THE ANONYMOUS PHILANTHROPIST? — When Jacksonville resident William “Bill” Lovett passed away in 1978, the Florida Times-Union called him “perhaps the South’s least known multimillionaire.” The 87-year-old tycoon had created a corporate empire reportedly worth $100 million — or over $300 million in today’s currency (2013)! In large part, the Lovett fortune came from ships, shipyards, supermarkets, and a partnership in Merrill Lynch.
Although physically a lightweight at 5’7” and 130 pounds, Mr. Lovett proved a heavyweight in the retail industry. Based in Jacksonville, the Winn-Lovett Grocery Company consisted of 73 stores, a sizeable chain at the time. In 1939, Mr. Lovett sold his controlling interest in this business to a company that eventually became Winn-Dixie. Although Mr. Lovett no longer owned the stores, the future Winn-Dixie company retained the Lovett name, as shown above.
Later, Mr. Lovett possessed full or part interest in 200 Piggly Wiggly supermarkets, and he headed the Piggly Wiggly Corporation itself as president and chairman of the board. This pioneer grocery chain was comprised of about 1,000 stores.
During the 1960s, moreover, Mr. Lovett purchased two locally-known, competing shipyards. These were the Merrill-Stevens yard on East Bay Street downtown and the old Gibbs Shipyard on the Southbank, located in the vicinity of today’s Charthouse Restaurant. After merging them into Jacksonville Shipyards Inc., he sold the business to Fruehauf Corporation in 1969. At one point, the multimillionaire also commanded a fleet of 70 steamships.
Mr. Lovett hailed from the small Florida town of Monticello, near Tallahassee. For many years, the publicity-shy financier lived in a handsome home overlooking the St. Johns River. The dwelling still stands on Challen Avenue in the historic Jacksonville neighborhood of Avondale. Until late in life, Mr. Lovett drove himself to work in one of two 1966 Cadillacs, arriving at about 10 AM at a spartan downtown office on East Adams Street. He toiled steadily, breaking only for a meal of peanut butter crackers and buttermilk. The magnate would leave each evening at 6 PM, taking home more work. One family member described him as being quite devoted to his enterprises.
In addition to his financial achievements, Mr. Lovett often contributed to a range of charitable causes. His family has remained one of the River City’s most affluent, a Mover & Shaker on the business scene.
NOTE: The information sources for this description of Mr. Lovett included page B-1 of the Florida Times-Union, March 16, 1978, and Don’t Make A & P Mad, by J. E. Davis, published by J. E. Davis, c. 1990.
About the photo: This 1943 photo of “Mr. Lovett of Lovett’s food chain” has an interesting note about it from the Florida State Archives. The businessman is shown with the “salvage operation diver of a British ship torpedoed off Cocoa.” In other words, the girl in the striped shirt was associated with one of the many vessels that Germany sank along Florida’s coasts during World War II. (The person on the extreme right is not identified.)
~written by Glenn Emery