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Mark Butler was a risk-taker, a savvy businessman, a micromanager who never lost his passion for even the tiniest details of his business. And it paid off: 37 years after launching his Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based retailer Ollie's Bargain Outlet, the company sold $1.2 billion in goods in fiscal 2018.
Butler, Ollie's co-founder and CEO, died unexpectedly on Sunday at the age of 61. During his time as CEO--a role he took over from one of his co-founders in 2003--Butler expanded his business rapidly, from 27 stores in a handful of states to 345 stores across more than 20 states. His leadership took a company valued at $65 million and pushed it to $700 million in less than a decade, which led in 2015 to a spot on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in the U.S. and a massively successful IPO. The company's annual profits now hover near $130 million, according to Forbes.
And that's for a retailer. A brick-and-mortar retailer. One that doesn't sell a single item online.
Part of that success comes from Ollie's business model. Each store is a warehouse full of massively discounted name-brand products--toys, cookware, even wedding dresses--and you never know what you'll find there until you walk in. The retailer buys super-cheap excess inventory from manufacturers--brand-new items with last year's packaging, for example--and sells whatever it can at a profit. One analyst told Forbes in April that Ollie's was 42 percent cheaper than Amazon, on average. Shopping there is "a treasure hunt," Butler noted in the Forbes article. "This is the insulating factor that I tell all the investors: It's virtually impossible to duplicate my shopping experience online."
The other factor behind all that success was Butler himself, reflected in a nearly 10 percent drop in Ollie's stock on Monday. Butler attended every single one of his store's new openings since the very first one in 1982. He expanded the chain's leadership team, hiring a COO and CFO once he gained the power to do so, but remained deeply involved in facilitating individual deals with large manufacturers. He standardized the reinvestment of profits back into his business and kept Ollie's growing even through the Great Recession.
Butler's razor-sharp focus on the company was relentless. He specifically told Forbes that he agreed to speak to the publication not for recognition, but "in hopes that a manufacturer is going to be reading this and wants to sell me a deal ... I need to be able to turn it into something in business."
Always. Be. Selling. Here's to an entrepreneur who showed us exactly how that's done.