company to flunk a drug test and my dad said, you’re not going to fire him because his father’s done more for this company than your old management team put together. But I did. I did fire him.
RIHOLTZ: And what did he say?
TURNER: Well, he was just royally ticked off. And I decided, now, I can’t keep going through father and son fights. I know how can control the old man, so I’ll go to Scottsville and I’d say, look, daddy, my brothers and sisters don’t want to sell their stock until I sell mine. I’m willing for us to get family to come back together.
You and I keep fighting, it’s like a dagger to my heart every time we have a fight. Let’s agree that all of the Turners will sell this company. And I knew my dad would say, “oh no,” and then I’d say, well, then you behave.
RIHOLTZ: And did he?
TURNER: He said — I said, so, let’s sell the company, daddy. And he said, OK. And I said, OK.
RIHOLTZ: So, he called your bluff.
TURNER: He called my bluff. And I said, well, all right, Daddy. What I have to do now is to share that with the management team. So, I’m going to go back to them and suggest that they come up with a compensation plan to make it worth their while if we successfully sell the company because something needs to be in it for them, too, sure.
And so I went back and they came up with a plan. I said I don’t think the board would ever approve this, but we — it was taken to the board. The board approved it and somehow, the turnaround of that company that wasn’t yet working started to work when all of senior management got that motivated to make it work.
RIHOLTZ: So, what are you saying? That incentives matter and when employees feel they own a company they perform better?
TURNER: Exactly. Exactly. That is a fundamental that sometimes we miss.
RIHOLTZ: It’s easy to overlook especially when things are going well. It’s only when things start going poorly that we start thinking what do we — what do we forget about?
TURNER: Yes. Good observation. Good observation.
RIHOLTZ: So a question I have to ask you given the nature of Dollar General and the fact that you’re saying every retailer is a competitor, there has been an ongoing, let’s call it, income inequality or wealth and equality that has ebbed and flowed over the years. During the Great Depression, it was a very, very big chasm and then in the post-World War II period. The middle flourished and did very well. And over the past, let’s call it 10 or 20 or maybe even 30 years that rift has widened again and it’s bigger today than, at least according to some data, it’s bigger today than it’s been since the great depression. What does that mean to you as somebody who worked in retail and as somebody who is spiritual and is concerned about the welfare of his fellow men?
TURNER: Free enterprise needs to be free. And there are inequities that occur from time to time. And yet, if the market can have its influence on human activity, it can be self-correcting. We found that building a business required our offering opportunity to develop our customer base that could become our associates and build the company and they could they could grow and develop and their financial well-being would be enhanced in a major way the more productive they became.
So, if money rewards productivity, then it’s good to have more wealthy people based on their being productive. It works. It does work. It gets — yes it gets out of balance. Life is always out of balance. A real leader tries to figure out the balance that he needs or she needs to work on.
RIHOLTZ: This ebbs and flows. It gets better. It gets worse…
RIHOLTZ: It goes back into —
RIHOLTZ: That’s the cycle of business, of life, of everything.
RIHOLTZ: And without getting too clichéd, seven fat years, seven lean years, that’s what eventually — if you wait long enough, it all comes back around.
TURNER: I think so.
RIHOLTZ: So, let me ask you some of my favorite questions. These are what I ask all of my guests. A lot of these, I don’t know the answer to. One or two, I think, I could guess the answer to.
Tell us the most important thing that people don’t know about you?
TURNER: Well, they don’t know the grounding of my faith and the central importance of that to my life. But we’ve — we have talked about that.
RIHOLTZ: You write about it extensively in the book.
RIHOLTZ: But you don’t wear it on your sleeve. It’s not — you don’t beat people over the head with it.
TURNER: I wear it on my sleeve more in the book than I ever have.
TURNER: That’s one of the nice things about retirement. You don’t have to be so constrained about political correctness. You can share from your heart with the hope that you’re doing that will help somebody else. And my book is an attempt to mentor the reader. I’ve had great mentors throughout my life.
RIHOLTZ: That’s my next question. Tell us about some of your mentors? Your dad, obviously, is going to be front and center.
TURNER: Yes. And we’ve talked about them. My dad — my mother didn’t know she was mentoring me when she was raising me. And —
RIHOLTZ: Let me interrupt you a sec.
RIHOLTZ: Do you really stop and think about this for a second? Because I’m just thinking about my mother. Do you really think as I’m just thinking about my mother do you really think she had no idea she was mentoring you or was she just doing it in a way that it took us 60 years to figure out?
