Dollar General: A success story based on small town American values

There is a rich history of entrepreneurship, risk taking and success in America. I know. I’m living the American dream and can speak from personal experience.

I used a $10,000 line of credit, maxed out credit cards and sold items on eBay to fund the start of a company that now operates in the waste and recycling space.

My roots run deep in Kentucky, and I’m proud to highlight other champions of entrepreneurial vigor that originated in my home state. In fact, one of the most successful store chains in America was founded in Kentucky.

Dollar General is a #119 ranked Fortune 500 company with 143,000 employees, and it was founded in Scottsville, Kentucky as “J.L. Turner and Son.”

James Luther Turner was a dry goods salesman, who tried his hand at a variety of retail jobs before spotting an opportunity to buy and liquidate bankrupted retail stores during the Great Depression. The “son” in J.L. Turner and Son was Hurley Calister “Cal” Turner, Sr., who would accompany his father to take possession of these closeouts, gaining a valuable retail education along the way.

James and Cal each invested $5,000 to start J.L. Turner and Son Wholesale in 1939. As dry good wholesaling declined after World War II, the company switched from wholesaling to retailing, and by the early 1950s their empire had grown to 35 stores in Kentucky and Tennessee, with annual sales over $2 million.

In 1955, Cal Turner had an idea. After studying his competition, he noted that “Dollar Days” sales at other major retailers drove good business. So he wanted to switch the company to selling items “for a dollar” and he rebranded their Springfield store “Dollar General.”  The idea caught on, and Dollar General quickly became one of the fastest-growing chains in retail history, with sales reaching over $5 million by 1957. Today Dollar General generates $27.8 billion in revenue.  

Cal Turner emphasized the ethics of hard work and customer service. And he believed deeply in the values of small town America.

"Small town America contributes to a better life," Mr. Turner once said. "I think you have to make an effort to be a better person (in a small town) because people know your habits, there is a closeness, and an accountability and there is a priceless spirit.”

As a Kentuckian, and a believer in small town American values myself, the Dollar General case study strikes a chord with me. And the success of Dollar General reinforces my belief that great ideas can come from anywhere, not just on the coasts.

James and Cal have since passed on, but the empire they built is one of the leading revenue generators in rural America, with more than 16,000 locations in 46 states. In fact, it is hard to drive through just about anywhere in America without seeing a Dollar General. The store carries a variety of groceries and other home goods, and yes, many of those are still sold for $1. Cal is being honored posthumously at the November 18th Kentucky Entrepreneur Hall of Fame gala.

Dollar General was listed on the U.S. Stock Exchange in 1968, and in 2009 the company filed for an Initial Public Offering (IPO) of up to $750 million.

Dollar General is just one of Rubicon’s Fortune 500 partners, joining us in our mission to end waste, in all of its forms. In the coming weeks, I’ll tell you a little bit about more of our partners and what makes each of them special.

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