Von Maur: a family department store tradition for the ages 

Jim von Maur, fourth generation leader of Von Maur, stands in front of a store location map at the department store company headquarters in Davenport. CREDIT JOHN SCHULTZ

For 150 years, Von Maur department stores have set the gold standard for retailers.

Through four generations, the von Maur family has led the chain that bears its name. From its humble beginnings in downtown Davenport to 100+ stores under its present-day Von Maur and Dry Goods brands, the company has been a trailblazer among American retailers. In 2022, Von Maur marks a century and a half in business in a rapidly changing retail industry. 

From founder Charles Jacob “C.J.” von Maur, who along with partners launched the Boston Store in Davenport, to Jim von Maur, who leads the expanding retail chain today, the challenges and the successes have varied. Each generation has worked to build the company, expand its reach, and exceed customers’ expectations. But the strength of the Von Maur brand and its commitment to providing great customer service and a unique shopping experience have never faltered.   

During an interview at the corporate headquarters in north Davenport, CEO and President Jim von Maur, the founder’s great-grandson, was asked if he thought his ancestors would be proud of Von Maur today. “I do. I think they’d be amazed. We are the last remaining family-owned department store,” Mr. von Maur said. “There used to be hundreds.”

In fact, Von Maur traces its roots to some of those forgotten department stores including J.H.C. Petersen & Sons Co. That retailer’s founding in 1872 helped give Von Maur its milestone anniversary. Modern-day Von Maur also grew out of The Boston Store (a dry goods store opened in 1887 by C.J. von Maur, Rowland “R.H.” Harned and Edward “E.C.” Pursel) and other small local stores that it acquired. Loyal Quad Cities customers still remember the company’s days as Petersen Harned Von Maur, dubbed “Petersens.” But since 1989, the company’s name simply has been Von Maur for the family that carries on its tradition. 

“My dad and uncle had the vision and desire to change from a traditional department store to something more special, a fashion department store,” recalled Mr. von Maur, who has been at the helm since 2001. 

“I grew up in the business,” the 52-year-old said, reflecting on how the store was dinner table conversation “all the time.” 

When Mr. von Maur took the company’s reins from his brother Ric, the company operated 12  store locations. Under his leadership, Von Maur has expanded its footprint beyond its Midwest home to the south, southwest and east and now boasts 35 Von Maur department stores and 70 of its specialty Dry Goods stores. 

“It’s been a great journey,” Mr. von Maur said as he walked through the corporate headquarters admiring its walls filled with old store signage, advertisements, former merchandise and other memories, artifacts and pieces of company history. The showpiece is a stained glass window purchased from the 1893 World’s Fair by J.H.C. Petersen. 

After joining the family business in 1993, Mr. von Maur recalled two significant moves including in 1994 when Von Maur put down roots in Chicago with a store in Yorktown, “We felt good about what we were doing. It was a big step leaving Iowa and going to Chicago with all the great retailers,” he said. Though he also remembers the Chicago market’s skepticism about Von Maur’s interest-free store credit cards. “They thought it was too good to be true.” But it was and remains true today.

Then in 1995, it entered Omaha, Nebraska, and “We felt like we could take this formula of our customer service and merchandising to any market in America.” 

Now 150 years in business, Von Maur keeps its roots in Davenport with its corporate headquarters and e-commerce center at 6565 N. Brady St. CREDIT JOHN SCHULTZ

While his predecessors overcame challenges of their time – from the Great Depression and a world war to the crippling farm crisis – Mr. von Maur has had the COVID-19 pandemic as his cross to bear. The pandemic closed Von Maur’s doors – headquarters and stores – for some six weeks in the spring of 2020. 

“The pandemic was by far one of the more difficult moment’s in our store’s history,” Mr. von Maur said. “I remember coming back here (in the warehouse) and informing our crew we would be shutting down. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. People wondered if ‘we are going out of business?’” 

Mr. von Maur admitted “I feared insolvency.” While its financial situation was fine, he said “We didn’t know when we’d get back to the business of selling.” 

The emotional toll was a reminder of an earlier emotional chapter in Von Maur history. On Dec. 5, 2007, tragedy struck its store in Omaha, Nebraska, when a gunman entered the store, killing eight and injuring five others, before turning the gun on himself. 

COVID created a cloud of uncertainty for Mr. von Maur and his loyal associates. “It was frustrating because Target and Walmart stayed open and still were selling children and adult apparel,” he said. “But we weren’t considered essential.” To add insult to injury, Von Maur did not qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), he said. 

“It was a scary period. There were a lot of negotiations and talking with our landlords (store property owners),” Mr. von Maur said. “We were looking at anything we could do to spread out our payables.” 

For the first time in company history, there were layoffs on the executive team. Senior staff and executives took salary cuts; raises were put on hold; openings went unfilled; and travel costs were slashed. 

