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Herbert Haft, 84; Built and Lost a Business Empire

September 03, 2004|From the Washington Post

Herbert H. Haft, the multimillionaire discount retailer whose business empire dissolved in a nasty and very public family feud in the 1990s, has died. He was 84.

Haft, who had heart disease, died Wednesday at a Washington, D.C., hospital.

Over a 30-year period, Haft built Dart Drugs from a single drugstore in Washington to a chain of 77 stores. He then expanded, creating Trak Auto, Crown Books, Shoppers Food Warehouse and Total Beverage. "They were all based on the fact that people prefer to pay $4.99 than $10. It's as simple as that," he said in 1986.

Haft also attempted a number of hostile takeovers in the 1980s, aimed at entities including Federated Department Stores Inc., Safeway and Stop and Shop. None succeeded, but the Hafts made $250 million trying.

His business reputation was as an aggressive retailer who never backed down from a challenge. He fired his oldest son, Robert, who had been president of Dart Group Corp., and removed his wife of 45 years, Gloria, from the board of directors. His wife sued for divorce, his son sued for wrongful discharge, and the whole family feud played out in excruciating detail in court and on the front pages of area newspapers for the better part of the 1990s.

"I think it was closer to five years, but it certainly felt like a decade," Robert Haft said Thursday.

The suits, countersuits and trials, and the bankruptcy reorganization of Combined Properties Inc., which managed some of Haft's shopping centers, drained hundreds of millions from the family fortune and Dart's coffers. In 1997 Haft accepted about $50 million in exchange for leaving the business, ending his control of the empire he founded.

Born in Baltimore, Haft earned a pharmacy degree from George Washington University, where his best experience, he said, was playing in a nonstop bridge game at the student union.

"You learn how to read people," he told university alumni in 1986, in a rare public speech. "People play bridge the way they negotiate."

He was working at a traditional drugstore when he heard about the idea of discount retailing. He opened the first Dart Drugs in Washington in 1955 and "it was an immediate hit," Robert Haft said. "He was at the beginning of discounting in so many fields.... For him, [discount retailing] was a business and also a social good."

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