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Giant retailer Bealls is one cool customer.

Giant retailer Bealls is one cool customer. The family-owned company, founded in Manatee County and dating to 1915, operates 555 retail stores across the Sun Belt, from Florida to California.

>> Bealls' second store was built in the Westgate Shopping Center in 1956. PAUL BARTLEY/pbartley@bradenton.com It's pretty cool to have your own giant retailer right in the neighborhood. Though Bealls Inc. prefers to keep a low profile, its big 18-wheelers are a constant reminder of the chains size as they rumble over our local highways, and its headquarters in Bradenton is an enviable hub of commercial activity. The family-owned company, founded in Manatee County and dating to 1915, operates 555 retail stores across the Sun Belt, from Florida to California. It is the county's largest private employer, with more than 2,100 workers locally and more than 11,000 total, with annual revenues in excess of $1.4 billion. What makes Bealls cool is that it's not all huffy about itself. For instance, you can find relatives of Bealls Executive Chair-man Robert M. Bob Beall II shopping at their neighborhood Bealls department store. And Bob is a devoted wearer of his company's own merchandise: He always looks comfortable in casual knit shirts and crisp khaki pants. Two years ago, the company spent $10 million to buy a new office building on the campus of another big local employer, Tropicana Products Inc. The building accommodates part of the Bealls staff, which had outgrown offices in an industrial park on the edge of Bradenton. Of course, the company threw a big grand opening when it renamed the building The E.R. Beall Center, a tribute to the son of founder R.M. Beall Sr., who first opened a store here in 1915. The company served a lovely buffet including coffee, tea and baked goodies along with Tropicana juice, in honor of its neighbor, a giant producer of citrus juices. Another cool thing about Bealls is its highest-ranking female executive, Lana Cain Krauter. She was recently hired as the new president of the company's wholly-owned subsidiary, Bealls Department Stores Inc. Krauter, formerly a member of the executive team at JCPenney Co. Inc., had worked many years in retail, with an emphasis on merchandising. Women have long been an important force at Bealls. For example, at a nondescript industrial office park on the edge of Bradenton, the company boasts the state's only in-house design studio operated by a Florida department store chain. Many of its designers are women, who create original clothing styles and items like beach towels, dinnerware, lamps, candies and coir mats that exude a Florida feel. Some of those items are prominently displayed in a new, 68,524-square-foot prototype store that the company opened in November in Sun City Center. The glistening, multimillion dollar department store, at State Route 674 and Interstate 75 in the Cypress Village Shopping Center, represents what the future holds for Bradenton's first family of retailers.

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