A family business

Charles “Chuck” von Maur ’52

Charles '52 and Nancy von Maur at the new von Maur location in Victor, New York

Charles ’52 and Nancy von Maur visit the newest location of his family’s department store, Von Maur, at the Eastview Mall in Victor, N.Y. (Photo by Matthew J. Yeoman)

Amid the sparkle of Kate Spade handbags, Under Armour apparel, and Tommy Bahama jackets, the Von Maur department store retains an old-fashioned air of hospitality. Tall vases of flowers and antique wood furnishings are set throughout the displays, while a pianist seated by the first-floor center escalators plays classics that waft through the store. An upstairs ladies lounge welcomes tired shoppers with large easy chairs, tables, and a gracious chandelier.

The gentility of the place isn’t surprising, given that the longtime co-chairmen of Von Maur are two brothers in their 80s, including Charles “Chuck” von Maur ’52, who’s been in the family business for more than 55 years.

“My grandfather and his partner came to Davenport [Iowa] and opened a small store in the late 1870s,” explained Chuck. “They were two men of very high integrity. They treated customers and employees extremely well, and by perseverance, they survived.”

Chuck, along with his brother Dick, has spent his life in Davenport, with the exception of his college years and their two-year stint in the U.S. Army. Both Chuck, at age 83, and Dick, at age 81, are still actively involved in the Von Maur chain. A conscientious and dedicated businessman, Chuck’s proud of every customer service, from free gift wrapping, free nationwide shipping, and free credit to outstanding customer service and the residential atmosphere of each store.

When Chuck started in the business years ago, he began in the men’s and home furnishings departments, while his brother started in women’s apparel. They both greeted customers on the floor and worked the cash register, back when it was a cash drawer and sales associates did their own math to make change. As Von Maur expanded, home furnishings were eliminated in favor of men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing and shoes.

The original store in Davenport was known for decades as Petersen, Harned, Von Maur. In 1989, the brothers changed the name. (The other namesakes had long left the business.) Today, Von Maur is 29 stores and counting. “We’re the last, or at least one of the last, truly family owned department store groups in the country,” said Chuck.

What’s killed other stores, he said, is lack of continuity. “Younger generations didn’t have an interest, so they sold or merged. And the bigger names (such as Marshall Field’s and Dayton’s) over time were bought and sold repeatedly. When businesses keep changing ownership, they lose their individuality and mark of distinction.” Although Von Maur is often compared to Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor, Chuck considers the world his competition. “Anyone who sells the same merchandise we do is, in essence, a competitor. But you do your own thing — you can’t worry about the guy next door.”

These days, the brothers — who share the chairman’s title — go to company headquarters three or four days a week. Dick’s son Jim von Maur is the current president and handles day-to-day operations. “We offer advice but we decide things as a group,” said Chuck. “We’re not worried about titles or who’s in one position versus another.”

Since the mid-1980s, the firm, which employs 4,500 people, has opened one to two stores a year, nearly all in the Midwest. But in October, Von Maur trekked east, with a new location in the Eastview Mall in Victor, N.Y., near Rochester. And in November, the company opened its southernmost store, in Hoover, Ala., outside Birmingham.

Von Maur also has a burgeoning e-commerce site, and recently started a chain of young women’s stores called Dry Goods. “It’s slow but steady growth,” said Chuck, who has been married to his wife, Nancy, for 56 years. They have two daughters, Heather Tinsman (Colby-Sawyer ’86), and Allison von Maur-Newcomb (Colgate ’89).

“It’s been a very satisfying career so far,” he continued. “It becomes so much a part of you that you don’t walk away from it.”

— Anne Stein