Bruce Nordstrom, Heir Who Led Retail Empire, Dies at 90

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Bruce Nordstrom, who as head of Nordstrom Inc. for four decades helped transform the family-run company from a regional shoe seller into one of the largest U.S. apparel retailers, has died. He was 90.

The former company chairman died Saturday at his home, his sons Pete and Erik Nordstrom said in a statement. “Our dad leaves a powerful legacy as a legendary business leader, a generous community citizen and a loyal friend,” they said.

Following his father’s career path, he ran the company co-founded by his grandfather. When Nordstrom became president in 1963, he presided over a regional chain of shoe stores. Along with two cousins, James Nordstrom and John Nordstrom, he helped the Seattle-based retailer become a national chain of department stores known for its extensive product selection, helpful customer service and a liberal returns policy.

Bruce Nordstrom’s strategy focused in part on fostering customer loyalty by making the stores friendly environments. Instead of generic piped-in music, pianists played on actual baby grands at many sites, dressing rooms were spacious, tired shoppers could rest in plush chairs and the sales staff was trained to be knowledgeable and polite. The department stores employed as much as 50% more salespeople than competitors, reducing customers’ wait times and increasing sales volume.

‘Future of retailing’

“All retailers in America have awakened to the Nordstrom threat and are struggling to catch up,” said Leonard Lauder, who headed cosmetics maker Estée Lauder Cos., according to a 1989 New York Times article. “Nordstrom is the future of retailing.”

Nordstrom Department Store
A sign marks the location of a Nordstrom store in a shopping mall in Chicago on March 20, 2024.Scott Olson—Getty Images

By 2006, when Bruce Nordstrom retired as chairman, the company had $8.6 billion in revenue generated by full-line stores and Nordstrom Rack discount sites. In the company’s most recent fiscal year, it recorded sales of almost $15 billion.

Management at Nordstrom has been a team effort since its early days. Bruce Nordstrom and two cousins assumed control of the company in 1968 as co-chairmen.

New management

The company’s strong growth was interrupted in the mid-1990s when Bruce Nordstrom stepped down and, for the first time, a management team of non-family members was installed. Revenue growth was meager for several years as marketing efforts to attract younger shoppers backfired while costs rose and mark-downs increased.

In 2000, the board convinced him to return as chairman and appointed his son, Blake, as president. Two other sons, Pete and Erik, and their cousin, Jamie Nordstrom, were named senior executives, forming a fourth generation of family management. Blake died in January 2019.

The company continued to expand with its first location in Manhattan, a men’s store on West 57th Street, in 2018. The following year it opened a seven-floor flagship store in Manhattan. The retailer’s largest site, it focused on apparel for women and children and includes several restaurants.

Erik and Pete Nordstrom, now the company’s chief executive officer and president, respectively, in April said they’re pursuing an effort to take the retailer private.

Nordstrom was born Oct. 1, 1933, in Seattle. His parents were Libby and Everett Nordstrom, one of three Nordstrom brothers who took over their father’s Seattle shoe store in 1928. The company was co-founded in 1901 by John W. Nordstrom, a Swedish immigrant who started the company with $13,000 he’d made panning for gold in Alaska.

Company’s growth

Bruce Nordstrom joined the family business by working in the stockroom for $7 a week, according to a 2010 University of Washington alumni magazine story. He received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the school in 1955.

By the early 1960s, the retailer had grown from a single shop in downtown Seattle into the nation’s largest independent shoe store chain with locations in Washington and Oregon. In 1963, with Bruce Nordstrom as its new president, the company acquired Seattle-based Best Apparel, a women’s clothing store, and named the combined stores Nordstrom Best. It added clothing for men and children several years later.

In 1971, the company went public, changing its name to Nordstrom Inc.

The Nordstrom family owned a majority stake in the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks from 1974 until 1988.

With his first wife, the former Fran Wakeman, he had three children: Peter, Erik and Blake. He later married the former Jeannie O’Roark.

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