Douglas Dayton began the remaking of his family’s company and helped reinvent American retailing when he launched the first Target stores in 1962.
The former Dayton’s Department Store executive and Twin Cities philanthropist died Saturday at the age of 88 after a months-long battle with cancer.
The youngest of the five Dayton brothers who took over their father’s eponymous department store in downtown Minneapolis in the 1940s, Dayton got his start in the business after wartime service as a sergeant in an infantry division that won him the Purple Heart and attending college at Amherst.
The Dayton brothers “were damn good department store merchants in our heyday,” Dayton recalled in a May interview. He served as a store manager, taking note along the way of the rise of discounter Kmart and the threat it and others posed to full-service department stores.
Dayton was an early proponent of the family trying its hand at the discount business. In 1960, he and a like-minded Dayton’s merchandiser were charged with planning the launch of what became Target.
Dayton was named Target’s president and the company invested $4 million to open the first four Targets two years later in the Twin Cities suburbs of Roseville, Crystal, St. Louis Park and Knollwood.
“Target was the best job I had,” he recalled.
By the end of Target’s first year, Dayton told his disbelieving brothers that he thought the discount business could double their early estimates of $50 million in annual revenue in just a few years.
‘Tarzshay’ was a winner
His confidence was bolstered when he starting hearing customers refer to Target as “Tarzshay.” The fledgling company was establishing itself as something new — an upscale discounter that attracted customers for its bright stores and attractive merchandise, not just low prices.
“I remember telling my brother Bruce that we were going to do $100 million and he sent me a nice note when we did it in 1968,” Doug Dayton recalled in the May interview. “We laughed at that one. It took about 10 years to get to $1 billion in sales but I think we put down a good base.
By the time Dayton was recalled to Dayton Hudson corporate headquarters in 1969, Target was on its way to becoming the retail force that would one day eclipse its parent. Minneapolis-based Target is now No. 36 on the Fortune 500.
Dayton spent two years as senior vice president of administration for Dayton Hudson, but found he didn’t enjoy the work like he had at Target.
“I didn’t cotton to that staff job,” Dayton said in the May interview.
He retired and began a second career as a venture capitalist, small-business owner, community volunteer and philanthropist.
He spent nearly two years after his retirement from Dayton’s leading a team of volunteer executives that found ways to make state government more efficient and effective.
He served on the boards of the Urban League, Summit Academy in north Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Urban Coalition, the Nature Conservancy and several other nonprofit groups.
Dayton served more than 50 years on what is now the board of the Twin Cities YMCA.
“The YMCA was like a religion for him,” said his son David Dayton, an engineer and small-business owner. “He thought the YMCA did such fabulous things for all segments of the community and it was one great way that an affluent guy from the suburbs could connect” with urban youth and families.
Dayton and his brothers established one of the first corporate-giving programs in Minnesota and Dayton said he took great joy in researching and investing in effective nonprofits.
He said donating money was more satisfying than making it.
“You bet your life it is,” Dayton said. “After all, we made our life off the community.”
Even in declining health he enjoyed roaming his 40 acres of natural prairie in Wayzata on a four-wheeler, even flying kites some days, and sharing jokes with his family.
“He was deeply committed to our community and making it a better place for everyone,” his wife, Wendy, said. “He did that through supporting a variety of organizations. Whether it was social justice, education, the arts or conservation. He wanted to make more things possible for a greater number of people. I think his philanthropy reflected that.”
Dayton is survived by his wife, three sons, a stepdaughter, six grandchildren and his brother, Bruce. Gov. Mark Dayton is his nephew.
Services are pending.
Staff writer Ashley Griffin contributed to this report.