Country of origin: Russia
Year came to U.S.: circa 1950
Education: University of Toledo, Ohio State University
Business: Big Lots Inc. (Consolidated Stores Corporation, 1967)
Headquarters: Columbus, OH
2018 revenue: $5.2 billion
Worldwide employment: 23,250
Ranked 525 in the 2019 Fortune 500
Shenk built his fortune with a series of strategic buyouts including bankrupt companies and overstock.
He was ahead of his time and unafraid to adapt to changing markets.
Sol A. Shenk led a very fruitful life. His auto parts wholesale shop in 1967 had transformed into a $1 billion business by the time of his death in 1994. Today, that business is an empire approaching the 1,500-store threshold in the U.S. and Canada. That big business is Big Lots.
Shenk emigrated from Russia in the mid-1900s and brought with him a razor-sharp sense of business. In 1967, he started Consolidated Stores Corporation through which he opened a discount store selling spare parts in Columbus, Ohio. In just four years, that store grew into a chain.
It was the strategic buyout of the manufacturer of the Bricklin car, with its famous gull-wing, upward-opening doors, that catapulted him into the big league. Shenk did something that Malcolm Bricklin had been unable to do. He made money by selling parts to car owners.
Shenk was thus able to open Odd Lots in 1982. He bought odd lots of merchandise from production overruns, bankruptcies and overstock and sold it through the store in Columbus.
Within three years, Consolidated Stores went public. It opened other stores like Big Lots, All for $1 and It’s a Deal. Within 12 years, it was named one of the 10 most profitable chains in the United States.
Shenk was said to have a “caretaker attitude” towards what eventually became just Big Lots, according to former company president Brady Churches. Such a disposition permitted Shenk to mold his business as necessary even if this meant big changes such as continually restructuring the company to handle its explosive growth.
Like most other immigrant entrepreneurs, Shenk was a risk-taker. In his case, the risk paid off in a “big” way.