Businessman and philanthropist David Trone received the Carl F. Kohrt Distinguished Alumni Award at this year’s Furman University Bell Tower Ball, Saturday, Feb. 25. The award recognizes significant professional accomplishments as well as loyalty to the university, said Furman President Dr. Elizabeth Davis.
Trone, who graduated magna cum laude in 1977, is co-owner of Total Wine & More, America’s largest independent retailer of wine, beer, and spirits, with more than 150 stores in 20 states. In 2016, the Bethesda, Md.-based company worked with 7,000 nonprofits and donated more than $6 million.
Through a family foundation, Trone and wife, June, gave Furman a $5 million grant to build a student center and establish men’s and women’s lacrosse teams. He also provided the initial $500,000 to the Riley Institute’s endowment to help disadvantaged students throughout the state.
For Trone, it’s part of his philosophy that success should be shared. “We’ve been lucky,” he said. “Some folks are not as lucky, so we want to help however we can.”
How did your years at Furman benefit you?
Furman really gave me that grounding that you get from a great liberal arts education, which helps you be successful in the world and not just a job. It introduced me to how to be a leader, how to work with students on projects, how to move projects along. It really helped build the basics of leadership and the importance of giving back to the community.
You’re being awarded for your community involvement and your success as a leader. What do you think it means to be a leader?
Leadership is something everyone has. Everyone needs to be leaders in their lives, their communities, their jobs. It’s having a clear vision of outcomes and painting a road map that gets everybody there together. More than the vision, it’s creating the road map where everyone can see their part and feel valued. That builds a strong team, and a leader is about creating great teams.
What do you think is the key to the growth of your business?
Success is really about a complete focus on the customer. Then we can better serve them through great prices, great selection, and educated employees who know about the wines, beer, and spirits. The Total Wine team is what drives this business, and the customer is the king.
As a Furman supporter, is it challenging to decide how best to use your contributions?
We’re very passionate about the student experience, so rebuilding the student center was key. That was deficient before. And the Riley Institute is so fortunate to have a leader like Dick Riley and his commitment to diversity, his commitment to folks who don’t need a handout but need help up. What he’s done throughout the state, we’re very passionate about helping to build that endowment.
Did you intend to become an entrepreneur?
I wanted to work in agribusiness, because my dad was a chicken and egg farmer in Pennsylvania. I was also looking to be involved in politics, because that’s a place you can make a big difference. But my dad’s farm failed and went bankrupt when I was 28, so I had to get a job. I started an MBA at Wharton, and while there, I opened a small beer-only store in Pennsylvania in 1984. That small business slowly grew.
When you started your store, did you envision growing it to 150-plus stores?
We added another store a year later, and then added wine and spirits, and it took until 1994 to build our third [Trone co-owns the business with his brother Robert]. So it was slow growth over 25 years. It’s a success, but not an overnight success. Success takes luck and a lot of hard work.
How are you involved at Furman apart from your financial gifts?
I was on the committee to hire Dr. Elizabeth Davis. I’ve been on the board, though I just came off of it in 2016. But I’d like to do that again. I am in Greenville at least 10 days a year. I enjoy working to show the rest of the world what the Furman Advantage is, how to get the best students at Furman, and making sure they have a great experience. I give Furman credit for helping to create balanced people who understand work but also people and the world.
You’ve built a business that has topped $2.5 billion in sales. What’s next for your company?
We’re adding 25 new stores this year throughout America. We have more than 5,000 employees and we’ll add 800 more in these new stores. We’ve always embraced change. Our selection keeps growing, and we are expanding the educational piece, so our customers can learn more about the products. We have virtual classes, maybe with a winemaker in Bordeaux or a spirit-maker in Scotland, and people can tweet questions.
What’s next for you personally?
I’ll keep working seven days a week. I love coming to work. I ran for Congress in Maryland last year and wasn’t successful, so I might run for Congress again or run for county executive in Maryland. I keep thinking, what can I do to help a greater number of people? I want to bring a CEO mentality to politics that is also empathetic and wants to think about costs and benefits and hear both sides.