Legends in Loss Prevention: Lewis (Lew) C. Shealy

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lew Shealy passed away December 1, 2020, at the age of 89. For those who knew him, and those who did not, LPM is republishing this profile of Shealy from our September–October 2006 print edition. This was the first in a series of articles on “Legends in Loss Prevention” written by John Velke. For a summary of other articles in this series, click here. 

Legends in LP spread
LP Magazine September–October 2006

Lewis (Lew) C. Shealy
1970 – 1983 Woodward & Lothrop
1983 – 1990 Marshall Fields
1990 – 1996 Eckerd Drugs

From a Mississippi dirt farm during the depression to the top of the loss prevention field—not just an “American Dream,” but the real-life story of Lew Shealy.

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Lewis Clinton Shealy was born May 7, 1931, in rural Mississippi. His parents scraped by making ends meet on the farm until 1940 when Shealy’s father moved the family to Birmingham, Alabama to take a job in a steel mill.

Like many children in the 1930s, Shealy spent his formative years doing without. He did not eat his first banana until he was six or seven years old, and then, being unfamiliar with the fruit, he began eating it without peeling it. He learned two valuable lessons—One, peel the banana before eating, and, two, it is better to have bananas than have no bananas. From that point forth Shealy was determined to work hard and become successful.

Shealy did not approach becoming successful haphazardly. He obtained some of his best advice from his uncle who told him to listen to those who are twenty years older than him until he was about 50, and then listen to those who are twenty years younger than him from then on. Shealy also recognized the importance of having a mentor and knew that to be successful he needed to have both a professional and personal relationship with each of his bosses.

Air Force Special Agent

Retail loss prevention was actually Shealy’s second successful career. He spent twenty-one years in the military, with most of that time spent as a special agent in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his part in the then secret Phoenix program during the Vietnam War. Later he was stationed in Washington, D.C., where he served as a liaison officer with the CIA and the FBI. On many occasions he personally handled the travel arrangements for J. Edgar Hoover and other high-ranking government officials.

Shealy left the military and government work to pursue a career where new ideas were welcomed and experimentation encouraged. In 1970 retail loss prevention was beginning to be taken seriously by companies willing to invest money in personnel and equipment to reduce the millions of dollars they were losing in shortage. His first job in retail was as a security manager for Woodward & Lothrop in Washington, D.C.

Retail Innovator

It didn’t take Shealy long to make his mark and become recognized as an innovator. Late in 1970 he convinced officials at Woodward & Lothrop to install the first pan, tilt, and zoom camera system in a department store. Results were immediate and impressive. Apprehensions skyrocketed as store detectives learned to use cameras and radios to enhance their floor surveillance skills.

A few years later Shealy and his team came up with another “first.” Long before the age of microchip cameras, Shealy found a way to install a camera in the head of a manikin so that the camera lens appeared in place of an eye.

One might think that this kind of development would be guarded as a proprietary secret, but Shealy had a different strategy. By openly and publicly demonstrating the “seeing manikin,” word got around that many of the manikins in Woodward & Lothrop could actually watch shoplifters. In fact, Shealy only had two camera-equipped manikins. They were periodically moved around to high-shortage departments, which further created the illusion that they were everywhere.

It wasn’t just the innovative use of cameras that brought Shealy to the attention of his peers and established him as a legendary loss prevention executive. He was one of the first to embraced technology as a method of deliver results and reducing expense. He was first to recognize that establishing a proprietary alarm central station for his company would afford him greater control of this important function at a reduced cost. He also recognized the value of information and cooperation among LP departments. He was instrumental in helping expand and support the Stores’ Mutual Associations, and he often shared his knowledge and expertise with loss prevention professionals from other companies at local meetings and national conferences.

Shealy was also not bashful about speaking to the media. During the 1970s and 1980s he routinely gave interviews, talked about the effect of shoplifting on every household, discussed the ramifications of dishonesty, and publicized the successes retailers were having in the war against shoplifters.

One noteworthy example was the first ever joint retail loss prevention and law enforcement sting on professional shoplifters using a fake store front fencing operation. The “store” was staffed by the Cook County sheriff ’s department. With the support of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and a handful of retailers led by Shealy, the sting culminated in the arrest of hundreds of Chicago area shoplifters and the recovery of millions of dollars in stolen merchandise. Shealy was the retail spokesman, granting interviews to Oprah and John Stossel at 20/20, where he made it clear that retailers were taking shoplifting seriously.

Mentor and Advisor

While Shealy was often the public face of retail loss prevention, he was also a mentor and advisor to many up-and-coming loss prevention executives. Dan Doyle, current vice president of LP and human resources at Beall’s, has a paperweight on his desk with one of Shealy’s favorite sayings on it: “Does it stand inspection?”

Shealy had a few other sayings now remembered and carried on by his friends:

  • “No surprises,”
  • “Don’t get your honey where you make your money,” and
  • “There is no limit to what a man (or woman) can do, or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”

Shealy saw this last quote on Ronald Reagan’s desk in the Oval Office, wrote it down, and had a similar plaque made for himself.

Shealy’s quotes, his candid style, and his work habits propelled him to the top of the LP profession. He went from earning 14,000 bananas in 1970 to earning more than 250,000 bananas when he retired in 1996. While some may consider this a clear indication of his success, Shealy would say that his marriage to Bettie, his childhood sweetheart, now in its 54th year, has been an even greater success. Bettie and Lew have two children and five grandchildren that keep them happy and young. Lew enjoys fishing, an occasional round of golf, a good glass of wine, and looking forward to tomorrow.

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