TURNER: She was parenting the best way she knew how. That’s mentoring, isn’t it?
RIHOLTZ: Yes, of course. And the best mentoring I think is two-way. You get confused about who is helping whom because you’re helping each other and I love to be in those two-way mentoring relationships.
RIHOLTZ: That’s a lovely sentiment. What retailers out there, and then people in the retail industry, influence the way you looked at the business of Dollar General? And anybody affect how you approach it or was it strictly Cal Sr.?
TURNER: There were many of them. Throughout the history of our company, we observed successes among the competition. And there were some more successful now and others might be more successful later and a good retail leader observes the competition. And yet does not copy that competition.
RIHOLTZ: Is there anything you can learn from the competition without copying them?
TURNER: Yes. But you — what you need to do is to learn how to apply in your company what that competition seems to do well in his or her company. But you’ve got to learn it through the eyes of your own employees and customers and applied it in your business model, in your business opportunity.
RIHOLTZ: Makes perfect sense to me. This is one of everybody’s favorite questions because people are always looking for new things to read, tell us about some of your favorite books?
TURNER: Well, the book that I need the most of any books is the bible. Now, I tend to read books that are from real good thinkers that are based on the bible. Earlier, I shared with you that Timothy Keller is one of my favorite theologians and when he wrote that book, “The Prodigal God” help me to figure out the problem I had as an older brother and it helped me to bond with younger brother and to understand life better.
I like what he writes. I read a lot of Richard Rohr, of Henry Allen. I like Richard Rohr’s book, “Falling Upward.” Itt talks about life having two basic dynamics.
You start off building your container. You try to accomplish achieve, succeed. You build the container and the last half of your life, you try to fill it with meaning.
RIHOLTZ: That’s very interesting.
TURNER: And he surmises that the person who works on that second-half dynamic early is more blessed in life. Try to get the meaning in the container as your building it. And he talks about dualistic thinking and non-dualistic thinking in a way that was a real a-ha to me.
So much of life compare and contrast. Put a label on this, put a label on that. And God who made all of us says there’s more to life than a label. There’s more to life than a comparison.
When I pray to God about something, should I do this or that? God would say, yes, and it would tick me off. You’ve said that answer. You answer.
RIHOLTZ: You said that several times and I recall — so I come from a fairly religious family and I would have similar discussions with my father. And every now and then, I get a headshake and say, you know, a little easy on the blasphemy, boy. Settle down.
But you — and I’m remembering conversations I’ve had. You kind of make me think along the same lines of hey, that’s getting a little close to the edge being ticked off at God or being somehow unwilling to accept your lot as part of a bigger plan and shaking your fist angrily at the skies. That’s not the sort of person you are today. Or are you? Am I — am I misreading your genteel southern charm is as something else?
TURNER: Well, I’m still a person trying to get over himself and get out of God’s way.
RIHOLTZ: OK. But you didn’t sound like —
TURNER: I’m still —
RIHOLTZ: –that way when you were younger.
TURNER: Well —
RIHOLTZ: And I don’t mean as a teenager. I mean, as a 40 or 50-something person running a business.
TURNER: Well, I guess I may have exuded more confidence than I really should have had. Certainly, when we went public and I didn’t know what in the heck I was doing, I had to project confidence while I was quaking in my boots.
RIHOLTZ: What does that have to — so take that to the next step. Your ticked off at God, you said. How does that square with your basic religious upbringing?
I was always told that, hey, it’s not for you to be mad at God. Who do you think you are? So, that’s kind of my background.
RIHOLTZ: How did — how did you deal with that?
TURNER: Well, then — then I realized God was saying back to me, you know, you were converted based on the cross and I told you, you were going to have a cross to carry. I’ll help you carry it. Get with it. Get over being pissed off with me or life, and I’ll help you get on with it in a deeper way.
So, yes, I have sensed that God was saying thank you for being honest with me. I already know you’re upset with me, but thank you for being honest about that.
RIHOLTZ: So you eventually came full circle and was able to get beyond your anger and manage what had to be managed?
TURNER: But I had some real reverent prayer life and I have always called myself a backsliding Methodist, but that means I own my backslide in a way that helps me to bond with other backsliders.
RIHOLTZ: That makes perfect sense to me.
