When Todd Vasos ’83 returned to Cullowhee to receive the Professional Achievement Award from Western Carolina University’s Alumni Association during Homecoming 2017, the Dollar General chief executive officer didn’t quite recognize the campus he was so fond of during his undergraduate years.
Changes included new buildings that replaced many of the landmarks he remembered and a student population that has nearly doubled. But one thing Vasos noticed that has remained constant was the sense of community.
“What really hasn’t changed is the people and the kindness of the people, not just the WCU staff. We stopped and got a little dinner in Sylva on the way in. That community feeling that you get when you’re up in the Smoky Mountains, it’s like no other place,” Vasos said.
“When I was in school, there were only about 6,000 students. Now, there are over 11,000 and growing. What was great to see was the interaction between faculty that I was able to see when I was there, as well as the chancellor and his wife. Boy, what a lot of energy they have, and you could tell they’re true ambassadors of the school,” he said.
Vasos has come a long way since his days as a marketing major at WCU. Upon graduation, the Wilmington native followed his mother’s advice and applied for a management training program at Eckerd, which at the time was the largest drug store chain in the country. Vasos was one of six chosen out of approximately 300 who applied for the program. He immediately was bitten by the retail bug.
“For those who may not be familiar with retail, either you love retail or you don’t,” Vasos said. “There’s not a middle ground. You either have a passion for it, or you go do something else. I had a passion for it right from the start.”
After completing the program with Eckerd, Vasos advanced from assistant manager to store manager, district manager and then regional manager. He was later hired at Phar-Mor, another drug store chain, by the same person who hired him at Eckerd. Phar-Mor was coming out of bankruptcy at the time, and Vasos was tapped to run its operations group.
“I actually left a very stable organization and took a chance. This is one of the biggest things that kids today need to think about,” Vasos said. “Always look at taking a chance in your career. I took a chance. I went from a very stable company to a smaller organization, but with the promise to learn more. That promise came through just a couple of months after I was hired.”
Phar-Mor’s CEO presented Vasos with a chance to move to the corporate office in Youngstown, Ohio, and be trained as a merchant. His success in that role landed him a job as chief merchant and later chief financial officer at Longs Drugs, a regional chain that had about 600 stores on the West Coast and in Hawaii. Vasos moved to Dollar General in 2008 as the chief merchandising officer before being named chief operating officer in 2013 and CEO in 2015. Vasos said the environment at Dollar General has him feeling at home.
“When I came in and talked to everybody, they had the same humbleness and the same culture that I grew up with at Western, that I grew up with at home in small town Wilmington, North Carolina, and it had a lot of that same culture,” Vasos said. “As I learned more about the company, about its mission, ‘Serving Others,’ and really taking care of the underserved customers that are out there across the United States, I thought there would be no better place to hang my hat than here at Dollar General. It’s been great to be here.”
Dollar General opened approximately 1,300 stores in fiscal year 2017, and now has more than 14,000 stores and 15 distribution centers across the country. It also has more than 130,000 employees. Its target audience is underserved females between the ages of 35 and 65 with an average household income of about $40,000.
“When I took over as CEO, I wanted to make sure that I was known for growing the store base and making sure we were just as strong the day that I end up retiring. I also wanted them to say he was a good steward of the culture that was passed down to us from the Turner family who started this company, and that I continued to foster it and grow the culture,” Vasos said.