PINE BLUFF — 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.
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."
Tommy May, chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Corp., said LaFrance was a "great husband, father, grandfather, friend, leader and a wonderful ambassador for Pine Bluff and Arkansas."
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. He 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 in Malvern and Warren. 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 more than 160 stores in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, according to an article in the July 2011 edition of SEA Life magazine.
LaFrance is survived by his wife, Linda, two sons Stephen LaFrance Jr. and Jason LaFrance; a daughter, Amy LaFrance Bancroft; two brothers; a sister; and seven grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were pending Wednesday at Ralph Robinson and Son Funeral Directors.
By Rick Joslin writes for the Pine Bluff Commercial.