What Would Blake Do? How the Legend Inspired Leadership & Reshaped Retail

At an investor day in May 2017, Blake Nordstrom was speaking on behalf of his co-presidents and brothers, Erik and Peter, about the state of the family business.

The executive, who died unexpectedly on Jan. 2 at 58 after a short battle with lymphoma and was honored last weekend in Seattle, often took the lead during shareholder presentations. During his speech, he readily recounted the department store’s recent financial milestones, its big plan to open Nordstrom’s first Manhattan outpost and the new ways it would use technology to boost service and convenience for customers.

Near the end of the presentation, an attendee asked Nordstrom — who helmed the company as president for 15 years before splitting the leadership reins with his brothers in 2015 — to explain why its unconventional three-president leadership model had excelled amid turbulent retail times.

“Well, we’ve got some folks right here that started that model,” Nordstrom responded, tossing the credit to other family members and business partners in attendance. “The belief is that the strategy, the decisions [and] the outcomes are richer together than individually. It’s like a marriage. It’s hard to do. You’ve got to believe deep in your bones that it’s important you work together.”

Perhaps it’s those very sentiments that will help carry the Nordstrom family forward as they navigate the difficult days and months ahead.

“One of the things that brings us some comfort is that Blake’s values, character and passion can still be reflected in what this company does — how we treat each other, our customers and our communities. Building on that is the best way we can think of to honor his legacy,” Pete and Erik Nordstrom said in a note to employees.

Blake Pete Erik Nordstrom
(L-R): Blake, Pete and Erik Nordstrom.
CREDIT: Courtesy of company

A Family’s Bond

The company — co-founded in 1901 by Nordstrom’s great-grandfather, Swedish immigrant John Nordstrom, as shoe store Wallin & Nordstrom — has long been synonymous with humility, service and unrelenting pursuit of customer satisfaction.

And according to those who knew Blake Nordstrom, few embodied those values at the level — and with the consistency — that he did.

“The Nordstrom family is appropriately focused on being a team and not having the way the business is run and represented being about any one person. Blake exemplified that team-oriented approach,” said Caleres chairman, president and CEO Diane Sullivan. “He was well-liked, thoughtful, humble, professional — there aren’t enough adjectives to describe the wonderful person he was.”

Much like his father, beloved retail legend Bruce Nordstrom — who cut his teeth sweeping the floors of the family’s business at 9 years old — Blake Nordstrom began his career working in the department store’s stockroom in the 1970s.

Bruce Nordstrom and Sons
(L-R): Erik, Pete, Blake and Bruce Nordstrom in 2008.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nordstrom

By 1975, he had moved his way up to selling in the downtown Seattle store. Nordstrom went on to hold a range of positions in buying and regional management before becoming company president in 2000.

His ascension to the top post would come after the firm experienced several rocky years — accented by soft performance and culminating with the departures of two top executives, neither of which held the Nordstrom name. At that time, the family moved in to regain control of the business and right the ship, with Blake Nordstrom taking the president slot and Bruce Nordstrom returning from retirement and assuming the chairman seat.

In addition to helping stabilize sales, Blake Nordstrom steered both the expansion of the firm’s brick-and-mortar footprint as well its early moves to become a pioneer of the department store sector’s digital evolution. In 2005, the company made what at the time was an unprecedented deal in the retail space, snapping up luxury Manhattan and Atlanta boutiques Jeffrey Inc.

Also under Nordstrom’s watch, the firm in 2011 procured online flash sale site HauteLook for $180 million, marking the first time that a traditional retailer acquired a company focused in online private sales. (Up until his passing, Nordstrom’s role continued to encompass supporting the HauteLook business.)

Blake Molly Nordstrom 2018
Blake Nordstrom with his wife, Molly, at Nordstrom’s men’s store opening in New York in April 2018.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nordstrom

As other traditional retail players faltered, a series of digital savvy tactics, including Nordstrom’s launch of buy online, pick up in store helped solidify the company as a yardstick for its peers amid the rapid rise of e-commerce pure plays and a wave of retail bankruptcies. In 2015, the three Nordstrom brothers became co-presidents, and despite frenetic change, both good and bad, Nordstrom’s leadership style never wavered.

“The greatest characteristic Blake showed was a level of humbleness not usually demonstrated at the CEO level,” said David Kahan, CEO of Birkenstock Americas. “Anytime our paths crossed, I would be sure to thank him for his support of our business, and he would immediately turn it around and thank me for all we were doing for Nordstrom. He was genuinely grateful for the partnership and didn’t take it for granted in any way. I remember attending the opening event in Vancouver and congratulating him on the new store, and he immediately congratulated me on the success they were having with our brand.”

Sullivan recalled that her last encounter with Nordstrom, which occurred just ahead of retail’s frenzied Thanksgiving rush, left a similar impression.

