“I’m a shoe dog. I say that with all my heart. That doesn’t sound like a complimentary title, but that’s me,” declared Bruce Nordstrom onstage at the FN Achievement Awards in December 2018. It’s an apt statement coming from a retail icon who cut his teeth sweeping floors at his family’s store.
Nordstrom 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 nine, 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. In fact, he used a 30-minute lunch break to propose marriage, at age 23. 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.”
Now with his own sons at the helm, Bruce still likes 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.”
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 wrong end of the wrong mall” turned out to be a watershed moment. “I knew it was right the second day the store was open, when we got the numbers in,” Bruce said. “We did a lot of business the first day — not compared to what they do now but a lot for us at that time.”
The public’s warm reception would embolden the family to go much further. “The next big moment was going to the East Coast,” said Erik and his father, almost in unison. “Chicago was an awfully big moment, but Tysons Corner [in northern Virginia in 1988] was huge for us,” Bruce added.
There is an unmistakable energy in Bruce’s voice when he discusses the period of rapid expansion. “I liked proving that we could really do something,” he said. “We evolved, moved around and had success. Success gave us confidence to push on. It was fun.”
Of course, there were other towering moments. Bruce and team took the company public in 1971, debuted the first Nordstrom Rack in 1973 and continued major expansion throughout the U.S. before he officially retired in 1995.
The moment was somewhat short-lived, as he returned to the chairman role in 2000 during a rocky time for the company — and then he retired for good in 2006.
But did he? Today, Mr. Bruce spends longer weekends with his wife, Jeannie, but he is still a presence in the office. On a recent morning, he proudly posed for the cover with his beloved family.
Bruce has also been there for many of his sons’ big moments on the road. In 2017, he made a special appearance at the WWD CEO Summit in New York to cheer on his son Pete, who delivered the opening address at the event.
Mr. Bruce was back in the Big Apple again in 2019 to toast the much-anticipated opening of Nordstrom’s Manhattan store. “That building is a culmination of efforts and experiences. All the accomplishments, all the times you stubbed your toe. It’s sobering and humbling for a guy like me who’s been there the whole time.”
A version of this story first appeared in FN’s Dec. 3, 2018, issue.