At the 2018 FN Achievement Awards on Dec. 4, Bruce Nordstrom will be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award (watch the livestream here). Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 3 print issue about how the third-generation retailer turned his family name into a national empire.
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Friday in early November, and Seattle is enveloped in a classic cocoon of wet, gray fog. Despite the gloom outside, the Nordstrom headquarters is teeming with life as hundreds of staffers file into the main lobby. Five floors above, no one seems more ready to start the day than the legendary patriarch of the storied retailer: Bruce Nordstrom.
Suited and beaming, Mr. Bruce, as he’s affectionately known, is punctual and on point. Despite being one of retail’s most interesting characters — he has rarely talked to the press in his four-decade career — one gets the impression that the presence of an editor, tape recorders, photographers and the like aren’t exactly thrilling.
And yet, at 85, he is utterly charming, willing to open up about his life and work weeks before accepting FN’s Lifetime Achievement Award. With son Erik by his side, Nordstrom spends the morning sharing powerful anecdotes that form the backbone of the company’s history and offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of retail’s most important moments.
He readily admitted that a career in the family business wasn’t a mandate for this third-generation Nordstrom, but a close relationship with his father, Everett, and grandfather, John, led him down that path at the tender age of 9, when he started working at the family shoe store.
“My daddy said, ‘If you don’t want to do this, go do something else,’ but I never did,” said Bruce. “It was the Second World War, and I was sweeping floors, emptying shoeboxes, breaking them up, flattening them and tying them into bundles. It was hard work, as I was a skinny little guy.”
That skinny kid, who “absolutely loved” retail and its simplicity at the time, inherited a tireless family work ethic.
“When I married Erik’s mother, I was managing two stores at 23,” Bruce recalled. “It was a big deal for me. I’m not going to go into my love life, but I wanted to get married, and I was worried that I really didn’t have time.”
Using his 30-minute lunch break to propose, Bruce told his bride-to-be that his work was all-consuming, and the proposal came with a telling disclosure. “We decided to get married, but I told her I didn’t have much time off to do so. Maybe two weeks.”
To her credit, Fran was undeterred, allowing Bruce to dedicate hundreds of hours to the family company as his own family grew at home. “She was really something,” Bruce said of his late wife. “She raised our boys beautifully and was up for whatever it was.”
Driven and detail-oriented, Bruce was asked to be president at 30.
“I felt like a lost dog in the tall grass,” he said. “But we were a much smaller company in those days, just a couple hundred employees and a few shoe stores in Portland [Ore.] and Seattle.”
Almost immediately, his father and Uncle Elmer retired — and Bruce was left to determine his path.
Wisely, he turned to “Uncle” Lloyd Nordstrom (chairman at the time) for guidance. Lloyd suggested he visit his friend Stanley Marcus in Texas.
“He said he would love to have me down, and I jumped at the chance,” said Bruce. “They let me see everything, and I even ate in the executive dining room. They couldn’t have been nicer.”
Uncle Lloyd also suggested a trip to New York City to meet with buyers and brands.
“I didn’t know anything, so I asked a lot of questions,” Bruce said. “I called on a lot of vendors and got to know what they thought. I did that for a couple of weeks, and I learned a lot.”
But specific advice was sometimes hard to come by. “I learned the most from my dad, but you had to know him,” said Bruce. “He was smart, but he didn’t want to interfere with anything. When I was made president, he almost stopped coming to the store. It was a sink-or-swim deal for me.”
Bruce jokingly looked in his son’s direction as he added, “Erik and his brothers might tell you the same. They would probably say I haven’t told them anything, and I probably haven’t.”
“That’s not true at all,” Erik laughingly countered. “Suggestions? The truth is, he has lots of good advice, a long list of good things.”
That list has been honed by years of on-the-floor experience that is a trademark of the Nordstrom family.
“I still like to go around and ask about everything,” Bruce said. “I get to know the store manager and look around different departments. Of course, I can’t know everyone now, but they know Mr. Bruce. I’m walking around in their way all the time.”
“He loves walking the floor,” said Erik. “And seeing the changes.”
“I still talk to the customers I know,” Bruce added. And when asked if he continues to make sales, he responded, “Well, I’ve guided some people in that direction.”
During the heady days of growth that kicked off in the 1970s, Nordstrom retained that personal touch as the company dramatically expanded its presence across the country and became a household name.
“We had a couple hundred employees when I started, and we have 76,000 now,” he explained. “I never would have imagined that we would be this big, but I knew my grandfather pretty well, and he said we were going to grow — and that we did.”
With great humility, Bruce said there were no real “aha” moments during his incredible career, noting that it was more an evolutionary trajectory.
Yet a couple of good stories do pour out, and it’s clear that with the advantage of hindsight, they are both pivotal and impressive, even for the storyteller.
One such moment was the retailer’s expansion to California in 1978. Like so many big decisions then, it was potentially risky and had its share of detractors.
“There were some people around at the time who said, ‘Why are you going to mess it up by opening there? You guys do all right in the Northwest, but it’s a different, more sophisticated customer, and you are going to blow it.’”
But Bruce saw the skepticism as a challenge. “I clearly didn’t agree. It just made us go a little harder,” he recalled.