“It was a really busy time for him — just before an earnings call and with what we now know was going on with his health — but he took time to catch up both personally and professionally. That was Blake,” she said. “He always made time and genuinely cared. He could have said, ‘Sorry, Diane. I’m really busy. We’ll catch up another time.’ But he didn’t. He was an incredibly balanced human being.”

Nordstrom Seattle
Nordstrom’s Seattle flagship store.
CREDIT: Ted S Warren/Shutterstock

The company’s brand partners were hugely important to Nordstrom; he was equally passionate about each member of his team, a quality he demonstrated across ranks.

“It was his capacity to make connections across our company — from the stockroom, to salespeople, store managers and buyers, customers, investors, partners and anyone he came into contact with, that made him extraordinary,” said Kristin Frossmo, EVP and GMM for Nordstrom’s shoe division. “He motivated a room and touched us individually with a kind note or a few simple words of genuine gratitude.”

Perhaps it was Nordstrom who cast his approach best, speaking on his family’s service motto to FN in 2017. “We want all employees to feel as though it’s their name on the door and that they are empowered to do whatever it takes to serve the customer on their terms,” he said. “Our open-door policy is connected to the idea that we all have a stake in this together.”

Blake Bruce Erik Nordstrom NYC Store
Blake, Bruce and Erik Nordstrom with team members from the NYC men’s store.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nordstrom

What Would Blake Do?

“When Sarah Jessica Parker and I first decided to go into business together and launch the SJP Collection, Blake was the first phone call we made,” said George Malkemus, president of Manolo Blahnik USA. “We were looking for insight and advice. With Blake, there was always this fresh outlook and enthusiasm. He gave a lot back and encouraged designers.”

For those who crossed his path, Nordstrom’s legacy in retail extends far beyond his role in helping to build his family’s company into a $15 billion business. He created a standard among his peers for how leadership can be both personal and effective.

“My career in the shoe industry began at Nordstrom in Bellevue, Wash., where I was a young rookie shoe salesperson working part time,” said Fred Mossler, who went on to help build e-tail powerhouse Zappos before starting his own shoe brand, Ross & Snow, in 2017. “Blake was always incredibly kind to me as a newbie and always [took] the time to chat with me about the company. … [Later] when I was working in Hawaii for Liberty House [where Nordstrom ran the shoe department], Blake would visit and always remembered not only my name but my history within the company. He remembered where I had been and successes I’d had. Within a company of tens of thousands of people, that stuck out to me as something special.”

Mark Ruffalo Rashida Jones Bruce Blake Nordstrom
(L-R): Mark Ruffalo, Rashida Jones, Bruce Nordstrom, Blake Nordstrom at the company’s men’s store VIP party in 2018.
CREDIT: Andrew H Walker

Debbie Ferrée, vice chairman and chief merchandising officer at DSW Inc., recalled that her first in-person encounter with Nordstrom — at the opening of Nordstrom’s Fashion Island store in Newport Beach, Calif., in 2010 — was preceded by scores of stories from industry insiders who told her about his leadership acumen and unmatched poise. “I was so nervous to meet him. I thought, ‘He is such an important person in our industry,’” she said. “I got up very early that day and made sure I was dressed appropriately and that my makeup was on right and my hair was right — I wanted to [be prepared]. But immediately, he made me feel like I was part of the family. He had a smile that lit up the whole room. There’s no way I couldn’t walk away feeling like a million dollars.”

Nick Lucio, founder and CEO of Steven Madden Ltd.-owned brand Dolce Vita, said he’s taken a few pages from Nordstrom’s book when it comes to how he guides the women’s shoe label. “Blake knew that it was the people that made Nordstrom a special place to work and to shop,” Lucio said. “I have always been inspired by his leadership philosophy and tried to apply it to our own business by empowering our people and providing the best service.”

Blake Nordstrom Rack Geevy Thomas
Geevy Thomas (L) and Blake Nordstrom at the NYC Nordstrom Rack store in 2010.
CREDIT: FN Archives

Geevy Thomas, president of Nordstrom Rack — a division with which Nordstrom worked particularly closely — said the leader’s “retail DNA” will remain in the fabric and foundation of the company into the foreseeable future. “He led by example and never asked anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. … He was a shopkeeper, a merchant, a champion of the customer and our people,” Thomas said. “He was a man whose strength was rooted in kindness, untold acts of generosity, an indomitable competitive spirit, his love of family and of every part of our company. We are his legacy.”

As Ferrée put it: “This is how Blake will leave this world: People will continue to [ask themselves], ‘What would Blake do? What would he think? How would Blake treat [others]?’”

Nordstrom is survived by his wife, Molly, and children Andy and Alex.

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