Herbert Richard (H. R.) Gibson (1901–1986)
Herbert Richard (H. R.) Gibson Sr. was the founder of Gibson Products Company, parent company of the once prominent discount retail store chain Gibson’s Discount Centers. At its peak in the mid-1970s, Gibson Products Company—founded in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in the 1930s—and its franchisees operated almost 700 stores located throughout much of the United States. H. R. Gibson was a modern discount retailing pioneer, entering the field in 1958, four years ahead of Kmart, Target, and Walmart Inc. As an early business rival of Sam Walton, Gibson influenced discounting and management practices that Walton later used to surpass Gibson and make Walmart Inc. the world’s largest retailer.
H. R. Gibson was born near Berryville (Carroll County) on September 16, 1901, the third of five siblings. His parents, William Thomas Gibson and Flora Belle Gibson, were farmers who moved often before eventually settling in Howell County, Missouri, a few miles from the Arkansas state line. Gibson’s childhood was spent in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
A capable but unmotivated student, Gibson finished his formal education in grade school; however, even in childhood, he demonstrated an aptitude for “wheeling and dealing,” which his father decided to cultivate. When Gibson was only twelve years old, his father proposed to set him up in his own livestock business. Gibson would be responsible for tending to, and marketing, the animals, using the profits to purchase his own clothes and other personal items. Gibson soon built a lucrative enterprise worth several thousand dollars.
After his livestock business collapsed due to contagions that decimated his cattle and swine herds, Gibson undertook numerous other endeavors such as trading furs, running a gambling house (which he later regretted as a lapse in his personal ethics), and working as a carnival barker and professional wrestler. He also worked briefly as a streetcar conductor in Wichita, Kansas.
While in Kansas, Gibson operated a profitable barbering business in the mid- to late 1920s with his first wife, Dalta May Nicks, whom he married in 1921 and with whom he had one daughter. However, the onset of the Great Depression forced him to sell out. He moved to Little Rock, where, in April 1932, he opened a wholesale business, the Gibson Novelty Company, initially operating out of a small rented space in the Capital Hotel. This business, too, became profitable, despite poor economic conditions. It was renamed the Gibson Products Company.
In 1934, Gibson married Belva Grace Acklin after having divorced his first wife. An avid business person herself, she was fully involved in the new family business from its inception. The couple’s five children also eventually worked in the company, with two of their sons becoming company executives.
Gibson Products Company relocated to the Dallas, Texas, suburb of Seagoville in 1934. The business continued to thrive and expand for more than two decades. However, as profits began to decline in the 1950s, Gibson decided to convert his thirty-four wholesale distribution warehouses into discount retail establishments. The first Gibson’s Discount Center opened in Abilene, Texas, in April 1958. One week later, a second store opened in Lubbock, Texas. The fifth store, located in Waco, Texas, was the first one operated by a franchisee. The chain of stores continued to grow rapidly in the 1960s, primarily through franchising. By 1964, there were 138 Gibson’s Discount Centers, including several in Arkansas. In 1968, the number of stores more than tripled to 434, and the company reached $1 billion in sales. In 1970, the company became the nation’s second-largest discounter behind Kmart. Gibson expressed aspirations not only to surpass Kmart, but also to overtake Sears as the number-one retailer in any category by 1985.
In 1972, H. R. and Belva Gibson transferred ownership of Gibson Products Company to sons Herbert Jr. and Gerald, and a new corporate entity, Gibson’s, Inc., was created to control the family’s empire. In the next decade, growth peaked and the company then began to decline dramatically. Its demise is attributable to numerous factors, including competition, especially from Walmart Inc. Also, litigation over alleged violations of anti-trust laws that challenged the legitimacy of the company’s purchasing and distribution procedures harmed the company. After many years of litigation, an adverse decision was handed down in the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit. All of this was coupled with the loss of important multi-store franchisees, notably the Howard family, who owned Gibson’s and Howard Discount Centers in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.
Gibson, who suffered from congestive heart disease and other ailments in his elder years, died of a heart attack on February 25, 1986, in Dallas. Belva died three years later on September 3, 1989.
For additional information:
Hendrickson, Robert. The Grand Emporiums: The Illustrated History of America’s Great Department Stores. New York: Scarborough Books, 1980.
Lawrence, Robert W. This Man Gibson. Dallas: Gospel Teachers Publications, 1974.
Wal-Mart: A History of Sam Walton’s Retail Phenomenon. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Greg A. Phelps
Lindsey Wilson College
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