Louisiana Legends : The Howard Brothers

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MONROE, La. (KNOE 8 News) - Look all around the Twin Cities and you will see pieces of the Howard brothers - the Alton and Jean Howard Family Life Center at a church he helped found and the W.L. “Jack” Howard Theater at the Monroe Civic Center, one of Jack's greatest accomplishments.

But their story doesn't begin in Ouachita parish, it begins in Union Parish, in the small community of Rocky Branch.

"They were born and raised on a farm, and did the typical farm activities growing up - raising crops and vegetables, cows and horses and goats, " Jim Howard, Jack's son, said.

Jim says shortly after they graduated Farmerville High School, they enlisted in the military. When World World War II called, Jack, leaving a wife behind., went to the Pacific and Alton flew in the skies of Europe.

After the war Jack's family continued to grow and Alton got married and started a family of his own. With the growing number of mouth's to feed, the brother's became business partners.

"With his brother, W.L., they decided to open a jewelry store,” John Howard, Alton's son, said. “Monroe was the hub of Northeast Louisiana at the time and Downtown Monroe was the place to be so they were in the midst of all the growth in Monroe."

John says the jewelry store on Desiard Street was only the first in many successful business adventures. Now entrepreneurs, the brothers decided to go into the discount store business.

"They came back over here and opened the first Gibson Discount store on Cypress Street in West Monroe in 1959," Jim said.

After building a few locations, the Howards felt it would be more profitable to put their brand on their business. They canceled the franchise agreement and became Howard Brothers Discount Stores.

Along with the jewelry and retail stores, the Howards opened restaurants, invested in oil and gas, real estate, construction, and Alton even started a publishing company.

Both Jim and John got involved in the family businesses.

In 1969, Howard brothers went public. At its height there were 110 stores in 13 states. Sam Walton was their only major competitor.

John says as a team, the brothers had an unique dynamic.

"You know W.L. was always in out since he was the mayor and everything, but he would come in and out. And he would give the employees all great pep talks. I always said he was the motivator and my dad was the operations man," John said.

By the late 1970s, Gambles Skogmo asked to buy the discounts stores.

"You will continue to grow and expand, and continue to grow the company, and everything is fine. So they bought us out in 1978," Jim said.

Alton retired and Jack stayed on board.

While the name remained same, the ownership would change hands. And in the early 1980s, Jack experienced one of the darkest days of his professional career.

The parent company of the Howard Brothers Discount Stores was in bankruptcy.

"We get a phone call from corporate headquarters one day to meet the CEO at the hotel. We weren't sure what it was about, but we had a concern. We walked in and he said your fired,” Jim said.

The parent company needed to liquidate the discount stores for cash.
But even in defeat, the brothers saw opportunity. Alton came out of retirement, and they opened a chain of wholesale warehouse stores - Super Saver.

With in period of 18 months, there were 21 locations.

By the late 1980s, an old competitor came knocking on their door. Sam Walton wanted to buy Super Saver.

"Sam made an offer . We all sat there and talked, we shook hands, and that was it," Jim said.

Wanting to retire, the brothers agreed to sell, but the fruit of their labor still lives on, as Sam's Club.

As a team, the brother's were very successful, but as individuals they also pursued other interests. Jack enjoyed politics and was instrumental in integrating the city of Monroe. Alton founded charities and a church that some of his famous descendants still attend.

We'll continue the story of these Louisiana Legends on Monday , Feb. 9 at 10 p.m.