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My Father's Business
The Small-Town Values That Built Dollar General into a Billion-Dollar Company
By Cal Turner
With Rob Simbeck
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Longtime Dollar General CEO Cal Turner, Jr. shares his extraordinary life as heir to the company founded by his father, Cal Turner, Sr., and his grandfather, a dirt farmer turned Depression-era entrepreneur. Cal’s narrative is at its heart a father-son story, from his childhood in Scottsville, Kentucky, where business and family were one, to the triumph of reaching the Fortune 300 — at the cost of risking that very father/son relationship. Cal shares how the small-town values with which he was raised helped him guide Dollar General from family enterprise to national powerhouse.
Chronicling three generations of a successful family with very different leadership styles, Cal Jr. shares a wealth of wisdom from a lifetime on the entrepreneurial front lines. He shows how his grandfather turned a third-grade education into an asset for success. He reveals how his driven father hatched the game-changing dollar price point strategy and why it worked. And he explains how he found his own leadership style when he took his place at the helm — values-based, people-oriented, and pragmatic. Cal’s story provides a riveting look at the family love and drama behind Dollar General’s spectacular rise, pays homage to the working-class people whose no-frills needs helped determine its rock-bottom prices, and shares the life and lessons of one of America’s most compelling business leaders.
The family business that would one day become Dollar General Corporation came into existence in October 1939 as J. L. Turner and Son Wholesale Dry Goods, Shoes, Notions and Hosiery. I was born three months later as Hurley Calister Turner Jr., and I’ve always considered us to be a joint venture.
That “Jr.” meant my role as the boss’s son was clearly laid out from the start. In my mind, my dad was and always will be “the real Cal Turner.”
My life has embodied many seeming contradictions. I thought about the ministry even before I thought about business as a career. I stepped into a family enterprise with its roots in a farmers’ co-op and retired from a Fortune 300 company with almost 6,000 stores, 60,000 employees, and $6 billion in annual sales. Although my dad and I were alike in many ways and he was my biggest supporter and closest friend, we had what may have been inevitable father-son disagreements that ultimately involved the board and led to his forced retirement as chairman of the board of the company he had founded and nurtured.
My years with the company changed me a great deal. Among other things, they made me a passionate believer in human development, in the kind of leadership that makes better organizations by shaping better persons, something that dovetails nicely with the small-town values imbued in me by my family and the community of Scottsville, Kentucky.
This book is about my journey of self-discovery and is my attempt to share what I’ve learned about how all of us can flourish and how we can best work together for the good of organizations, communities, and our world. I hope that within it you will find keys to exploring your own life and becoming everything you are capable of being as you pursue your Father’s business.
Scottsville, Kentucky: “The Center of the Universe”
Scottsville, Kentucky, was a great place for a kid to grow up, but it was a terrible place for a wholesale business. Nashville, 60 miles to the south, or Louisville, 120 miles to the north, would have been much better. Fewer than 2,000 people lived in Scottsville in 1939, and the roads leading in and out were winding and rutted. To my father and my grandfather, though, Scottsville was the center of the universe. Besides, they had just bought a big brick building on East Main Street—they had gotten it for half price, and a Turner will buy anything for half price—and so Scottsville it was.
My grandfather, James Luther Turner, was one of the smartest men I have ever known. He was also one of the hardest working. He was just eleven when his father died in a freak wrestling accident in 1902, and as the oldest of four children, he left school to run the family farm. I picture him in those days as a skinny kid walking behind their mule, turning up dusty Macon County, Tennessee, dirt so he could plant corn for the hogs, vegetables for the family, and tobacco for cash.
He sold his first tobacco crop for $190 and put part of the money into savings. When he said, as he often did, “You need to save something from every paycheck,” it was because he had done it and had learned that it worked. From the beginning, he dreamed of a better life, and at twenty-four, he was asked to manage the local co-op by farmers who recognized him as the hardest-working young man around. He had by that time saved $300, and he opened a bridle shop in a refurbished woodshed behind the co-op, which amounted to a general store, making and selling bridles, harnesses, and saddles in his spare time. He would set out on foot before dawn, carrying a lunch as he walked the three miles from the farm to the co-op, and walk back at night.
