January 02, 2019

Blake Nordstrom


Here's a story for you. It's late 2005 and Nordstrom has shut down the catalog division. The online President job opens up. I call Blake and tell him I'd like to be considered for the job. His response? "I don't think you have the skill necessary to do that job. I think you need retail management skills, given where the online division is trending. Here's what I am willing to do for you. You keep your salary, and I'll make you a store manager. You work in a store for a few years and get the hands-on experience you need, and if you do a good job we can talk about where you can take your career."

Now, I wasn't interested in doing that. But Mr. Nordstrom was willing to invest in my career. Having been in the retail industry for three decades, you can count on one hand how many Leaders are willing to do that for a geeky analytical guy like myself.

We'd have annual meetings - all Executives and several key Directors would gather for a day of strategy. Blake would call me and ask for a series of customer metrics that explained why business was good or not-so-good. My team would provide 'em. And then at the meeting Blake would tell the audience ... "Where's Kevin?" ... and I'd stand up and he'd say something nice and then he'd share customer metrics ... real stuff ... like "did you know that when we acquire a customer online the customer has a 70% chance of placing a second order in a store?" ... or "did you know that when a customer buys in a Nordstrom Rack that our Full-Line Store Sales are not negatively impacted?" And those facts were the lead-ins to the strategic direction for the upcoming year.

Before a quarterly investor conference call, Blake would call and get data from my team, and then we'd listen in on the conference call and he'd share something we authored and that was big time fun fifteen years ago when customer data was largely meaningless in a retail setting.

My favorite Blake Nordstrom story? I wanted fancy software for my team ... and Blake just looked at me and says "Now how many pairs of shoes do my employees have to sell so that you and your team get to have some fun at work?"

My wife and I were eating dinner outside on an island northwest of Seattle - I was taking a week-long vacation ... and I can see this figure with a big smile hustling down the pier toward our table. It was Blake. He spent five minutes with us, and he didn't have to do that, he had fifty-thousand people who wanted a piece of his time, but he spent time with people anyway. I recall working at the Northgate Store (north Seattle) during the Anniversary Sale, and there was Blake smiling at me watching me sweat as I hustled returns off the sales floor. He'd stop and chat with every employee who wanted his time. And he'd quiz the store managers, holy cow! But not in a mean way or in a condescending way.

A final story. Neiman Marcus used to tease Nordstrom publicly - stating that they were going to open a store in a mall and crush us. Blake asked my Real Estate analyst to quantify what happened when Neiman Marcus entered a market where Nordstrom had an existing store. She (our analyst) did the work, and it showed that our sales increased when Neiman Marcus would enter a market we already had a store in. Blake quickly and confidently shared that information publicly. And not surprisingly, the comments from Neiman Marcus quietly ended.

We frequently read about various leaders and their shortcomings, their nastiness, their incoherent obliviousness to what is really going on. You won't read comments like that about Blake Nordstrom, and for good reason. He was a regular person, and he did a lot of good for a lot of people. And from an analytics standpoint, he was a good five years ahead of the competition when it came to using customer information. I feel blessed I got a chance to work for him and his family.

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