In April of 1915, Robert M. Beall opened a simple dry goods store on Old Main Street in Bradentown Florida. He named it the "Dollar Limit," pricing nothing over a dollar. R.M. Beall invested his money in merchandise and little else. When the first goods arrived from the North, he recycled their wooden packing cases, turning them upside down to use as display tables. The 22-year-old saw opportunity in the fast-growing pioneer community. His location was just steps from the docks where daily steamers brought passengers and freight from Tampa.
When R.M. Beall opened a small-town five-and-dime in Bradenton, Florida in 1915 with one single purpose - “outfitting families for less” - he had no idea it would prove to be the start of an incredible story that would span generations. Bealls has defied the odds of retail and prospered through the Great Depression, two World Wars and numerous economic booms and busts. This is a story of a fine-tuned family philosophy, strong leadership and foresight, lasting business partnerships, constant evolution, and incredible customer loyalty. Read on to learn more...
1910s - The Beginning
1920 - MOVING ON UP
Manatee County was growing fast with new farms and groves springing up and more visitors filling the few wooden boarding houses and hotels each winter season. The Dollar Limit Store thrived. Due to post World War I inflation, R.M. renamed his store the "5 Dollar Limit" in 1920. The Florida Boom of the 1920's transformed Bradentown. Tall luxury hotels, new homes and offices sprang up almost overnight. An avid baseball fan, R.M. was responsible for bringing major league baseball to the city. In 1923 the St. Louis Cardinals arrived at what is now McKechnie Field for spring training. In 1924 Bradentown renamed itself Bradenton, and the "5 Dollar Limit" moved into a fine new brick store across from the courthouse. Construction and land speculation reached a fever pitch, only to crash in 1926.
1930 - WEATHERING THE STORM
The end of the boom brought hardship to Florida. Many businesses closed and many more failed after the stock market crash. By 1932, R.M. was in debt and he ultimately lost his store to the bank, but he stayed on as manager. Throughout the Depression he worked hard and saved money in hopes of someday being able to buy back the business. Despite hard times, R.M. still devoted himself to civic work, spearheading the creation of the Kiwanis Trailer Park, which brought tourists to the hard-pressed community. He guided it for 25 years, during which time it became the largest trailer park in the world.
1940 - ACHIEVING THE AMERICAN DREAM
In the 1940's America was at War. R.M.'s son Egbert (E.R.) joined the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor and his daughter Betty Beall sold war bonds. Goods were scarce, but the war stimulated the economy. Bealls ads of the period reflect Home Front patriotism. R.M.’s dedication and hard work paid off and in 1944 he paid the bank and regained his family business. In 1946, E.R. returned from the army to join his father as junior partner and, for the first time, the store took on the family name as Beall’s Department Store.
1950 - THE FLORIDA BOOM
Post-war Florida grew at a fast pace. New roads and air conditioning were changing Florida living, as new suburbs and subdivisions sprang up. Despite his father's predictions that "no one would shop way out there," E.R. boldly opened a store at West Gate, Bradenton’s first shopping center. The West Gate “handshake deal” with Publix was the first step in driving the company’s evolution and growth as a cutting-edge retailer of the time. R.M. continued to run the Downtown location.
1960 - SERVING FLORIDA COAST TO COAST
In the 60s, Bealls took off like a rocket at Cape Canaveral. Retirees were flocking to Southwest Florida, and Bealls had the merchandise they wanted. In 1962, sales topped $1 million for the first time following the opening of Bealls in Venice. Store number 4 opened in Punta Gorda in 1966, and by 1967 sales had grown to $3 million. A year later with the opening of Bealls in Melbourne on the east coast, the new tagline became "Serving Florida Coast to Coast." The decade ended with more growth driven changes including the opening of the first distribution center and the first import program. In 1969, R.M. was named Distinguished Citizen of Manatee County. His footprints were added to the walk at the courthouse where they can be seen today.
1970 - CONTINUING THE FAMILY TRADITION
As the decade began, E.R.'s son, Bob Beall joined his father and grandfather in the family business. His first assignment was opening and managing the new Dunedin store. Polyester was the fabric of the day, and pants suits flew off the racks. Growth demanded new technology. Bealls purchased its first IBM System 3 computer in 1973 which was used initially for accounts payable and then payroll. Advertising was changing as well and Bealls jumped on the opportunity to reach customers with newspaper circular inserts in 1977. In the mid-70s Bealls was honored as Retailer of the Year by the National Association of Mens & Boys Clubs. Sadly, 1979 brought the end of an era when Robert M. Beall died at the age of 86. He worked at the original store until the final year of his life. That same year saw new beginnings when Conrad Szymanski, R.M. Beall's grandson, started his career at Bealls.
