Ask the CEO

By Hannah Wallace August 31, 2009

As the first non-family CEO of the retail giant Beall’s Inc., Stephen M. Knopik oversees a family business that began in 1915 with a Bradenton dry goods store called The Dollar Limit, because nothing was priced more than $1. Today the company has annual revenues of $1.2 billion and includes 85 Florida department stores as well as 437 outlet stores, 241 of them in Florida and the other 196 scattered across the southern United States from California to North Carolina. Knopik grew up in Sarasota, the second of four children of an aerospace engineer, and attended Cardinal Mooney High School, where he caught the touchdown pass that won the school a state championship in 1972. A certified public accountant, he joined Beall’s in 1984 as chief financial officer and was named CEO in 2007.

What’s your biggest challenge today? Trying to develop sensible plans for the future. It’s hard to know how much to invest in inventory and systems, and what’s going to be the most productive use of our resources because there are so many questions about how long it is going to take customers to repair their personal balance sheets and get back into the game.

Are there special challenges in the Sarasota/Manatee market? These markets were as hot as any. But it’s the old story: the higher you go, the harder you fall. These counties heated up and now they are stone cold.

What is the best—and worst—part of doing business here? The best part has been the historically steady population growth, and I suspect that it will return at some point. With the beaches, the climate and other aspects, this is a very pleasant place for people to live, so it’s easy to attract employees. The tough part: hurricanes, long hot summers, red tide, love bugs and traffic.

What is your strategy for dealing with the downturn in retail sales? No. 1 is to accept the reality that this is a new economy and the old one ain’t coming back anytime soon.

What is your reaction to the closing of two local Dillard’s stores? I am surprised they held on as long as they did. The Florida market is materially different in its demographics and seasonability than almost any other market, so it is a real challenge for a national firm to create tailored offerings that make sense in Florida.

It seemed to me, over the years, that Dillard’s was struggling. And let’s face it, if you look at the last six months, there have been a lot of retailers that have closed.

What is the favorite part of your job? Helping people develop their potential and watching them grow and produce.

Your least favorite? The time we have to spend dealing with regulations and all the work required to protect your business against people who might want to prey on deep pocket business.

Tough times you have weathered? Personally, when I was five years old. Another boy and I were burning a box of trash and my pant leg caught fire and burned my leg from the ankle to the knee. I spent seven weeks in the hospital, with skin graft surgery. Professionally, the last 18 months have been pretty darn tough.

Guilty pleasures? Taking a nap on a Saturday afternoon and puttering in the kitchen for two or three hours on Sunday, especially in football season. I can watch the game on television while I’m working in the kitchen. Instead of using prepared tomato sauce, for example, I’ll peel and seed tomatoes and simmer them. It’s something to take your mind off your business and your worries. ■

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