Dial Corporation, Des Moines

When Ellis Levitt died in 1984 at the age of 91 his obituary noted, “charitable good humor and a deep introspection mixed with an admirable candor made him a memorable man.” That and amazing business acumen made him one of the most successful businessmen in Iowa history.

Levitt was born in Des Moines January 7, 1893, the son of a Lithuanian Jew who immigrated to this country less than ten years before the birth. His father started a small loan company in 1897. He would tell a reporter the family “never wanted for anything we thought we needed.” He attended Des Moines public schools, and then went to the University of Iowa for one year before returning to Des Moines to be close to his ailing mother.

Levitt joined his father’s company. While his father began dabbling in real estate, Ellis Levitt stayed focused on the small loan business where he saw real potential. In 1924 he launched the country’s first major small loan by mail operation, which at one point accounted for half the company’s business. He concentrated on loans to workers, such as teachers and postal workers, who had steady jobs but no great income. By the 1930s Levitt was known as a man to be trusted, a reputation that served him well during the depression. People believed that it was safer to put their money with Levitt than in a bank. The company grew quickly. When his sister and brother-in-law moved to Los Angeles, he decided to open a branch there, the first of many branch offices across the country. In 1959 the company was renamed Dial Finance. By the time he retired in 1979 there were more than 450 branches, 1800 employees and $400 million in assets. When Norwest purchased Dial two years later, it was valued at $252 million.