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.
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