He and his wife, Josiephine—they married when he was seventeen—lost two children in infancy, and they devoted themselves tirelessly to their third and only surviving child, Hurley Calister, born May 28, 1915. Hurley was the surname of a prominent area man, and my grandmother, whose own name was spelled with a country flourish, just liked the sound of “Calister.”
Luther worked at the co-op for about a year—after running his own farm, he wasn’t much for bosses. He and his brother-in-law bought the inventory of a small general store and used it to start their own in Adolphus, across the state line in Allen County, Kentucky. In 1920, just after Luther bought a second store, the nation entered a severe recession. His stores failed, and he figured it was time to try working for someone else again.
He approached Nashville’s Dobson-Cannon Wholesale Grocery Company, which was less than impressed with his third-grade education but hired him as a salesman when he offered to work on straight commission. “Just give me your sales sheets and pay me for what I sell,” he told them. A year later, he jumped at the chance to work for Neely Harwell, a Nashville dry goods wholesaler. He loaded samples of their merchandise into his car and showed them to store owners all over southern Kentucky and middle Tennessee. A natural salesman, he flourished, although he never lost the dream of returning to his own business. In the meantime, he learned all he could and saved his money.
It says a great deal about Luther Turner that he was able to turn his third-grade education into a plus. He was convinced that everyone he met was smarter than he, and that he needed to learn something from each of them. He became a first-rate observer, a great listener, and a dedicated student of life. What he practiced was more than empathy. It involved valuing the other person and his or her information, insight, and perspective.
With a steady job and a son who had just turned ten, Luther decided the family needed the advantages of a town. The closest one was Scottsville, and that’s where they moved. Luther found and bought the cheapest house on the best street in town, putting his wife and son in the finest surroundings he could afford.
Living on $125 of the $225 he earned monthly from Neely Harwell, Luther used the rest to open Turner’s Bargain Store on South Court Street. That was where Cal, who helped out when he could, took his first independent step into the world of retail in the summer of 1929. He and his friend Howard Shrum, whose father owned the shoe store next door, teamed up and sold lemonade on the sidewalk. It was all you could drink for a nickel. They gave people plenty of ice, knowing that the colder the lemonade, the better the chance their customers, gulping in the hot summer sun, would get a “brain freeze” after half a glass or so. Cal and Howard couldn’t help it if “all you can drink” didn’t turn out to be very much. They made $12.
A few months later, Black Friday kicked off the Great Depression. It would be much worse than the downturn of a decade earlier, but Luther was much better prepared. His years on the road, in and out of the little department stores found in nearly every town, had taught him volumes. He had seen the business as a wholesaler and a retailer, from the perspectives of owners and customers, in good times and bad. He knew their merchandise, their cash flows, their strengths and weaknesses. He was by this time part psychologist, part philosopher, and all businessman.
When the Depression hit, Cal was in eighth grade, which meant he had completed four more years of schooling than his father. He was especially good with numbers, and Luther began taking him on the road.
Cal was a quick study. He picked up on what made customers’ eyes light up and what left them cold. No one in those little towns had much money. They wanted value and knew how to spot it.
Luther saw that many of these stores weren’t going to make it. They had mortgages, utilities, vendors, and other creditors to pay, but their customers lacked cash, so they simply couldn’t move their merchandise at anything close to what they had in it. What had happened to him and his two little stores in the early twenties was happening all over the rural South in the thirties. He also knew that where there was failure, there was opportunity. He had opened that first store with merchandise from a failed retailer. Here was the chance to do that with store after store. Someone would be buying the merchandise at bargain-basement prices, on the courthouse steps if nowhere else. It might as well be Luther.
In photos from that era, with his suit and tie, slim build, and glasses, Luther looked like a young Harry Truman. But behind the glasses, there was a fatherless farm boy who started with nothing, facing the early days of the worst depression in the country’s history. If there was ever a test of a man’s mettle and a nation’s promise, this was it, but it was clear that he had already come a great distance from his days of walking behind a mule in that Tennessee dirt.
