McRae’s sale ends chapter in Miss. retail history

Published 5:00 am Monday, May 9, 2005

For many of us “older” Mississippians the announcement that thename of a Mississippi retail landmark is being changed comes with abit of sadness.

The McRae’s name has been a part of the lives of Mississippifamilies since 1902. The name will be changed next year afterCharlotte, N.C.-based Belk department stores takes overownership.

While Brookhaven had Lofton’s Department Store and many othercommunities had their own locally owned department stores it wasMcRae’s that was best known statewide.

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For me personally, McRae’s has a softer spot, for it was thiscompany that gave me a peek into the corporate world followinggraduation from Ole Miss in the mid ’70s. It was also the place Imet my wife.

It was the McRae family that took a risk on a young Ole Missjournalism grad who could not match a pair of socks and recruitedme to join their management-training program. The following year,Amy was recruited to the training program, and well, you know therest of that story.

Within nine months of a 12-month program, I was an assistantbuyer in a two-man office buying men’s clothing. McRae’s wasgrowing quickly, and field promotions were becoming the norm inthose days. A fellow named Paul Sheffield became my mentor and heguided me through the in and outs of suit buying. Tragically, hewas diagnosed with cancer and died about 10 months later, and I wasleft to run the show for a period of time – a period that I am toldis still part of the folklore of McRae’s merchandise markdowns.

During this first year, we opened the Metrocenter store, a storewhich at the time was one of the finest in the South and the modelfor other retailers to emulate. I eventually moved on to Natchezfor a year to open that store, then back to Metrocenter.

The company was in a growth mode, and the name McRae’s wasrocking the retail world. In the buying office, I could call NewYork and mention the name McRae’s, and mountains were moved -pretty heady stuff for a fellow just out of college!

One of the most memorable parts of my McRae’s career was RichardMcRae himself. A towering man with a deep Southern drawl and thegentleness of the finest of Southern gentlemen, but one who couldmake the toughest of men shake in his presence. It was not fearthat made one tremble; it was the deep respect everyone had for himand fear we would let him down.

In the family-owned company, Mr. McRae made it his job to knoweach of us. He would call me by name when he would see me in ahallway or on a store floor. He would ask questions about this orthat – likewise for his sons Richard Jr., the heir apparent, andVaughn who was on the training program with Amy. All of usassociates, as we were called, were part of the family.

On my last day in July of 1980, he came up to me, said he heardI was leaving, then thanked me for my efforts and wished me goodluck. Believe me – he had more important things to do with severalthousand associates and 15 or so stores to manage, but to him eachof us was that important.

Then again, considering my buying office days, he wanted to besure I was really leaving.

The McRae’s story is a very special one in Mississippi. It isone of tremendous success by a very special family, a family whowas always willing to give back to the communities they served andthe associates who worked for them. As the company grew, so did thepressures of local ownership. Mr. McRae sold his company in 1994,ending a 92-year history of family ownership.

While Mississippi is losing a landmark name, we are gaining backa family-owned tradition, as the Belk stores are the largestprivately owned retailer in the country.

I do have to wonder if somewhere in the darkest of storeroomssomewhere in the bowels of the operations center if some of thesuits from my buying days are still hanging. Little did I know thathorizontal pinstripes would not sell.

Write to Bill Jacobs at P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven MS 39602,or send e-mail to