Harder in this case meant digging in, going to a lot of store sites and being thoughtful about product assortment. “Nobody thought much of us in those days, and most of the good locations weren’t interested in us,” Bruce said.
Opening a store in La Brea “that was in the wrong end of the wrong mall” turned out to be a watershed moment. “I knew it was right the second day the store was open, when we got the numbers in,” Bruce said. “We did a lot of business the first day — not compared to what they do now but a lot for us at that time.”
The public’s warm reception would embolden the family to go much further. “The next big moment was going to the East Coast,” said Erik and his father, almost in unison. “Chicago was an awfully big moment, but Tysons Corner [in northern Virginia in 1988] was huge for us,” Bruce added.
There is an unmistakable energy in Bruce’s voice when he discusses the period of rapid expansion. “I liked proving that we could really do something,” he said. “We evolved, moved around and had success. Success gave us confidence to push on. It was fun.”
Of course, there were other towering moments. Bruce and team took the company public in 1971, debuted the first Nordstrom Rack in 1973 and continued major expansion throughout the U.S. before he officially retired in 1995.
The moment was somewhat short-lived, as he returned to the chairman role in 2000 during a rocky time for the company — and then he retired for good in 2006.
But did he?
Today, Mr. Bruce is still a presence in the office, though Erik joked that his dad is “slacking by only doing a four-day work week.”
Bruce now spends longer weekends at a log cabin north of Seattle with his wife, Jeannie, but the Nordstrom family often meets for their time-honored Monday lunch in town.
It’s a fluid group, Erik noted, that often includes “my dad, my aunt, an uncle or two, my brothers and my cousin. It’s a nice tradition. We talk shoes, and we talk sports.”
Both father and son admit to talking shop during off hours and at family gatherings. In fact, there are no hard-and-fast rules between the brothers and their father.
“Those lines are really blurred,” Erik said. “We could talk boats at work or work at the Thanksgiving table. We have a shared goal, and we like it.”
So how does the family handle the inevitable conflict that comes with running a very complex business?
“Of course we have differences of opinion,” said Bruce. “We don’t agree all the time, but we vote when we need to decide things. In some cases, someone felt so strongly that they ended up changing the others’ minds.
“Sometimes behind closed doors, there might be smoke,” he added. “But we are committed to finding a solution. When we walk out, we walk out as one.”
The subject of family comes up often with Bruce, whose modest office is lined with photographs that serve as a visual history from the earliest days of the retail empire right up to the present.
Each photo triggers a fond remembrance, and it’s abundantly clear that he is proud of the family’s accomplishments and the incredible heritage that binds them.
“My grandmother and grandfather both came from a small town in Sweden,” he explained, pointing to their picture on the wall. “They never went to school. Grandpa came over when he was 15 with $200. He had two or three brothers, and they were older. He didn’t get along with them, so he got on a freighter across the Atlantic for New York City — without knowing a word of English.”
That strength of character is what Bruce cites as the family glue. “We are stuck out here by ourselves,” he joked. “There aren’t many successful family businesses. We are unique.”
Of course, growth has challenged the ability to infuse the family feeling across a massive retail empire.
“The big thing for me was, how do you get all those people on the same track? But the one thing I’m most proud of is that the people that work here really get affected by what we are doing,” Bruce said. “They are kind of teaching themselves. We are in a lot of places. Somehow the people you put in to run the store know how to make sure that culture survives.”
“As the company had increasing success,” added Erik, “we’ve worked harder on our culture. We know that growth provides opportunities, so we wanted to focus on great people who can reflect that culture.”
New York and Shoes
But life in the digital age offers more complicated challenges that aren’t revealed walking a sales floor. “It may not have been something we saw coming, but we liked growing and winning, and that took us to the next opportunity,” Bruce noted. “Results are the key. Numbers tell the story.”
It’s a story that will soon include the much-anticipated New York store opening in 2019. The Manhattan venture is a huge deal for the entire family.
“And now we are going to NYC!” Bruce said.
“He will definitely be there,” added Erik.
“The truth is, it’s as exciting as it can be,” said the family patriarch.
Still, Bruce is under no illusions about the department store business. “It is very tough right now,” he said. “They are failing left and right. It’s not easy, but we keep close to the ground and stay ahead of things.”
When pressed on why so many big names are failing, he had a simple explanation: “A lot of people don’t work very hard. They take a bigger check but don’t put in the effort. When your names are on the door, it matters.”
A key part of the new Manhattan store will be the shoe department, a category that is near and dear to the family.
“People forget that we were just shoes for 62 years,” said Bruce. “We still do more shoe business than any other department, except cosmetics.”
“The roots of our culture come from the shoe floor,” Erik added, “on your hands and knees in front of the customer. There’s a humility, a dedication to service that is derived from those early days, and it is still the touchstone for the rest of our business.”
The morning ends on that powerful note of reflection.
When asked what he is most proud of in his long career, Bruce once more surveyed the photos before his gaze landed on a picture of his sons.
“Whatever else I’ve driven or accomplished pales in comparison to my family,” he said. “They are so important to who and what we are today.”
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