As the Depression deepened, Luther began buying the inventories of failed stores, often competing with other bidders to do so. He and Cal would show up early on auction day, and Cal learned quickly from Luther how to size up merchandise and assign value. It helped that Cal was a whiz with numbers. He’d walk around with a pad and pencil, listing items and doing the figuring.
“I count sixty-two pairs of shoes,” Cal might say, “and it looks like an average price of a dollar twenty-five.” He’d go through as much as he could this way—sacks of sugar, baby dresses, rolls of wallpaper, whatever they had—writing his approximations on a note pad. He might determine that the entire stock was worth $4,500, and Luther would try to buy it for $2,000 or so. My father is no longer here to ask, but I wonder now whether my practical grandfather took cash with him to those sales, since that seems most logical—he was, after all, a stranger at many of them.
When theirs was the winning bid, Luther would liquidate the stock quickly, holding a “going out of business” sale, sometimes hiring someone to handle it, sometimes staying on to do it himself, with Cal at his side. Anything that didn’t sell he could pack up and take to his own store in Scottsville or sell to another retailer. Now and then he would scout around for another merchant or middleman and sell the whole lot at a small markup. And on a couple of rare occasions, where he thought with the right manager he could turn a store around, he simply bought it outright.
Sometimes he needed short-term bank loans to make the purchases, and the banks were more than happy to work with him. His track record spoke for itself. He used the stock as collateral, and they knew they’d have their money back in sixty or ninety days. He was “bankable” in a way that farmers, whose crops might not come in, were not. At other times, he would take on a short-term partner. They would buy a store together, with a handshake as the only contract. They would divide the goods as evenly as possible and flip a coin to see who got what.
Those sales helped make a businessman of young Cal. As he and his dad went from store to store, month after month and year after year, he became more like a partner than simply a helpful son, even though he was still in high school.
In fact, my dad did very well at Scottsville High, even finding time to become a terrific basketball player, all while keeping up a sometimes daunting work schedule in the bargain store and in another that Luther owned thirty-five miles away in Hartsville, Tennessee. My dad would often get up early on Saturday mornings to make the drive and spend the day, and sometimes the evening, at the store. There were also times when he would leave the house with Luther as early as 1:00 a.m. to drive to a bankruptcy sale.
Meanwhile, Turner’s Bargain Store continued to do well. The importance of tobacco as a local crop gave my grandfather one of his best early promotional opportunities. Farmers sold their tobacco late in the fall, receiving checks they turned into the only cash many of them saw all year. Luther knew those sale barns were cold and he came up with the idea of giving each farmer at those sales a good right-hand work glove with a note attached. It said, “Get the mate to me free at Turner’s Bargain Store. We will gladly cash your check.” The farmers would go to the store and get the mate to a good pair of gloves, then cash their checks. There they’d be, inside a store loaded with useful merchandise, with a year’s worth of crop money in their hands.
Cal enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville in the fall of 1933 to study engineering. The only admission requirement was Luther’s ability to pay the tuition.
Given their humble beginnings, Luther and Josie were thrilled that their son was earning a college degree, and they bought a house on Villa Place, just a few blocks from the school. My dad played on the freshman basketball team, but quickly discovered engineering wasn’t for him. School in general didn’t interest him anymore. Business did. After his freshman year, he took what his parents thought was a summer job at Neely Harwell. Then, as fall approached, he broke it to them that he wasn’t going back to school.
On the side, my dad opened a store of his own in Dupontonia, a DuPont company town on the Cumberland River north of Nashville. Since he was a good fellow and his prices were right, he felt he deserved people’s business. The locals didn’t see it that way and it went under. Luther, who was not averse to letting Cal learn some of his lessons the hard way, simply watched from the sidelines. Then, the two of them went back to the business of buying and liquidating the inventories of troubled stores.
My dad was dating Laura Katherine Goad, who was a year behind him in high school. She came from a family of lawyers and politicians on one side and businesspeople on the other. In a social sense, the Goads were above the station of the Turners, no matter how far they had come from that Tennessee farm. The Goads would produce judges and politicians, while the Kemps—her mother’s side—owned a store. But Cal, good-looking, dapper, and filled with self-confidence, thought he could accomplish pretty much anything, including winning Laura.
