Mark Butler loved a bargain

Co-founder and CEO of Ollie’s Bargain Outlet remembered as an exceptional philanthropist and businessman.

Michael Yoder//December 3, 2019

Mark Butler loved a bargain

Co-founder and CEO of Ollie’s Bargain Outlet remembered as an exceptional philanthropist and businessman.

Michael Yoder//December 3, 2019

Mark Butler, CEO of Ollie’s Bargain Outlet Inc., became a majority owner of the Harrisburg Senators baseball team in 2015. In the background, a banner for the Dauphin County-based retail chain hangs in the left-field section known as Ollie’s Cheap Seats. (Photo: Amy Spangler)

Mark Butler, the man who rang up the first sale at the discount chain he help create in 1982 – Ollie’s Bargain Outlet – before going on to become its CEO, was remembered this week as a master businessman and philanthropist.

Butler, also sports enthusiast who was the majority owner the Harrisburg Senators, died Sunday. He was 61. The company’s board of directors on Monday named John Swygert, the current COO, as interim president and CEO.

Butler rose to prominence in the Central Pennsylvania business scene by building a company based in Lower Paxton Township, Dauphin County that has grown to more than $1 billion in sales while focusing on providing deep discounts on goods to its customers and emphasizing its motto of “Good Stuff Cheap!”

“Mark was an exceptional entrepreneur, merchant, leader, philanthropist, friend and family man,” said Ollie’s board member Richard Zannino. “Mark built a successful and enduring retail concept, assembled an incredible team, created thousands of jobs and delivered millions of bargains to our customers, while delivering exceptional shareholder value along the way.”

Ollie’s Beginnings

Butler was part of the Ollie’s retail experiment from the very beginning, ringing up the first sale on the cash register of the chain’s original store at 6040 Carlisle Pike in Hampden Township on July 29, 1982. He had joined with co-founders Mort Bernstein, Harry Coverman and Oliver “Ollie” Rosenberg to open the chain that sells excess brand-name items and inventories.

The quirky regional chain featuring the cartoon likeness of Rosenberg and self-deprecating catch-phrases saw moderate success throughout the ’80s and the ’90s, selling factory seconds, overruns and inventory buyouts of bankrupt retail outlets. It started its “Ollie’s Army” loyalty program in 1994, giving even more discounts to repeat customers.

Ollie’s saw its greatest leap in growth when Butler took over for former CEO Bernstein in January, 2003, partnering with Greenwich, Connecticut-based private equity firm Saunders, Karp & Megrue (now known as KarpReilly). It went from 26 stores before the partnership to 345 stores today in 25 states.

Mark Butler, president and CEO of Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, rang the opening bell at the NASDAQ stock exchange in July 2015 with the help of the company’s mascot. (Photo: Submitted)

In July 2015, investors sent shares of Ollie’s stock soaring past an initial $16 public offering on the NASDAQ, hitting a high of $22.99 a share. Ollie’s raised about $143 million from the 8.9 million common shares it offered.

“It’s quite humbling,” Butler said in an interview shortly after the public offering. “We’re a Central Pennsylvania-based company. How cool is it to be in the crossroads in Times Square and looking up at the logo of your company on the big screen?”

The company’s stock has reached as high as $103 per share in July and a peak market capitalization value of $6.4 billion in May before falling back in late August on weak second-quarter results. For a brief time, Butler was a billionaire based on his stock holdings and Ollie’s high valuation.

The chain has also grown to include three large distribution centers across the country: its first opening in 2011 in East Manchester Township, York County; another that opened outside of Atlanta in 2014; and its newest one, a 615,000-square-foot facility near Dallas that, when completed, will serve 150 to 200 stores.

During an interview with the Central Penn Business Journal last December, Butler said the company had a long-range goal of opening more than 950 locations. And, according to its website, all of Ollie’s locations incorporate the same philosophy of, “No frills, bargain prices, bright, semi-lovely stores and a fun shopping environment.”

Sports Fan

Besides his tenure leading Ollie’s, Butler was also a lifelong sports fan, including the University of Maryland teams. Mark Turgeon, head coach of the University of Maryland Terrapins men’s basketball, called Butler “incredibly generous” and an “unwavering supporter” of the team, including his recent $5 million donation for renovations to the Cole Field House where games are held.

Butler took over as principal owner of the Harrisburg Senators minor league baseball team in February, 2015. Butler was known for spending time in the crowd talking with attendees of games at FNB Field, and his own Mark L. Butler Foundation donated tickets and baseball experiences to inner city organizations so local residents could go to Senators games.

Representatives from the Senators said they were “heartbroken and deeply saddened” by the news of the death of Butler.

“We are just numb,” said Kevin Kulp, president of the Senators. “This is a tragic loss for our community. Mark was such an important part of the culture of our organization. We were extremely fortunate to have had him guiding us. We’ve lost a great boss and a great friend. We’re committed to continuing on in his memory just the way he would have wanted – with passion and integrity.”

Butler was also serving as chairman of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, a non-profit organization creating opportunities for youth in need through baseball. He worked with the Ripken Foundation to fund and build a baseball field at the Boys and Girls Club in Harrisburg in 2013.

Cal Ripken Jr., the National Baseball Hall of Fame member of the Baltimore Orioles and founder of the Ripken Foundation, called Butler a “friend” and a “mentor” through a statement.

“(Butler) cared deeply about his community and brought passion and caring to everything he did,” Ripken said. “His contributions to so many causes, including ours, will be a significant part of his enduring legacy. To say that Mark will be dearly missed doesn’t nearly capture the magnitude that his life has had on so many.”

Ollie’s Future

Ollie’s board of directors wasted no time on Monday by naming Swygert as its interim president and CEO. Swygert has served as executive vice president and COO of Ollie’s since January 2018 and previously served as its CFO beginning in 2004.

Zannino, who is one of five directors on Ollie’s board, said Swygert worked closely with Butler during his 15-year tenure with the company and played an integral role in its growth.

“Based on John’s intimate knowledge of the company and the closeout business, and the strength and tenure of the Ollie’s team, the board has the utmost confidence in John’s ability to successfully lead the Company at this time,” Zanninio said. “We will continue to support them in every way possible.”

The quick news of an interim CEO did little to calm investor’s nerves as Ollie’s stock dropped by 9.7% on Monday, dipping as low as $58.84 a share, its lowest level since Oct. 11.

John S. Stoner, a partner and CPA with Manheim Township-based RKL LLP, works with mostly privately owned companies to come up with contingency plans in the event of unforeseen circumstances like the death of an essential employee. Stoner said the drop in stock value is not uncommon when a leader or other influential decision makers are removed suddenly.

“In Ollie’s case, I think there’s an initial knee-jerk reaction in the marketplace, but the real question is have they put those strategic priorities in place as far as the contingency, what are the next steps and in many cases the key is the communication plan,” Stoner said.

But if Butler’s vision and outlook on his business was any indication, Ollie’s is poised to overcome hurdles.

“A bargain will never ever go out of style,” Butler said during a 2017 interview with the Business Journal. “America will always love a bargain. And as long as we can do that and deliver that, they are going to keep coming back.”