ZEBULON — Local officials joined store associates and customers at the Zebulon Belk last Wednesday, when the Charlotte-based parent company officially celebrated its 125th anniversary at stores throughout the South.
For 60 of those years, there has been a Belk location in eastern Wake County. That’s what drew Wendell resident Lewis Tart to the celebration in Zebulon.
“It was my life, really,” said Tart, who retired as manager at the Zebulon store in 1996 after more than 40 years with the Belk company.
Tart began working for Belk in 1950 in downtown Raleigh. There, he worked two and a half years with a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force sandwiched in between.
After four years working at the Fuquay-Varina location, Tart relocated in 1961 to become the manager of a staff of about six employees at the former Wendell Belk – a store that opened in 1953 at the current site of the Mortex Factory Outlet on Main Street. He remained in charge of the store as it relocated in the summer of 1987 to Zebulon, where he worked about nine more years until his retirement.
In his 1995 letter of resignation, from which he read at Wednesday’s celebration, Tart wrote, “My training has been exceptional, my relationships deeply meaningful and my work very rewarding.”
Rooted in Carolina
William Henry Belk, who founded the company in 1888 in Monroe, N.C., would have undoubtedly liked to know that’s the impression future career employees would have of his legacy.
The Belk company developed partnerships in the 1920s, which resulted in stores taking on two names like the Hudson Belk title that became prominent in the Triangle. Tart became acquaintances with the Hudson brothers during his time with the company.
“I knew Will Hudson, Karl Hudson – all of them,” Tart said. “All wonderful people.”
Hudson Belk became one of the most established of the partnerships, and its dual name survived Belk’s 1998 consolidation into Belk Inc. as a result. The title stuck until 2010, when Belk redrew its logo.
Today, the company has 301 stores in 16 southern states, with the greatest volume of stores located in its home state of North Carolina. It also employs about 23,000 in all divisions of the company, including 25 who work at the Zebulon Belk.
A local anchor
Mayor Bob Matheny said the Zebulon store, located in the Triangle East shopping center, has been a valuable corporate citizen and a true anchor in the community.
“The quality merchandise, friendly staff and accessibility of the store is truly appreciated by the buying public of Zebulon and the surrounding area,” Matheny told the crowd at the celebration.
Three of the local store’s associates – Pattie Allen, Geraldine Massey and Carolyn Kearney-Glenn – have been with Belk for more than 25 years.
“We’ve been very successful,” current Zebulon store manager Robin Jackson said. “The customer base is there. We have a lot of loyal customers that would love it if we would expand. We’d love to be able to expand.”
Kim Valentine, the director of the Zebulon Chamber of Commerce, said having a big name like Belk in the shopping center drives business to the other nearby stores.
The store’s employees, she said, have gone above and beyond with their involvement in the local business community in recent years. Belk sales consultant Kristen Heller exemplifies that involvement. She was named the chamber’s top ambassador, outright or shared, for three consecutive years.
“For two years, they’ve put on the fashion show fundraiser for the chamber of commerce,” Valentine said. “Kristin (Heller) and Robin (Jackson) basically put that on. They aren’t only involved if we seek them out, but they’ve helped by initiating some ideas, as well.”
Tart said he always had good business and good customers, and he still thinks Belk is the leading store in the area.
“It’s played a role in bringing people from Wendell to here and bringing in people from all over the community,” he said.