He still carried some of the earthiness that went with the family’s rural background, and that wasn’t always an endearing trait. Once, when he and Laura broke up for a short time, my dad got a date with her rival, Lattie Miller Graves, the doctor’s daughter. The two of them drove by Laura’s house in his new convertible with the top down and the radio blaring. Fortunately, my mother later decided to take him back, but I’m convinced that if her father hadn’t died when he did—in an automobile accident at the age of forty-two, when my mother was eighteen—she would never have married him. The Turners were uneducated farm people who had moved into town, and my guess is that Luther Turner’s young son, Cal, would not have been good enough for Frank Goad’s only daughter. As it was, her joyfulness and free spirit and his charm and confidence made for a great match. One of their favorite pastimes was to drive out to the bridge on Gallatin Road south of town, park the car, turn up the radio, and dance, high above the creek below.
They married on October 24, 1936. Daddy was as proud of their first child, Laura Josephine, born December 26, 1937, as of anything he’d ever done, and one day he took her into the store and set her lovingly atop a display pile of fabric. As the customers gathered around, she wet herself, soaking both her diaper and the cloth.
The Depression hadn’t lifted, but the newlyweds entered a world in which the economic landscape had at least stabilized. Unemployment had dropped from nearly 25 percent in 1933 to 17 percent in 1939. It was possible to see who had outlasted the storm. Those retailers who remained needed goods, and it was my dad who had the idea of going into wholesaling. At twenty-four, he had learned his father’s lessons well and had saved $5,000—equivalent to nearly $90,000 today. He knew he needed more, so he asked Luther for $5,000 as well. The building that had been offered for sale in Scottsville would be a great location, the price was right, and Luther said yes. With that, they were in the wholesale business.
J. L. Turner and Son began selling to independent retailers in Kentucky and Tennessee. Cal ordered and brought in stock, and hit the road with his samples on selling trips. By the end of the first year, he had sold $65,000 worth of goods, and they were off and running.
The founding of J. L. Turner and Son followed by less than sixty days the German invasion of Poland and the onset of World War II. President Roosevelt signed into law the first peacetime draft in U.S. history a year later, but my birth in January 1940 made my dad the father of two, and as such, he would never be subject to the draft. Instead, he and my grandfather did what they could to thrive during the austere wartime economy. They concentrated on what my father always figured he did best—finding great bargains and selling them to retailers—supplementing the money they made wholesaling with income from their remaining retail outlets and a few side projects, including a tomato cannery in Scottsville. I still remember the Allen’s Pride label on those cans and the sickly, pungent smell of the place!
In the boom following the war, manufacturers freed up from wartime production began flooding the market with all sorts of commodities, driving prices down. My father found more and more deals he just couldn’t resist, passing them along to his retail customers. At one point he found a bargain on a huge volume of ladies’ panties, which he shipped to the warehouse. He took samples to his customers and found they weren’t buying, since they still had plenty of the last batch of panties he’d sold them.
“But these are even cheaper!” he said. “Lower your prices and you’ll sell more of them!”
He was touting a new business approach, but his customers, a conservative lot, weren’t buying his argument or his panties. It began happening more and more. My dad, who couldn’t pass up a bargain, would end up with way too much of something. The storeowners who were ideally a pipeline to customers were instead a bottleneck.
If he couldn’t move that lot of panties through those other retail stores, my dad figured it was time for him and his father to open more stores of their own, so they could complement his aggressive buying with some smart selling. He put it another way years later, saying, “We realized you had to go directly to the consumer. We decided we had to have more outlets to get rid of our mistakes.”
The initial idea, he said, was “selling the good stuff to the rich folks, but we were late getting into retailing and Mr. Karl Stark was already doing that in Scottsville. So we had to sell the cheap stuff to the poor folks. It was just the business we had to get into.”
