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Bealls puts some sunshine back into our world

What a difference one day makes.

On Wednesday, I started the day with 400 other community and business leaders at Bradenton Auditorium. The billing: the Economic Development Council’s 2009 Economic Forecast Breakfast, with Florida economist Hank Fishkind there to tell our future.

After two years of predicting better times, Fishkind finally changed his tune. I hope he’s wrong again, because he one-upped Chicken Little by establishing that the sky has already fallen. His cards held a gloomy forecast well into 2011.

Turn the page to Thursday. The clouds parted and Bealls launched its spring fashion line in great style. I joined dozens of cohorts representing newspapers and other media from around Florida at the largest marketing merchandise event our Bradenton-based department store has staged.

It was even at my Bealls on Manatee Avenue.

No one representing Bealls denied that the economy stinks. No one tried to dodge the fact that we are neck deep in the worst recession in decades. That reality has shaped their campaign.

“Our customers want value,” President Lana Cain Krauter told us. In the press release, she states, “We know our customers have been discouraged by the down economy and they’re ready to be happy. We created this campaign to offer Bealls customers real fashion at real value.”

Their approach, of course, needs to be proactive — they are in the business of selling. Still, Bealls has a niche that seems to be surviving — maybe even thriving — during all this duress.

They certainly have proved durable over the years. As times changed, Bealls was already there, setting the pace. In 1915, its very first store in Bradenton opened as one of the original true dollar stores, with Robert Beall committing to selling every offering for $1 or less. In 2005, Bealls sales topped $1 billion for the first time.

Today, amazingly enough, the company continues to expand. What lessons are there for the rest of us?

Bealls is owned by its family and employees. They don’t have to cater to the whims of the stock market. And they give back to our community in untold ways.

That’s what has amazed me since I first arrived here more than a decade ago. Bob Beall II was still at the helm of the company, and he just refused to brag on himself. He always gave the credit to his employees and relatives. Yet there he was every year, handing out scholarships to kids who otherwise couldn’t finish their education, donating his time to those in need and financially supporting countless causes.

Two years ago, he handed the reins to Steve Knopik — the first time the chief executive officer was no longer a Beall. Some observers voiced concern at the time that the family was loosening that firm grip on the company. They didn’t know Steve Knopik.

Knopik has proved to be every bit a part of the family for more than a quarter-century. He, too, stands tall in the community but without any personal fanfare. The Palmetto Youth Center has been one of the key benefactors, as evidenced at the recent Martin Luther King events there. Steve was everywhere, quietly celebrating the causes he supports.

He stayed pretty much behind the scenes Thursday, too, as his anchor store turned into a media blitz. We were treated to an onslaught of bright Florida colors — appropriately branded as “Yikes Brights” — as Bealls’ buyers took us on a tour of all the changes. They range from new golf attire — polyester, to our surprise, that was proudly touted as “not your grandparents’ kind” — to the reputedly largest swimwear collection to be found in any Florida department store in January. Beautiful three-dimensional artwork by wildlife artist Guy Harvey graces the wall, with his designs on rows of clothing below.

I asked Steve how he has managed to juggle so much, and he quickly diverted any of the credit. With that, he introduced me to Lana, who joined Bealls as president less than a year ago.

A personal aside: It’s always a challenge to get folks to spell my last name with a K, especially here in the land of Crowder’s Hardware. There just aren’t that many of us, so it was oddly fun to finally meet another of the clan — especially someone of Lana’s acclaim.

When we interviewed Steve two years ago about filling the position, he said: “I’m looking for someone who has demonstrated high character, integrity, great communication skills, a demonstrated ability to lead.” He confidently says he found that person in Lana Krauter.

So as her team’s strategies for Bealls are officially unveiled to the public today, analysts will undoubtedly watch for the results over time. Fishkind warned us that these are the most difficult economic times since the Great Depression, but we’ve already known that for months. We are fairly certain we’re in this for the long haul. But the message at Bealls is a call to action:

The world is ready for happy again.

Joan Krauter, Herald executive editor, can also be reached at 941-748-0411, ext.2000.