John William Pope got his first taste of the variety-retail business as a youngster growing up in Depression-era Fuquay Springs, North Carolina, where he worked the cash register in his father’s five and dime store. It was a humble beginning for a man who, one day, would grow the business into Variety Wholesalers Inc., a network stores serving 300 communities across the southeast — a business legacy that continues to flourish to this day.
As a teenager, though, John wasn’t quite ready to join the family business yet. In the spring of 1940, he graduated from high school at the age of 16, packed his bags for the 30-mile trip north to Chapel Hill, and became the first member of his family to attend college. In 1943, with his degree only half completed, John joined the war effort. After returning from overseas, he graduated in 1947 — seven years after first entering school — with a bachelor’s degree in commerce.
In a booming post-war economy, the world seemed a giant oyster for an ambitious young businessman. While managing the Warwick Hotel and Coffee Shoppe in Lillington, John began manufacturing mop heads on the side, an endeavor that would produce valuable lessons for his future in retail. In 1949, newly married to wife Joyce, John officially took over his father’s five discount-variety stores in Fuquay Springs.
During the decade of the 1950s, John and Joyce had three children — John Jr., Amanda, and James “Art” — and expanded the family business significantly. By 1956, Variety Wholesalers had grown to 14 stores and enjoyed sales of over $1 million for the first time. Fifteen years later, by the time John was 45, the business had blossomed to nearly 50 stores and $6 million in sales.
“There was no written business plan,” John said. “I simply did what I had to do every day to succeed. I just put one foot in front of the other every day.”
As 1981 dawned, Variety Wholesalers boasted 228 stores and a position as the largest privately owned retail variety store chain in the southeast. By 1986, profits from his business had allowed John to create a foundation. Its mission: to protect and advance the liberties of North Carolinians so that future generations could have the same opportunities enjoyed by the Pope family — the freedom to create wealth for the benefit of all.
The Foundation has channeled its resources into four focus areas: Public policy, education, humanitarian work, and the arts. For the past 25 years, the Foundation has made grants designed to influence society to foster more success stories like that of the Pope family.
Following John William Pope’s death in 2006, his youngest son, Art, became Chairman and CEO of Variety Wholesalers and Chairman and President of the Pope Foundation. He and the Board of Directors continue to preserve John William Pope’s philanthropic vision and legacy.
To the day he passed away, John William Pope believed that hard work was the key to success. “If you love what you are doing,” he said, “are willing to take risks to accomplish your goals, have the support of your family and good people working with you, then you can be a successful entrepreneur whether you are in your twenties or your seventies or eighties.”
It is not easy to find support for the arts in North Carolina. Right from the beginning, [the Pope Foundation] understood not just the art, but the entrepreneurial nature of what we were trying to do.Steve Bishop
Director of Development, Carolina Ballet