William Thomas Dillard (1914–2002)
William Thomas Dillard was the founder of Dillard’s, Inc., one of the nation’s largest fashion apparel and home-furnishings retailers. From an $8,000 investment in a single store in Nashville (Howard County), Dillard, an Arkansas native, built a premier retail chain with a national presence of more than 300 stores in twenty-nine states.
William T. Dillard was born on September 2, 1914, in Mineral Springs (Howard County), the only son of Thomas Dillard and Hattie Gibson Dillard, who were prominent farmers and merchants in the close-knit Mineral Springs community. Retailing excited Dillard from a very young age, and he spent many hours in his father’s store.
Dillard attended the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he majored in accounting and graduated with a BBA degree in 1935. Later, he attended Columbia University and graduated with an MS in business in 1937. Dillard opened his first store on February 12, 1938, in Nashville under the name T. J. Dillard’s, the same name as his father’s Mineral Springs store.
Following a five-year courtship, Dillard married Alexa Latimer in Nashville on June 9, 1940. They had five children.
Dillard sold his Nashville store in 1948 and moved his family to Texarkana (Miller County) after purchasing a forty-percent interest in Wooten’s department store. In 1949, he and a group of associates purchased the remaining sixty percent. Dillard’s enormous success with the Texarkana store eventually launched a string of strategic store acquisitions in towns across the South, beginning with Magnolia (Columbia County) in 1955 and extending to Tyler, Texas (1956), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (1960). Dillard moved his family to Tulsa in 1960.
In 1963, Dillard turned his efforts back to his home state, with the notable acquisition of downtown Little Rock (Pulaski County) store giants Pfeifer’s (1963) and Blass (1964). Dillard moved his family back to Arkansas in 1964, establishing Little Rock as the home base for his rapidly growing company.
Dillard was quick to recognize the growing trend of the suburban shopping mall as the newest in retail destination shopping. He opened his first mall locations in 1965 in Park Plaza Mall in Little Rock and Southland Shopping Mall in Tulsa. Dillard’s strategy of opportunistically purchasing troubled hometown department stores, combined with entering new suburban malls, became the pattern of the company’s growth for many years to come. Dillard often said that anything about an existing store could be changed except its location. This vision enabled him to turn troubled retailers into huge opportunities for his growing company.
Dillard’s much-anticipated grand openings were accompanied by legendary fanfare, including promotions, ribbon-cutting celebrations, contests, giveaways, and more. He embraced the hometown newspaper as the best means to reach customers in each of his markets and quickly formed a mutually beneficial partnership in each town in which Dillard’s operated.
Dillard was not only a pioneer of the suburban shopping mall but also of the use of technology in retailing at a time when most other retail operators viewed computers as mere novelties in the retail environment. Dillard’s success in consolidating and automating functions to create mass efficiencies served as the model for other retailers to study for years to come.
Dillard won many awards and honors during his lifetime in recognition of his many achievements. In 1999, he was among the first four Arkansas business leaders inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.
Dillard died at the age of eighty-seven on February 8, 2002, in Little Rock. He often said, “Business without integrity is not good business—and in the long run will not be successful.” In 2020, the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas named its accounting department after Dillard.
For additional information:
Forgave, Reid. “Dillard’s Founder, Chairman Dead at 87.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. February 9, 2002, pp. 1, 2A.
Rosenberg, Leon Joseph. Dillard’s: The First Fifty Years. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988.
Julie J. Bull
Little Rock, Arkansas
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