SOUTH BOSTON, VA. -- Tommy C. Leggett knew at age 8 he was destined for a career in his family's retail business, when he began spending Saturday nights opening doors for customers at the Leggett store in South Boston.

"I just grew up in it. It was something I never thought anything else about. I liked it. So I kept on with it," said Leggett, 54, president of Leggett Stores.

Leggett's father and uncles started with a store in Lynchburg. Over the years, the chain grew to nearly 60 stores from Delaware to North Carolina.

Now, the company is undergoing perhaps one of the biggest expansions of its 61-year history. Three stores opened in 1987 and another nine may open in the next two years.

"One reason it's been such a success is that the first generation just loved it. My father loved to work hard. And they practically bred their traditions -- working hard and giving good customer service -- into us," said Tommy Leggett, who is also vice president of merchandising.

When Leggett and his older brother, Robert Jr., started working part time under their father in South Boston, they were being prepared for the day when control of the company would be passed to the second generation. But first, they had to prove themselves.

"Everyone starts at the bottom, doing anything that it takes. Emptying trash cans, cleaning restrooms, selling socks, running a department. Then running a division, being an assistant manager, then being a store manager," Tommy Leggett said in an interview at his South Boston office. "You can't earn the respect of people if you start at the top."

The Leggetts buck a national trend -- estimates show less than 30 percent of family-controlled businesses reach the second generation.

Two surviving founders still presided in 1969 when five sons and nephews were put in charge of some important corporate divisions. The second generation took over after the death in 1980 of the last founding brother. Today, four Leggetts run the company as members of a management committee, with each having an equal say. The titular job of president is rotated every three years among the four, all of them vice presidents.

"The rotation was a vehicle that we felt would keep us from fighting among ourselves over who would be called president," said Fred B. Leggett Jr., vice president of operations.

The Leggetts don't like to refer to themselves as a chain; the business is referred to as a "family" of stores with the 3,500 employees called "associates." The Leggetts pay visits to the stores to rally the troops. Tommy Leggett's annual year-end tour became legend for his painstaking attention to detail and taking care to meet each employee.

For the Leggetts, almost everything takes a back seat to the business, and they see the third generation taking control without a hitch.

"The third generation is very young, and many are still in college," said Fred B. Leggett III, the Staunton store manager. But five young Leggetts on the payroll gather for weekend retreats.

As far as their fathers see it, the next succession should be smooth. Tommy Leggett, whose son Kenneth manages the Roanoke Rapids, N.C., store, said, "When we're gone, the world won't miss a heartbeat."