In the Washington retail landscape, only a few signs of Herbert H. Haft's business empire remain. But his contribution to the way Americans shop is felt every day by just about any consumer who buys a product at a discount.
And certainly Haft's legacy lives on as one of the most colorful, strong-willed men ever to dominate the region's business community, with a white pompadour as memorable as his legendary, vicious battles with many business associates and members of his own family.
Haft, who died Wednesday at 84, was among the first retailers in the country to sell merchandise at a discount, which he started doing in the early 1950s. At a time when other drugstores were charging the prices set by cosmetic and drug companies, Haft broke the rules at his Adams Morgan store, Dart Drug, and sold merchandise considerably below suggested retail prices. Many companies, including Eli Lilly, Revlon and M&M Mars, refused to sell to Dart, and instead sent their lawyers to the Haft family house to serve him with legal papers.
At home were three young children, who got a fast lesson in their father's brewing battles.
"They used to line up at the house in the morning," recalled Haft's son Robert Haft, now 51. "I remember, like it was yesterday, saying to them, 'My father says he's not here.' "
Haft lost all of those lawsuits until the Justice Department adopted his position against drugmaker Parke-Davis, and took it all the way to the Supreme Court. The court's 1960 decision against the fair-trade rules that had permitted companies to set retail prices meant drugmakers could not discriminate against small retailers just because they sold products at a lower price. And tiny Dart Drug could start selling the same products everyone else had -- at whatever price it wanted.
"That opened the floodgates for discount retailing, at least in the drugstore field," Robert Haft said yesterday.
"Modern-day discounting is founded on the fact that those fair-trade laws no longer exist and that alone has saved consumers trillions of dollars," said Dennis Weiss, who worked for Haft for 17 years. "I'm sure someone else would have ultimately done that, but Herb was the one who took it upon himself and ultimately won."
Dart eventually grew into a no-frills chain of 100 stores in Washington, Baltimore and Richmond. Customers flocked to it, largely in response to the weekly newspaper ads promoting large discounts -- while other drugstore executives criticized it for being dirty and having chronically understocked shelves.
In 1977, when Robert joined his father fresh out of college, the two expanded the discount philosophy to other products, starting the discount bookstore chain Crown Books, which eventually went public and had 250 stores. In 1980, the family also started Trak Auto, a discount auto parts chain that also reached 250 stores as a public company.
In the mid-1980s, the father-son team sought even bigger business ventures, making a series of unsolicited takeover bids for large retailers, including Safeway, Dayton Hudson, Supermarkets General Corp., May Department Stores, Stop & Shop Cos., and Jack Eckerd Corp. They were never successful, because the targeted firms always found other buyers.
But in the process, the Hafts reaped millions in profit as their initial purchases of stock were bought out at significantly higher prices. The Hafts insisted they wanted to buy a major retailer, but others, especially their targets, accused them of "greenmail," buying pieces of firms just to extract profit.
"One of Haft's legacies will unfortunately be that through his very shrewd greenmail tactics, he helped imperil several leading supermarket companies" that never fully recovered from incurring large debts to avoid a Haft takeover, said Jeff Metzger, editor of Food World, a Columbia publication that monitors the supermarket industry. "His stamp on discounting was felt by a lot of people. But in his later years, his persona took on one that sort of characterized him more for his intentions toward greed than pure retailing," Metzger added.
In 1988, the Hafts bought a 50 percent interest in the discount supermarket chain Shoppers Food Warehouse Corp., and in 1997 they purchased the rest of the company.
In 1992, Herbert Haft created his last retail venture, the discount wine and beer store Total Beverage -- the only one of the family's pioneering concepts that lives on, though under different ownership and a new name. It is now a growing regional chain called Total Wine and More.
Most of the Haft family's other retail businesses eventually failed, largely victims of the patriarch's legal fights with members of his own family, which lasted through much of the 1990s and left Haft divorced from his wife Gloria and estranged from his children.
The opening shot in the family battle came in 1993, when Herbert Haft suddenly fired his son Robert as president of Crown Books, as well as shook up the boards of directors at Crown, Trak and Dart. To investors and company executives, it was out of the blue.
"My father had kind of been out of the business for a couple of years," Robert Haft said. "But he had the voting shares, the controlling interest."
And he was having a hard time ceding control of his retail empire to others.
"There are some people who make easy transitions. My father didn't," Robert Haft said. "At some point he wanted to go back and be the original retailer."
As lawsuits and countersuits mounted between Haft, his son, the companies and various executives, legal bills became an oppressive obligation for the family businesses. Focus was lost and bigger, hungrier competitors stole market share and weakened the companies further.
Haft's other son, Ronald, ended up in court with his father too, fighting for control of the family shopping center real estate company, Combined Properties. As a result, the firm, which once managed 40 shopping centers in the area, fell into bankruptcy.
In 1998, the holding company for Shoppers Food Warehouse and what remained of Crown Books and Trak Auto was sold to supermarket wholesaler Richfood Holdings, which was after the grocery retailer. Shoppers Food Warehouse has thrived and grown, while Trak and Crown were eventually shuttered.
After all he had built and acquired, Herbert Haft was left with control of just two local retail real estate properties -- Fair City Mall and Landmark Plaza in Fairfax. And he doted on them.
Robert said his father, until the end, didn't like hunting or golfing or even spending time with his grandchildren. "He liked making supermarket real estate deals," he said.
In a rare public talk to a group of alumni from George Washington University in 1986, Haft said he became a real estate magnate not because he was astute, but because it was the only way for him to find good drugstore sites ahead of his competitors. The secret to his success, he said, was simple: Borrow big. "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."
Those who did business with Haft say he was a loner, not eager to be popular among his peers and a tough negotiator. "He was a savvy businessman, a tough guy to do business with. . . . He usually got the best end of the deal," said William J. White, president of Shoppers Food. "It was all about the chase and the kill."
Each of the Haft family children had a chance to spend time with their father at Sibley Memorial Hospital before he died, Robert Haft said, after varying degrees of reconciliation in recent years.
"We wanted to be there for my dad at his moment," Robert Haft said. "Look, the disputes were horrible, but the moments of love were many and really overwhelm what we went through."