It was also the business they knew best. They were acquainted with retailers and would-be retailers throughout Kentucky and Tennessee, and they found willing partners. They knew they couldn’t run these “junior department stores” themselves. Local businessmen would manage the stores. The Turners would provide wholesale merchandise. They would lease the buildings jointly with the local managers and split the profits as fifty-fifty partners. If either party wanted out, he would declare the value of the store and the other could buy or sell at that price. My dad was convinced that any genuine partnership needed two persons completely and equally committed to success. It also needed a mutually agreeable exit strategy from the beginning.
The first store opened with such a partnership was in Albany, Kentucky—Albany Dry Goods. Then they added a store in Horse Cave and, in 1948, Russell Springs. One at a time, they added others, and within a few years, they had a dozen.
One of those new stores was Allen Dry Goods, on the square in Scottsville. The building had become available when Karl Stark finally got out of the business. Like our short-lived cannery business, it was named for Allen County, which had Scottsville as its county seat. This one was solely owned rather than the kind of partnership Dad and Luther normally negotiated.
From the beginning, my dad ran the business and Luther served as loving mentor—and worrier. In fact, Cal’s hunger for growth, for more and more stores, worried Luther a great deal. Cal had a young man’s ambition. Luther, in his mid-fifties, had an older man’s caution. At one point, Luther bought a farm and put it in Josiephine’s name so that if the company went under, all of them could return to the land and start over.
Cal did heed Luther’s concerns—he told me he often woke up in a cold sweat, wondering whether they were overextended—but Luther listened to Cal as well. They would ride together to Nashville to visit Sam Flemming, the credit manager at Third National Bank, and Luther would always provide the needed second signature for a loan that would let them launch another store.
That business, growing one store at a time, was the backdrop to my childhood. The fact that it was headquartered in Scottsville pleased my father, who was convinced that living in a small town made you a better person.
“If people are keeping an eye on what you’re doing,” he said, “then you might think twice about doing something you shouldn’t.”
I grew up knowing that everyone kept an eye on me. Since my mother came from a family of lawyers and politicians, she was always very visible and involved in the community. That made me visible as well. Mama was part of every school project, and our house was open to anyone who wanted to visit or anyone we wanted to bring home, announced or unannounced.
Mama drummed into me from the time I was little that I needed to reach out and connect with everyone, to be interested and respectful no matter what. I learned to share my toys, to like people from all walks of life, to be friendly and polite at all times. I have felt her influence ever since, urging me to understand people, to help them all I can, and to try to make them feel better about themselves and their potential. In fact, many years later, when my son was seven, he said, “Daddy, it’s hard to be your son, because you have to be nice to everybody all the time, whether you feel like it or not.” It was just part of small-town life that always stayed with me, and it became one of the strengths of my leadership grounding.
My mother was love in action. She found a way to respect and appreciate everyone, and she was fun loving in a way that involved all those around her. She lived life at a brisk pace, with a wholesome but frisky sense of humor. Mama had grown up with three brothers, one older and two younger, and had learned how to handle the men in her life. You knew you were acting as she wanted, but you were more than happy to comply. I know I was.
Mama was very much the Southern lady. She was a pretty woman with dark brown hair, blue eyes, and a fair complexion. She was a great homemaker and cook, but no matter how busy the day had been, she met my father at the door just out of the bath, wearing fresh lipstick and looking her absolute best. She’d greet him with a big hug, and I give her a lot of the credit for the fact that they remained sweethearts throughout their lives.
My dad was the boss at work; she was the boss at home. She’d let him fume and bluster now and then if he wanted to assert control about something, knowing he’d calm down soon enough, but when he had his way, it was probably because she let him.
Mama was the spiritual center of every gathering. She made a big deal out of everyone’s birthday. At Christmas, the decorations were festive and homey and the house always smelled heavenly. For days, she would boil orange peels for a fruity, spiced tea she made, and she was always baking something special. The house we moved into when I was thirteen was a big colonial with six white columns, and Mama would wrap red ribbon around each, making them look like peppermint candy. She saw to it that there was a big meal for every occasion, and I’ll never forget her banana cake with homemade custard between layers.