Early on, he said the leadership team was asked to write down how long they expected the company to be disrupted by COVID. Most wrote answers ranging from one week to six weeks. “One guy wrote ‘all year,’ we thought he was crazy.” But his prediction materialized. 

Gradually, the stores reopened with each state’s timeline and rules differing. “Illinois was probably the last to get going,” Mr. von Maur said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of employees chose to not return to their jobs or the workforce. In fact, he believes the struggle to find new replacement workers, as well as ongoing supply chain issues, will be the store’s biggest challenges ahead.

Upon reopening, he said associates across headquarters, the stores and the e-commerce center put in countless hours. Relieved to be open, he said “There was still so much to figure out”  including COVID-related issues from masking to vaccine mandates and social distancing. 

Shoppers were slow to return to their old habits and the stores emphasized curbside pickup service and fast-tracked a BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick Up In Store) strategy. Eventually, shoppers did return in person – especially this past 2021 holiday season – and were excited to be back in the opulent department stores with their wide aisles, quality merchandise, familiar associates and piano music. 

“I think the pandemic brought the stores back to the forefront,” he said. “People realized they enjoy shopping and if you make it a real experience, which is what we’re good at, you’ll be successful.”

Like many, Mr. von Maur hopes for a return of normalcy in 2022. “There was a real shift in people’s mentality (because of COVID-19). People now want to work independently or not work at all.” 

But of the associates who returned, he said they “were tried and true, and remained loyal to us.” 

Looking ahead to this milestone anniversary year, Mr. von Maur said “We’re excited about 2022.” The company’s expansion plans include relocating its Des Moines store to Jordan Creek Mall and other new store openings including a new Von Maur in Madison, Wisconsin, where only its Dry Goods store is now. It also is eyeing new Michigan stores in North Detroit and Rochester Hills. 

“Every state is under consideration although I don’t see us going to the west coast anytime soon,” the company leader said. But the south, southeast, Midwest and Pennsylvania all are on the radar. 

“I don’t think it will ever be the same,” Mr. von Maur said of the retail landscape since COVID. “I think we certainly know how to cope with it better. The company learned a lot about how to deal with a viral outbreak by sitting and trying to figure things out.”  

Von Maur – at a glance 

Founded: 1872 

Type business: Family-owned department store. 

Leadership: CEO Jim von Maur, fourth generation leader; Chairman Chuck von Maur, third generation.  

Corporate headquarters: 6565 N. Brady St., Davenport. The 475,000-square-foot facility includes the headquarters offices and the company’s e-commerce fulfillment center on Veteran’s Parkway. 

Workforce: 3,500 (5,200 pre-pandemic) 

Stores: A total of 35 Von Maur department stores and 70 Dry Goods, a newer brand whose fashions cater to women ages 14 to 30. The brands operate in Iowa and neighboring Illinois as well as Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

Von Maur company history

1872 J.H.C. Petersen establishes J.H.C. Petersen & Sons Co. department store in downtown Davenport. 

1887 Von Maur founder Charles Jacob “C.J.” von Maur establishes the Boston Store in downtown Davenport with partners Rowland “R.H.” Harned and Edward “E.C.” Pursel. The trio, who met while working in retail in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, moves to Davenport.  

Oct. 20, 1898 – A new three-story store opens at Second and Harrison streets in downtown Davenport.

1889 Edward Pursel dies. Store is renamed Harned & Von Maur. 

1905 J.H.C. Petersen dies at the age of 88. 

1916 Harned & Von Maur buys the Petersen company from William Petersen, the remaining and youngest son of J.H.C. Petersen. The company pays $609,000 for the stock in what is the largest mercantile transaction in Davenport’s history. Now under a single owner, the two stores continue to operate separately over the next 12 years. Leadership includes C.J. von Maur, president; Rowland Harned, vice president; and Cable von Maur, C.J.’s son, secretary.

1923 C.J. von Maur and Rowland Harned are entrusting more of the business to the three von Maur sons: Cable, James and Richard. 

January 1926 – C.J. von Maur dies in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he is being treated for malaria that he contracted on a trip to Egypt. He was 63. Cable von Maur, the eldest son, is named company president. 

May 7, 1928 – The Petersen store physically merges with Harned & Von Maur to create a combined history of more than 140 years. The company now is known as Petersen Harned Von Maur, which customers dub “Petersen’s.” 

June 12, 1928 – The company opens its new, consolidated store in the existing Petersen building at Second and Main streets. 

1929 The retailer purchases the Fisk and Loosley department store in Moline. The von Maurs close it in 1932.

1937 Rowland Harned dies. 

1961 Petersen’s expands to Moline and purchases a furniture store in Orchard Center Shopping Plaza. It closes Feb. 15, 1982. 

1965 Brothers James von Maur and Dick von Maur die within six months of each other. Dick von Maur Sr. becomes president, working with his sons, Chuck and Dick. Chuck, the eldest, later becomes president and Dick eventually becomes executive vice president and secretary.

