Western Carolina University has undoubtedly changed in the past 35 years since Wilmington-native Todd Vasos graduated with a degree in marketing. Amidst new buildings, a new main entrance to campus and a student population that has nearly doubled since he graduated in 1983, Vasos noticed the sense of community remains the same.
“The people and the kindness of the community have not changed. The community feeling you get when you’re in the Smoky Mountains is unlike any other place,” Vasos said.
It was that same culture and atmosphere that first hooked Vasos when he initially came to Cullowhee with his father on a collegiate visit trip.
“There was never a doubt in my mind after the first day I stepped on campus that this is where I was going to school,” Vasos said. “The campus was great. It was big enough to provide a great college experience, but also it was small enough where you felt comfortable leaving home and being on your own for the first time.”
From a collegiate marketing major in the early 1980s, Vasos has come a long way since his days at WCU. Today, he serves as the CEO at Dollar General Corporation, the publicly-traded company that was listed #128 on this year’s Fortune 500 list where he oversees more than 14,000 retail locations, 15 distribution centers and approximately 130,000 employees.
After graduation, Vasos returned home to Wilmington. Following his mother’s advice, he applied for a management training program at Eckerd, which at the time was the largest drug store chain in the country. Out of more than 300 applicants, Vasos was chosen to participate in the six-person program and was immediately bitten by the retail bug.
“For those who may be familiar with retail, either you love retail or you don’t. There’s not a middle ground,” Vasos explains. “I had a passion for it right from the start.”
After completing the training program, Vasos held roles with increasing responsibility at Eckerd including store manager, district manager and regional manager. He was later hired at Phar-Mor to run its operations group, which was coming out of bankruptcy at the time.
“I went from a very stable company to a smaller organization, but with the promise to learn more,” Vasos said. “I would advise young professionals today to consider taking risks in their career for the opportunity to professionally develop themselves.”
Vasos’s career continued to grow at Phar-Mor when the company’s CEO presented him with an opportunity to relocate to its corporate office in Youngstown, Ohio and be trained as a merchant.
Vasos later joined Longs Drugs, a regional chain with approximately 600 stores on the west coast and Hawaii as its senior vice president and chief merchandising officer and later as its executive vice president and chief operating officer.
In 2008, Vasos assumed the duties at Dollar General Corporation as its executive vice president and chief merchandising officer before being named chief operating officer in 2013 and CEO in 2015.
Vasos said he feels at home at Dollar General.
“When I first came to Dollar General, I immediately noticed the company’s culture and humbleness were similar to that at Western and my home town of Wilmington,” Vasos said. “As I learned more about the company, its mission of serving others and taking care of underserved customers, I was certain Dollar General would be a great fit.”
According to Vasos, Dollar General’s target audience is customers between the ages of 35 and 65 with an average household income of about $40,000. And while approximately 70 percent of its locations serve rural areas with populations of 20,000 or less, Vasos’s strategic vision has also helped fulfill the needs of its urban customers.
According to Vasos, “Part of our success has been understanding the customer and giving her exactly what she’s looking for during certain times. Those preferences change all the time so we are constantly talking to our customers to best understand needs and building product assortments based on that research.”
Two characteristics of Dollar General that customers like most are the locations convenient to their homes and the prices, Vasos said. As Dollar General moves forward, Vasos said it looks to continue delivering value to its customers.
Outside of work, Vasos is very much a family man. With four daughters, six grandchildren and a soon-to-be stepson, Vasos lights up when in conversation about his family.
He also returns home to Wilmington several times each year alongside his family and fiancé to celebrate holidays. And then there’s also golf, a sport that Vasos thoroughly loves to play.
In rising to the top of the Dollar General chain, Vasos carries lessons learned from WCU.
“The faculty back then, and I’m sure it’s the same way today, was tremendous and a great help to me,” Vasos said. “Probably the biggest thing that I took away from WCU was how to be humble and how to be patient. Believe it or not, a lot of those same skills that I learned there can be applied in today’s day and age, especially in the career that I’ve built over the years.”