NEW YORK — John J. Whitacre, a career Nordstrom executive who started as a shoe salesman and rose to become the only non-Nordstrom family member to lead the chain, died of a heart attack Monday. He was 50.

The 6-foot-5 Whitacre was an offensive tackle on the varsity football team at the University of Washington in Seattle. He remained very athletic and coached his children’s teams. However, he collapsed after rowing in the training room at the University of Washington on Monday.

"John was an important part of? building our company. We all loved him," said Bruce Nordstrom, chairman of the board of directors.

"He was as much a part of the Nordstrom culture as any Nordstrom," said Robert Spector, author of "The Nordstrom Way." "He understood what made Nordstrom Nordstrom — that whole customer service reputation."

Whitacre began his Nordstrom career in 1976. A few years later, he started managing the Bellevue Square store in Washington. As the story goes, he followed a suggestion from an employee to hire a pianist for the holiday season. The Nordstroms liked the concept so much that pianos were rolled out chainwide and live music became a year-round feature.

In 1987, Whitacre opened the company’s first store on the East Coast, in Tysons Corner, Va., and led the chain’s expansion on the East Coast. He became a vice president in 1989 and during the next six years continued his rise.

In 1995, when the third generation of Nordstrom family members decided to pull back from active management, the fourth generation was named co-presidents but deemed too young to step up to the top. Instead, Whitacre, along with Raymond Johnson, became co-chairmen, and in 1997, Whitacre was promoted to chief executive officer.

As ceo, he led the firm through a turbulent period of slumping sales and profits, but he fought back by orchestrating strategies to modernize the company, including new systems and a $300 million Internet catalog business.

Through it all, Nordstrom continued to aggressively open new stores, maintaining its status as an anchor developers wanted in their malls, but the chain failed to rebound. Consequently, Whitacre resigned in August 2000, and Bruce Nordstrom, from the third generation, was named chairman and Blake Nordstrom, from the fourth generation, was named president. Blake effectively serves as ceo, but without holding the title.A year after leaving Nordstrom, Whitacre resurfaced in London, where initially he started consulting for Harrods, and then went on to manage the famous department store. After only a year, he returned to the U.S., partly because of his desire to spend more time with his family. He continued to do consulting work and was active in community service.

Whitacre is survived by his wife, Genevieve; daughter, Stephanie; son, Christopher; his father, Marshall; brother, Jim, and sisters, Kay and Betty. A memorial mass will be at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Bridget Church, 4900 NorthEast 50 Street, Seattle.

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