She found a recipe for brandied peaches one year in the Louisville paper, and filled gallon jugs with peaches, sugar, and spices, and buried them in the yard for a month. There were so many, she lost track of some of them, and sometime after Easter, when the weather got really warm, we began hearing muffled explosions in the yard.
“Oh, yes,” she’d say, “now I remember one being buried over there.” It was just part of the adventure.
At Halloween, ours was a must-stop house for everyone—three or four hundred people would come by! Mama would make homemade chili and tamales to entice the entire family to come and eat and then help pass out candy to the seemingly endless line of trick-or-treaters.
Where my mother’s family was all about community and civic involvement, my father’s stuck to business. He was gone much of the time and so Mama was the bigger influence on Laura Jo, me, and our two younger siblings, Betty (Katherine Elizabeth) and Steve (James Stephen). During my formative years, my dad was too busy to have much rapport with me. The only time we really spent together when I was little was when I’d visit stores with him. I was five the first time and I remember how excited I was when he said, “I want Cal Jr. to go with me to visit stores today.” I thought I had arrived! That emotion was quickly replaced by fear once we got on the road, however, because his driving scared the heck out of me! It was a thrill just to get to each store in one piece. Once we were there, he’d start talking shop with managers and employees, and I’d get bored in a hurry. There isn’t much interesting about a retail store to a preschooler.
We didn’t have most of the normal father-son venues for a relationship; it was simply a consequence of the way he had grown up. His father was functionally illiterate and needed him as a functionary in the business enterprise, so business was their connection, just as it became ours.
I heard a lot of business talk as a kid. We’d be in the living room waiting for Grandma to finish cooking Sunday dinner, and I’d listen as my father and my grandfather talked about retailing. Looking back, I realize that the two of them had a great deal of affection for each other, but you had to hear it through the constant chatter about shipments and bargains and overhead.
I remember a discussion of one of their more memorable promotions. For a time they sold a shoe line, specially made for the company, called Turson, a contraction of Turner and Son. My dad wanted to promote it at the county fair in Scottsville one year, so he had one of the shoes frozen in a big block of ice, which was set out in the sun. He announced a prize for the person who could guess the time at which the ice would be melted enough for the shoe to drop to the ground. It was just the kind of homey, small-town touch he knew would work, and he certainly got his money’s worth when it came to that crowd.
- Mr. Turner writes with touching candor about the challenges of sustaining a family business.—Wall Street Journal
- An inspiring story...if you are an ambitious businessman or entrepreneur, My Father's Business will show you the future direction....should be a required read for the teachers and students of business.—The Washington Book Review
- [This] well-written, honest book...is recommended for the general reader, business owners, entrepreneurs, job changers, and business-school students who want to understand the thinking that shaped the company's growth and fueled its problems.—Booklist
- My Father's Business is the story of what it took to build Dollar General into a national retail chain from its rural, Kentucky roots and will encourage anyone with a dream of building a business.—Doug McMillon, president and CEO, Walmart
My Father's Business ought to be required reading in any business school . . . . a great book!
—Peter Handal, President and CEO, Dale Carnegie Training
- A fascinating glimpse into the philosophy and logistics of the dollar-store business model...—Chapter16.org
A revealing and colorful book . . . Cal Jr.'s openness about the trials and tribulations both within the family and the company itself, as well as his personal reflection in retirement, is something we can all learn from and is sure to help us be more honest in our own self-assessments.
—Senator Bob Corker
- My Father's Business is a MUST-READ for an aspiring young entrepreneur and an enjoyable read for anyone.—Dr. Thomas Frist, co-founder, Hospital Corporation of America
- A fantastic book, for new entrepreneurs and CEOs alike, and it will inspire everyone who wants to integrate personal aspirations, family values, and best business practices.—Rev. Dr. Becca Stevens, founder and president of Thistle Farms
- The story of Dollar General is an example of what makes our country so great.—George Roberts, co-founder and co-chair, KKR
- This is more than the tale of Dollar General . . . . It is a story of family turmoil as well as wild success.—Senator Lamar Alexander
- I highly recommend this book as an insight into what is really important in business.—Michael W. Smith, singer/songwriter
- On Sale
- Apr 9, 2019
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Center Street