1980 - OFF-PRICE EXPANSION
Bob Beall became President and CEO upon the retirement of E.R. in 1980, and E.R. became Chairman of the Board. Bealls expanded in size and scope as the decade progressed with seven new stores opening in 1981-82 to double the selling square footage of the chain, which now had 30 stores. In 1982, leadership began upgrading brands from “budget” to what was then known as "main floor" to reach more customers. Bealls also seized the off-price shopping format trend and opened the first Bealls Outlet in 1987. Other landmark achievements of the 80s included the opening of the Bealls Corporate Center and DC in Bradenton and the introduction of a 401K plan for associates. By the end of the decade sales had grown from $38 to $110 million, and the R.M. Beall, Sr. Foundation was established.
1990 - GOING BEYOND THE FLORIDA BORDER
As the 20th century drew to a close, the company continued its momentum with significant growth and technical innovation. In 1991, Bealls Outlet became a stand-alone company. The first store outside Florida opened when Bealls Outlet entered the Arizona market the following year. In 1995 Conrad Szymanski took the reins as President of Bealls Department Stores and lead the team in opening the first "big store" - twice the size of previous stores - in Spring Hill, Florida. In 1998, the Burkes name was introduced for a store in Bay Minette, AL because Bealls was already in use in the region. As ecommerce began to emerge, beallsflorida.com was introduced and in-store kiosks appeared soon after. By the turn of the century Bealls and Bealls Outlet together had 258 stores and employed 5,000 people.
2000 - GROWING THE FLORIDA LIFESTYLE
Bealls lost an iconic presence with the death of E.R. Beall on March 22, 2000 but continued to honor his legacy by overcoming challenges with innovation and growth. With invaluable customer loyalty and word of mouth advertising, the company redirected millions of dollars in traditional advertising spend to fund an explosion of Bealls and Burkes Outlets in 17 states. In 2004 Bealls Department Stores opened its own design studio to develop Florida friendly private labels. A new tagline captured it all: "Live the Florida Lifestyle." Matt Beall joined the Outlet division and became the fourth generation of Bealls to work in the family enterprise. When six hurricanes ravaged Florida and the Gulf Coast in 2004-2005, The R.M. Beall, Sr. Foundation responded by assisting 580 employees with relief amounting to $410,000. Bealls employees raised an additional $109,000 to help their coworkers. In 2007, the Tropicana office building was acquired and christened as the "E.R. Beall Center." When recession struck the nation in 2008, impacting Florida in a particularly significant way, Bealls fiscal conservatism allowed the company to retire its long-term debt and weather the storm.
2010 - RETAILING OUR WAY INTO THE FUTURE
As the company reached its 100-year milestone, growth and innovation continued. BeallsFlorida.com opened a central fulfillment center to handle its burgeoning sales. Beall’s Outlet opened a Los Angeles buying office, ecommerce expanded with the launch of burkesoutlet.com and the company debuted a new retail concept called Home Centric. By 2014, the Bealls company and family foundations exceeded $7 million in scholarships and donations. Many retail and Florida business leaders took time to recognize the significance of Bealls 100th anniversary, prospering as a privately-owned business in the highly volatile retail industry.
2020 - THE LEGACY CONTINUES
The most recent chapters of the great Bealls story demonstrate our passion for honoring the past while continuing to innovate. In 2020, Matt Beall was named Chief Executive Officer of the company his great grandfather founded. Leveraging his vast experience working throughout the business, Matt introduced the One Bealls initiative which consolidated business unit leadership to build unity and improve efficiencies. Soon after, Bealls acquired Stage Stores, Inc. which added 87 new stores, a distribution center in Texas and, importantly, the rights to use the Bealls name in all 50 states. In 2021, the first Rugged Earth Outfitters stores opened, introducing a new shopping experience featuring fishing, hiking, hunting and workwear.
One hundred years have witnessed unimaginable change and contributions from thousands of talented, loyal and dedicated team members. The values of the young entrepreneur, arriving in Bradentown a century ago, live on.