Stephen Lee “Steve” LaFrance of Pine Bluff, who founded and was the long-time chairman and chief executive of the Pine Bluff-based USA Drug Stores regional chain and its SAJ Distributors facility, died Wednesday. He was 71.
Funeral arrangements are pending at Ralph Robinson and Son Funeral Directors.
Stephen L. LaFrance Holdings Inc. was sold in July 2012 to national pharmacy giant Walgreens for $438 million. SAJ Distributors was subsequently sold to L&R Distributors Inc. of New York and many of the buildings associated with the businesses were placed on the real-estate market.
LaFrance had said prior to USA’s sale and his retirement that he wished to continue to reside in Pine Bluff because he didn’t want to “forget my roots.”
“It’s a sad, sad day,” said Relyance (formerly Pine Bluff National) Bank President and Chief Executive Officer Chuck Morgan. “We feel like we’ve lost a family member. Everyone here loved him.”
Morgan said LaFrance had been a personal friend and Relyance customer “a long, long time.”
“Despite his great success, he remained humble and was a true gentleman,” Morgan said. “He was a very generous man and had a great sense of humor. He was more involved in community causes than people might have realized. He quietly donated much money to charities and also helped to raise a lot more.”
Morgan said LaFrance was especially supportive of the Salvation Army, particularly its annual Christmas bell-ringing collection effort to benefit the less fortunate.
“Steve LaFrance was a great husband, father, grandfather, friend, leader and a wonderful ambassador for Pine Bluff and Arkansas,” said Simmons First National Corp. Chairman and CEO Tommy May. “He and his wife Linda loved Pine Bluff and did so much behind the scenes to make our community a better place to live. If there was a project that needed to be done in our community, Steve would be involved in making it happen.
“We knew we could always count on Steve and his family to invest in making our community better,” May said. “Steve was well known as an icon in the health care business world. He was a visionary who trusted in his people and their ability to get the job done. His success in business is attributable to his commitment to excellence. He was a real-life entrepreneur and knew that it was the delivery of quality customer service and hard work that separated the true champions in his business. Steve and his associates built a major national franchise because of their commitment to being the best and delivering the best customer service.”
May related memories of working with LaFrance in past Salvation Army Christmas drives.
“I had the opportunity to ring the Salvation Army bell with Steve every December for the past several years,” May said. “We always met in front of USA Drugs on 28th Street and it was always a special day for me. Steve loved ringing the bell because he knew he was making a difference.
“I loved seeing him in action as he encouraged others to give,” May said. “He was perpetual motion, moving from one person to another. It really made me feel good, not only because we were doing something to help others, but you could not be with Steve without lots of laughter from his many stories, and he was one of the most optimistic people I have ever known. Steve always saw the glass half full, not half empty.
“He truly loved life and people,” May said. “He was passionate about doing his best to raise funds to help others because he knew they needed that help. While I was with Steve for one hour, he would often work the hour before and even the hour after because he loved helping others. His energy level was only exceeded by his enthusiasm for working hard. He was the most optimistic person I’ve ever known and you could never be with Steve without leaving feeling blessed.
“God has blessed me with some tremendous friends, and I am very proud to be counted among the many friends of Steve, Linda and their children,” May said. “As long as I can, I will ring the Salvation Army Bell on 28th street in memory 0f Steve La France.”
In addition to his wife, LaFrance is survived by two sons, Stephen LaFrance Jr. and Jason LaFrance; a daughter, Amy LaFrance Bancroft; two brothers; a sister; and seven grandchildren.
LaFrance rose to prominence as a pharmacist and businessman. According to an article on talkbusiness.net, LaFrance — at the age of 26 in February 1968 — had only $26 in sales on his first day as a pharmacist at the old Gibson’s Department Store on Main Street. LaFrance said those lean times helped in shaping his philosophy of being accessible to his customers and taking extra steps to make certain their pharmaceutical needs were met. LaFrance said those characteristics served in soon helping to make Gibson’s pharmacy a profitable enterprise.
He then purchased an Ohio Street drug store and opened additional pharmacies within the city and also Malvern and Warren, LaFrance said in the talkbusiness.net article. He soon founded SAJ Distributors to house wholesale merchandise purchased directly from manufacturers instead of marketers so his profit margins could be larger. SAJ also sold goods to other interests.
By the time the USA Drug chain was sold, it included over 160 stores in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, according to an article in the July 2011 edition of SEA Life magazine.