So, you if anybody I can talk to about the sort of disrupted state of retail these days, you certainly have an interesting perspective, what you think about the changes that are taking place with the internet and Amazon and the new generation, not really shopping the way their parents did, what do you think retail looks like going forward?
TURNER: Well, I’ve seen a lot of change in retailing in my 37.5 years in the saddle and there will always be challenge. There will always be retailers making it and others not making it. The ones that stay closer connected with the customer are going to survive, and for example, when Dollar General changed its mind set by saying we’re not a retailer, were a customer driven distributor, that really got the company going.
So, you need to redefine yourself in almost any organization based on what your people can help you figure out would work. They can help you you figure out the next iteration of your company that you will all pursue together when they give you the answer, they’ll implement it for you very well.
RIHOLTZ: So, tell us about — and you’ve talked to about a few things with this, but I want to ask a specific example, tell us about the time you failed and what you learned from the experience?
TURNER: Well, I wish I could tell you about a time that I fail. There were times that I failed. And it was every failure was an opportunity for me to apply when my mother said for good boy, you get into a lot of trouble.
We have good people who mess up and the key to getting it right is to acknowledge that we have messed up in a way that helps us all to fix it. And from every failure was my best opportunity, it seems, as I look back on life.
RIHOLTZ: For improvement?
RIHOLTZ: For learning for —
TURNER: Yes. To grow and to develop and to reach out to other people and say, I really need your help here. Again, I’m a boss’ son who’s over his head and I need your help.
RIHOLTZ: I love — I love that approach.
So, outside of work, what you do for fun?
TURNER: Well, studying people is a delight for me. Everybody is one-of-a-kind and I get a kick out of getting acquainted with somebody on a 10-second elevator ride. People are fascinating.
And if there’s a way for me to make a connection with them that says, you’re special, I am blessed if I make that connection. Now, I enjoy — I enjoy physical activity, so I work out regularly. I enjoy being outside. The Turners came from the farm, I like getting out on the land. I like just seeing whatever’s going on out there and God’s creation.
I’ve played tennis. I’ve played golf. I’ve done skiing, water and snow. All of these things, I enjoy, but it is the activity that connects me with others that is fulfilling and life gives a lot of opportunity to be in partnership with other people.
RIHOLTZ: I am not surprised about that answer from you. That is pretty much exactly what I imagined. You are revealing in the book, you know, it’s not —
TURNER: Well, why didn’t you just go and answer the question?
RIHOLTZ: No, because sometimes I don’t know but I kind of — I kind of read that into you.
So, if a recent college graduate came to you and said, I’m thinking about a career in retail, what sort of advice, what sort of career advice would you give them?
TURNER: Well, I don’t have any advice to give anybody. I like to get inside the person and figure out what turns that person on, what turns the person off. And let’s talk about that. And how much of a turn on might retailing be for you, how much of of a turn off might it be.
Are you a people person? Do you mind hard work? How about long hours? What do you think about that? Can you have enough fun in retailing that you’ll enjoy the long hours and the hard work? Because that’s what it is.
We found in recruiting employees to our store, we could often find the best employees by talking people out of coming to work for us.
RIHOLTZ: Meaning, you don’t want to work here —
TURNER: Let me tell you what’s — let me tell you what’s hard about this job you’re applying for. You have to work long hours. You get the merchandise straight and the customer messes it up and you have to straighten that again.
However, if you want to be a part of this company, where we give a better life to struggling people, you can feel good about the hard work you do, and then some people would be honest enough to say to himself, I don’t want to work that hard, well, they’re not a candidate for Dollar General if that’d be the case.
RIHOLTZ: That seems to work. What is it that you know today about retailing that you wish you knew 37 years ago or so when you were first getting into the business of managing a fast-growing retail?
TURNER: I can’t give you a good answer because I’m glad I didn’t know much about retailing when I went into it. Because I knew I needed to get others to help me learn and we learn together. So retailing is a dynamic that you have to be figuring out together all the time.
RIHOLTZ: I love that answer. That’s terrific. We have been speaking with Cal Turner, Jr. He was the CEO of Dollar General and his new book is out and it’s titled, “My Father’s Business: The Small-Town Values That Built Dollar General Into A Billion-Dollar Company.”
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I would be remiss if I did not thank the crack staff, my team that helps put together these podcasts each week. Madena Parwana is our Audio Engineer/Producer. Taylor Riggs is our Booker/Producer. Michael Batnick is my Head of Research. I’m Barry Ritholtz. You’ve been listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.
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