May 21, 2019

Humility and a Deal: The story behind the 99 Cents Only stores

He founded a retail empire that grew to be worth about $1.6 billion, but Dave Gold, the man behind the popular 99 Cents Only Stores, lived a simple life focused on kindness to others, friends and family told the Journal.

Gold, who died on April 22 at 80, at his home in Los Angeles’ Carthay Circle neighborhood, shunned the kind of flashy lifestyle that often accompanies wealth, those who knew him said. Instead, he drove an old car, wore inexpensive clothes, lived in the same middle-class house for nearly 50 years and cherished walks on the beach with his wife, Sherry, and attending his grandchildren’s sporting games. 

He died of an apparent heart attack, family members said. 

“He was the most humble person that you could ever imagine, but he was one of the wealthiest men in America. That was the most beautiful thing about him,” said Jose Gomez, who worked for Gold for more than three decades, starting as a store clerk and moving up to vice president of retail. “He always thought about everybody else except himself. … He was a wonderful, wonderful man.”

Born to Russian-immigrant parents in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 5, 1932, Gold grew up working at his parents’ general store. He moved to Los Angeles in 1945 with his family and attended Los Angeles High School and, briefly, Los Angeles City College. 

A late-blooming business tycoon, Gold opened the first 99 Cents Only Store in Los Angeles in 1982, when he was 50 years old. He’d been pondering the idea for about 20 years while running the family liquor store business in L.A.’s Grand Central Market, as well as a wholesale company, his son-in-law and former company CEO Eric Schiffer said. He’d noticed that items priced 99 cents flew off the shelves, but those priced 96 cents or a dollar didn’t sell so well, his son-in-law noted.

An avid bargain hunter, Gold had honed his talent for finding excellent deals on merchandise. From day one, the store was a huge success, his son Howard Gold recalled. People lined up outside to take advantage of 99 cent television sets and other bargains Gold had on offer.

“We were jam-packed every day. We had trouble keeping the shelves stocked,” the younger Gold said.

The bright, colorful stores selling everything from chewing gum to office supplies multiplied quickly, eventually growing to more than 300 stores across California, Texas, Arizona and Nevada. In 1996, the City of Commerce-based company went public on the New York Stock Exchange. 

Always a champion of his employees, Gold insisted every worker receive stock options, including the cleaning staff and part-time store clerks. As a result, many employees were able to buy homes, Gold’s children said. The businessman liked to advise workers on how to best invest their money, and looked for good deals on houses for them, his daughter Karen Schiffer said.

Gold sold the company in 2011 to a private equity group, but the family continued to be involved with the business until earlier this year.

Throughout his life, Gold was good-humored and humble, and he never let success go to his head, friends and family said. He would tell people he worked for the 99 Cents Only Stores company, not that he was the CEO. He’d pick up trash in the parking lot, and he knew the names of his office cleaning staff and the warehouse workers, family said.

David and Sherry Gold, an inseparable couple, enjoyed shopping at the 99 Cents Only Stores themselves, and were regulars at the branches on Fairfax Avenue and Sixth Street, and on Wilshire Boulevard next to Johnie’s Coffee Shop. Gold would take 99 Cents Only Store coupons wherever he went and hand them out to people he met.

A proud and progressive-minded Jew, he believed strongly in helping those less fortunate, although he was not deeply religious, his daughter indicated. He supported many charities including the Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel, Jewish World Watch, the consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen and the California Science Center, Karen Schiffer said. He and Sherry often served meals to the homeless at the Los Angeles Mission on Thanksgiving, Gomez recalled.

Linda Stillson, development director for Hadassah Southern California, said Gold was a very generous man. “He exemplified the word mensch. He thought he was ordinary, but he was extraordinary,” Stillson said. “Not often in one’s career or life do you get to meet people like David Gold.”

Gold also loved to carry out random acts of kindness in his everyday life, family members said. At restaurants, he’d leave huge tips for the busboy, whom he felt deserved greater recognition. When taking family pictures, he’d invite whoever was around to be part of the photograph, not wanting anyone to feel excluded, his son-in-law said. Throughout the years, he helped many people struggling with financial problems or wanting to send their children to college, his daughter said.

“He did things very quietly for a lot of people who would never be able to repay him in any way. He was never out to be recognized,” Karen Schiffer said.

Many recalled Gold’s sense of humor, which played out in his business with advertisements such as one congratulating television personality Joan Rivers on a “Happy 99th Facelift,” and another listing good choices (chocolate roses) and bad choices (a colon cleanse) for Valentine’s Day gifts.

Gold implemented rules such as opening stores 15 minutes before schedule and closing 15 minutes late so customers wouldn’t feel rushed. “He just thought about things in a different way,” Eric Schiffer said. “He’d come up with these solutions that were simple, but they were elegant.”

Gold is survived by his wife, three children — Karen Schiffer, Howard Gold
and Jeff Gold — and five grandchildren. Another daughter, Sheila, died of leukemia at age 27.