Sheldon W. Fantle deserved a better fate than the forced liquidation of the drugstore chain that bears his name. Many who questioned his decision to buy a debt-riddled, inventory-starved retailer agree that Fantle merited more time to turn things around.

Almost three years after he paid $8 million for a 20 percent stake and management control of the former Dart Drug chain, the fledgling Fantle's chain had begun to make the kind of impression on consumers its owners had hoped for. A make over had produced brighter, cleaner, better-stocked stores. Recently, same-store sales -- sales at stores open more than a year -- were higher than in 1989, but Fantle simply was unable to generate the kind of cash flow needed to stave off the wolves and, ultimately, liquidation.

In the cold reality of the business world, cash -- not sentiment -- is all that matters to creditors. In the end, it was pressure from vendors and other creditors that forced Fantle's hand.

Buying the former Dart Drug chain was a risky undertaking, but Fantle obviously believed that, given time to develop a quality- and service-oriented company, he could make it a viable competitor. He now concedes -- too late, unfortunately -- that the company "should have gone into bankruptcy before we bought it."

Fantle probably would have been better off starting from scratch as he did nearly four decades ago, when he opened his first drugstore.

Still, there was the outside chance that he could stop the bleeding that had begun long before he bought the drug chain. After all, he had turned around Alexandria-based Peoples Drug Stores as chairman and chief executive officer and made it one of the country's leading drug chains before bowing out three years ago.

In Dart Drug, however, Fantle and other investors bought a company that was severely weakened by financial turmoil, bad management and a poor public image. It was barely surviving under a ton of debt incurred in an incredible $160 million buyout by former Dart Drug managers.

Fantle's biggest mistake, he now admits, was going into the venture without adequate capital. "In today's world, if you're undercapitalized, you don't have the luxury of time on your side," Fantle said shortly after announcing his decision to close the chain's 65 stores. "You have to have staying power, capital and be large. We ran out of money and time. The creditors just would not give us the time."

Given more time, he might have pulled it off with some fine-tuning of the operation. "It possibly would have been three years before our creditors would've started getting full return on their money," Fantle estimated in an interview this week.

Nervous creditors obviously weren't convinced that it could be done. Fantle's long career and earlier successes as chief executive officer of other drug chains didn't help his standing with anxious creditors lined up at the door. A year after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors, it became all too clear that they were in no mood to go along with Fantle's plan for reorganization.

"I firmly believe we were too small," Fantle rationalized. "We weren't a major factor in this market. The vendors wouldn't lose if we go away. We weren't big enough to save. {Our} volume wasn't large enough for vendors to go out of their way" to try to help, he said. "They were willing to get what they can ... and go on to greener pastures."

In the end as in the beginning, Fantle's timing was anything but good. The slowdown in the national economy stymied all attempts to sell the chain to avoid liquidation. Besides, bigger and more attractive drugstore chains were for sale at the same time. Peoples, for example, was recently sold by Imasco Ltd. of Canada to Melville Corp. "Every kind of door we tried to open was a little stuck, so we gave up. When business ceases to be fun you sort of bow to {people's} wishes and stop fighting," Fantle remarked wistfully.

To his credit, however, Fantle waged a determined fight to make the liquidation less traumatic for employees. Unlike former employees at Garfinckel's, which owners put into liquidation abruptly last month, and those at National Bank of Washington, which federal regulators closed and sold last week, workers at Fantle's will receive full severance pay and job placement help. "I got all I could {from the creditors committee} for my employees," said Fantle. "You just can't ask employees to go without giving them severance pay, without assisting them in finding jobs."

No one who knows Fantle would have expected less of him. He's that kind of executive.

On a more philosophical note, Fantle volunteered: "You learn a lot more from failing sometimes than you do in success. I have learned a great deal out of the inability to make this company a success. Things change. You don't handle things today the way you might have five years ago. It's just a different ballgame. ... The business is changing. The business is going to the Giants of the world," he said, referring to Giant Food Inc., which has become a formidable competitor to drug chains in the Washington area through the one-stop shopping concept of its combination food-pharmacy stores.

Still, the affable Fantle refuses to accept failure. "We just didn't have the opportunity to fulfill our mission," he insisted. "We gave it our best shot. We certainly gave it three years of our lives and it took away 10 years of my life. It's tough to live, but it's awfully more difficult to die.

"I have no regrets. Unfortunately, it didn't work out."

That's unfortunate, because Washington's business community, for now at least, is about to lose a class act in Bud Fantle.