1970 Petersen’s purchases M.L. Parker Co. department store at 2nd and Brady streets in Davenport. It closes on July 31, 1971. 

1972 Petersen’s marks a full century of operation. The year also sees the company’s first mall store open at Duck Creek Plaza, Bettendorf, in June. The store closes on Sept. 12, 1999. 

Feb. 27, 1974 – Petersen’s opens a store at SouthPark Mall in Moline. 

Aug. 4, 1975 – Petersen’s expands to Iowa’s capital, opening a store in Valley West Mall in West Des Moines. 

Aug. 24, 1979 – Petersen’s opens a store in Muscatine, Iowa. It closes Dec. 24, 1994.

Sept. 6, 1980 – Company opens Westdale Mall store in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Store closes Jan. 31, 2007.  

1981 Petersen’s opens three Iowa stores: NorthPark Mall, Davenport, Sept. 3 (part of mall expansion) as well as Lindale Mall, Cedar Rapids, and Sycamore Mall, Iowa City, both on Oct. 7. 

December 1985 – Dick von Maur Sr. dies. His sons, Dick and Chuck, take over the business. 

Oct. 9, 1986 – Petersen’s closes its flagship store in downtown Davenport. 

March 1, 1987 – Petersen’s opens at College Square Mall in Cedar Falls, Iowa. 

1989 Jack Arth becomes first person outside the von Maur family to be company president. On April 9, he announces the company is shortening its name from Petersen, Harned Von Maur to Von Maur.

Feb. 19, 1990 – Company headquarters relocate from Redstone building downtown to newly renovated building (former outlet mall) located near Brady Street and Interstate 80  in north Davenport. Downtown offices close March 1. 

1993 Ric and Jim von Maur, Dick von Maur Jr.’s sons and the founder’s great-grandsons, become the company’s fourth generation. At 27, Ric von Maur joins the company first and is tasked with opening and managing the company’s new Yorktown, Illinois, store marking Von Maur’s entrance into the Chicago market in 1994. Also in 1993, Jim von Maur enters the company’s executive training program.

Aug. 5, 1995 – Von Maur expands beyond Iowa and Illinois with a new store at Westroad Mall in Omaha, Nebraska. 

1998 Jack Arth passes the baton to Ric von Maur, who becomes president and concentrates on merchandise, and brother Jim von Maur, who is named vice president focusing on store operations. 

2001 Ric von Maur steps down as president and brother Jim von Maur assumes the role at age 31. Their father Dick von Maur and uncle Chuck von Maur remain as co-chairmen. Dick von Maur died Oct. 13, 2018. Von Maur Chairman Chuck von Maur,  who will be 92 this spring, now resides in Florida. 

Aug. 7, 1999 – A Lincoln, Nebraska, store opens. 

2001 Von Maur opens stores in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, July 30; in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Aug. 6; and in St. Charles, Illinois, Oct. 1. 

Aug. 3, 2002 – Von Maur expands with a store in Wichita, Kansas. 

2003 Von Maur enters Michigan with stores in Ann Arbor and Livonia. It also opens stores in Louisville, Kentucky, and Glenview, Illinois. 

Nov. 5, 2005 – Von Maur opens in Columbus, Ohio. 

2007 – Company launches online shopping. 

Dec. 5, 2007 – Von Maur is struck by tragedy when eight people are killed and five injured when a gunman enters their Omaha store and randomly shoots at customers and employees. The von Maur family describes it as “the most tragic point and time in the company’s history.”  

2008 – Von Maur opens stores in Dayton, Ohio, and Overland Park, Kansas.  

Sept. 18, 2010 – Von Maur opens store in Lake St. Louis, Missouri. It also unveils a new store concept aimed at young women called Dry Goods. That first store opens in Aurora, Illinois, in October. Von Maur builds a new ecommerce fulfillment center near its Davenport headquarters. 

Nov. 5, 2011 – Von Maur enters the Atlanta, Georgia, market. 

2012 Von Maur opens second store in metro Atlanta in Dunwoody, Georgia.

2013 Von Maur’s store in Iowa City relocates to new Iowa River Landing in Coralville. It also opens two stores in a week in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, and outside Rochester, New York – marking its first northeast store. 

2014 Von Maur opens its first southwest store outside Oklahoma City. 

2016 A third Atlanta-based store opens at the Mall of Georgia. 

April 8, 2017 – Von Maur enters Milwaukee market with a new store.   

Oct. 13, 2018 – Dick “Mr. Richard” von Maur dies.  

Oct. 13, 2018 – Von Maur opens in Rosedale, Minnesota. 

Oct. 12, 2019 – Von Maur opens in Woodland, Michigan. 

Nov. 2, 2019 – Von Maur opens in Orland Square, Illinois. 

March 2020 – COVID-19 shuts Von Maur down for six weeks.  

Source: Von Maur and the company’s history book, “Von Maur, How An American Department Store Dared To Do Things Differently,” by Melinda Pradarelli.  

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