Mark Butler, One-Time Billionaire And Unsung Retail Genius Of Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, Dies At 61

uncaptioned

Mark Butler in his office at Ollie's headquarters.

Harry Fellows for Forbes

The simplest of ideas drove Mark Butler. “America has always loved the bargain,” he said last February. “It will never ever, ever go out of style. Ever.”

From that sprung one of the most unlikely business empires in America, Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, a publicly traded chain of 345 close-out stores that stretched from Massachusetts to Texas. Last year, it sold $1.2 billion worth of discounted goods—toys, soap, candles, pots, pans. Anything and everything Butler and his merchants could buy at a discount and sell cheap in no-frills stores positioned in the parts of America where bargains are mostly dearly prized. (“We could sell footballs one day, bras the next. Anything is possible,” Butler said.) Butler ignored the internet completely. Ollie’s sold absolutely nothing online, a head-spinning notion during this era of e-commerce.

In almost every imaginable way, Ollie’s was Butler, and Butler was Ollie’s. He was chairman, CEO, cofounder—creator. And now Ollie’s will have to make do without him. Butler died unexpectedly Sunday, age 61. “Mark was an exceptional entrepreneur, merchant, leader, philanthropist, friend and family man,” Richard Zannino, an Ollie’s board member, said in a statement. “Mark built a successful and enduring retail concept ... and delivered millions of bargains to our customers, while delivering exceptional shareholder value along the way.”

Ollie’s started as a single location in rural Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1982. Butler was the youngest of four cofounders, including the company’s namesake, Ollie Rosenberg. For several decades, it puttered along in the Midatlantic, opening a handful of stores—until Butler took over the operation in 2003 and hit the accelerator. Ollie’s sped off, going from fewer than 30 stores in the early 2000s to several hundred ten years later, all of them profitable within a year of opening. Ollie’s went public in 2015, when revenue rested around $640 million.

Investor exuberance for a traditional retailer with a positive outlook on the world pushed Ollie’s stock to nearly $100 a share—nearly quadruple its IPO price—at several points in 2018 and last summer. That made Butler a billionaire, thanks largely to his roughly 15% stake in the firm. His fortune faded in the past few months amid a steep decline in the company’s shares, a drop caused by concerns that Butler and Ollie’s could not sustain the years-long frenetic pace of opening new stores. For the first time in decades, the future of Ollie’s will rest with someone else: John Swygert, the longtime chief operating officer now named the company’s interim president and CEO.

Having spent almost two decades at Ollie’s, Swygert is well steeped in what has made the business hum. Last winter, he was relishing a bonanza sale of wedding dresses that Butler had recently orchestrated. “The amount of notoriety we got from the concept—that we were selling wedding dresses at Ollie’s—was hugely successful,” he said. “That’s what Mark does that most people can’t do and can’t figure out how to do that. Most people don’t have the nerve to try to pull that off and make it happen.”

">

The simplest of ideas drove Mark Butler. “America has always loved the bargain,” he said last February. “It will never ever, ever go out of style. Ever.”

From that sprung one of the most unlikely business empires in America, Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, a publicly traded chain of 345 close-out stores that stretched from Massachusetts to Texas. Last year, it sold $1.2 billion worth of discounted goods—toys, soap, candles, pots, pans. Anything and everything Butler and his merchants could buy at a discount and sell cheap in no-frills stores positioned in the parts of America where bargains are mostly dearly prized. (“We could sell footballs one day, bras the next. Anything is possible,” Butler said.) Butler ignored the internet completely. Ollie’s sold absolutely nothing online, a head-spinning notion during this era of e-commerce.

In almost every imaginable way, Ollie’s was Butler, and Butler was Ollie’s. He was chairman, CEO, cofounder—creator. And now Ollie’s will have to make do without him. Butler died unexpectedly Sunday, age 61. “Mark was an exceptional entrepreneur, merchant, leader, philanthropist, friend and family man,” Richard Zannino, an Ollie’s board member, said in a statement. “Mark built a successful and enduring retail concept ... and delivered millions of bargains to our customers, while delivering exceptional shareholder value along the way.”

Ollie’s started as a single location in rural Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1982. Butler was the youngest of four cofounders, including the company’s namesake, Ollie Rosenberg. For several decades, it puttered along in the Midatlantic, opening a handful of stores—until Butler took over the operation in 2003 and hit the accelerator. Ollie’s sped off, going from fewer than 30 stores in the early 2000s to several hundred ten years later, all of them profitable within a year of opening. Ollie’s went public in 2015, when revenue rested around $640 million.

Investor exuberance for a traditional retailer with a positive outlook on the world pushed Ollie’s stock to nearly $100 a share—nearly quadruple its IPO price—at several points in 2018 and last summer. That made Butler a billionaire, thanks largely to his roughly 15% stake in the firm. His fortune faded in the past few months amid a steep decline in the company’s shares, a drop caused by concerns that Butler and Ollie’s could not sustain the years-long frenetic pace of opening new stores. For the first time in decades, the future of Ollie’s will rest with someone else: John Swygert, the longtime chief operating officer now named the company’s interim president and CEO.

Having spent almost two decades at Ollie’s, Swygert is well steeped in what has made the business hum. Last winter, he was relishing a bonanza sale of wedding dresses that Butler had recently orchestrated. “The amount of notoriety we got from the concept—that we were selling wedding dresses at Ollie’s—was hugely successful,” he said. “That’s what Mark does that most people can’t do and can’t figure out how to do that. Most people don’t have the nerve to try to pull that off and make it happen.”

Follow me on Twitter. Send me a secure tip.

Abram Brown is a senior editor at Forbes, where he directs Forbes.com's features coverage and edits across Forbes magazine. As a writer, he has reporte...