Herbert Haft, chairman of the multimillion-dollar Dart Group Corp., says his secret to success is simple: Borrow big.
"You take as much as you can," and for as long as you can, Haft advised a group of alumni from George Washington University yesterday in a rare public speech.
"I'm an equal-opportunity borrower. I have never discriminated against any banker," he said, detailing how his extensive borrowing helped transform Dart from a single drugstore into a major retailing conglomerate that is sitting on more than $500 million in cash -- cash that Haft hopes to use to buy a major U.S. company.
Having left the drugstore business two years ago -- selling the chain to its management for $160 million -- Haft said his company has a new "hobby -- acquiring a company. . . . We really want to replace our drugstore business with a large business."
That business would be on top of Dart's two other major subsidiaries: Crown Book Corp. and Trak Auto Corp., discount retail companies founded by Haft and his 32-year-old son, Robert Haft. Haft declined to elaborate on his plans.
A very private man who is reluctant to speak -- even at his company's annual shareholders' meeting -- Haft, 65, reminisced about his days as a GW student, saying the "best experience" he had there was the nonstop bridge game at the student union.
Playing bridge was invaluable, because "you learn how to read people," he said. "People play bridge the way they negotiate."
Bargaining and playing the numbers has been a key part of Haft's strategy: negotiating to buy large quantities of goods at substantial discounts and then offering them to consumers at lower prices than his competitors.
Haft said he came up with that strategy when, as a pharmacist, he set up his drugstore in Adams Morgan 31 years ago. "I'm here in this drugstore. I said to myself, 'There are two other drug chains and I really can't beat them. If I've got to stay alive and everyone's rowing upstream, I've got to row downstream.' "
For Haft, rowing downstream meant refusing to follow the fair-trade rules of adhering to the same pricing formula as everyone else. While every other drugstore chain was buying vitamins for $6 a jar and selling them for $10, Haft would buy vitamins in bulk for $4.50 and sell them for $4.99.
That practice drew huge lines at his store -- as well as the enmity of other retailers who tried to block him by getting the vitamin manufacturers to threaten to stop supplying Haft unless he raised his prices to match his rivals.
But Haft, with the U.S. Department of Justice, fought back and won his battle in a lawsuit that was settled by the Supreme Court.
After that, Haft rapidly expanded his drugstore chain (today it numbers 77 stores) and launched a variety of other discount businesses, including Crown and Trak. "They were all based on the fact that people prefer to pay $4.99 than $10 -- it's as simple as that," Haft said.
He said his attitude about borrowing is equally simple: "If you owe someone several thousand dollars, you can't always sleep at night. If you owe someone several million dollars, the banker or supplier can't sleep. It's no use both of you worrying."
So Haft borrowed big, especially in his real estate transactions, which he said were not made because he was "astute," but rather because it was the only way for him to find good drugstore sites ahead of his competitors. Today, Haft owns about 24 shopping centers throughout the area, and many drugstore-industry officials say these holdings have been even more successful than Dart.
Haft said he approached all of his real estate transactions with one principle: "Thou shalt not put your own money in a real estate deal. . . . Make sure, whatever you borrow, get as much as you need." Additionally, "Don't fight" with the bankers about interest rates," he said. "Pay the higher rate -- but just be sure to get more money to repay them promptly.
"We're having a lot of fun," Haft said. "In the process, isn't it nice we've made a fair amount of money doing it."