Life­time Achieve­ment Award

In an FN ex­clu­sive, the leg­endary re­tailer opens up about his in­cred­i­ble ca­reer, the im­por­tance of shoes and why fam­ily mat­ters most.


Bruce Nord­strom

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 Seat­tle store in 1938

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