Blake Nordstrom, an even-keeled voice for change in department store retailing and a key force behind the success of Nordstrom Inc., died Wednesday less than a month after being diagnosed with lymphoma.
He was 58.
Nordstrom led the company with his brothers, fellow copresidents Erik and Peter Nordstrom — the fourth generation of one of retail’s most prominent families, great-grandsons of the company’s founder John W. Nordstrom, who opened a shoe store in 1901 that has been built into a department store empire with annual sales over $16 billion.
He is survived by his wife, Molly; his son and daughter; his two brothers; his father, Bruce, and other family members.
Nordstrom served as sole president of the company from 2000 to 2015, when he and his brothers all took on the mantle of president, underscoring the family dynamic that still drives the Wall Street power player.
“It is with deep sadness that we announce the unexpected passing of Blake Nordstrom,” a company spokeswoman said Wednesday. “Blake died in Seattle early this morning. Executive leadership of Nordstrom will continue under company copresidents Pete and Erik Nordstrom. We appreciate your respect for the privacy of the family during this difficult time.”
The company’s chairman Brad Smith said: “My heart goes out to the Nordstrom family and everyone at the company during this difficult time. Everyone who worked with Blake knew of his passion and deep commitment to employees, customers and the communities we serve. We are fortunate to have continued leadership from copresidents Pete and Erik Nordstrom.”
In early December, Nordstrom revealed he had been diagnosed with a treatable form of lymphoma and said he and his doctors were optimistic about his condition.
“I will undergo chemotherapy over the next few months in Seattle and will reduce my scheduled travel during this time,” Nordstrom said in a message to employees, customer and shareholders. “As I focus on my health and knowing some days will be better than others, I’m told I can otherwise continue to work throughout this process as normal…Cancer is all too common, and I know many of you have dealt with it yourselves or know someone who has. I have a good team of doctors and value the support of my family and friends.”
Just how many friends Nordstrom had was clear in the industry’s outpouring of grief and remembrances of a clear-eyed competitor.
Millard “Mickey” Drexler, who as chief executive officer of J. Crew Group Inc., brought the Madewell brand to Nordstrom, said: “I was so saddened to hear of Blake’s passing. He’s a wonderful person and a great retailer. It’s a great loss both professionally and personally. What he, Erik and Pete brought to Nordstrom is uniquely special in the retail world.”
Jeffrey Kalinsky, founder and president of Jeffrey New York and vice president of designer fashion direction for Nordstrom, said: “First of all, there are no words to describe how amazing this entire family is. Every member is quite inspiring in the way they lead their lives and are such great examples. They really astound me. Blake was a really great man. The thing I’ll always remember is something would happen, and there would be a surprise of a beautifully written letter from Blake. He took such great care not to let things pass without noting them. And not to just note them, but to write quite lengthy letters expressing pride, encouragement and congratulations to me, and not just to me. I remember my father received a handwritten letter around some sort of accomplishment of mine. Blake didn’t even know my father very well. But he took the time to write a handwritten letter to my dad. Blake was a guy who went the extra mile to let people know he cared.”
Footwear maven Sam Edelman said: “I knew [Blake Nordstrom] very well. I grew up with him.”
Edelman said he started his career and moved to California when Blake Nordstrom was a buyer. “I watched him work his way through the organization at the same time Libby and I were growing,” he said, referring to his wife, Libby Edelman.
Edelman said that Nordstrom awarded his company, Sam Edelman, the Partner in Excellence Award in 2013. “He stood up before his board of directors and talked about our 30-year relationship. He had this beautiful smile. I am devastated.
“Blake stood for integrity. He stood for excellence. He stood for everything his family represented generation after generation and found a way to do it in a modern way,” said Edelman. “He was product, he was business, he was people. His door was always open and there was always a smile.”
Many people in the industry remembered Nordstrom the businessman as a sort of gentleman competitor, who was always evolving, searching for new ideas from outside the industry and ready to share his insights.
“Blake was one of the great retailers,” said Steve Sadove, former chairman and ceo of Saks Inc. and now a principal at Steve Sadove and Associates. “The family did such a good job of building one of the great retail brands. He was a great competitor, but was also a friend. He was collaborative with his vendor community, and he was a gentleman as a competitor.”
Sadove cited the “enormous capability” and talent of the Nordstrom family members and their ability to shift gears and “seamlessly change roles” when needed.
“He really represented the brand and the family impeccably,” Sadove said. “[His passing] is a great loss for everyone….Nordstrom is a public company, but also a family company. The values set by Blake and the family are truly remarkable. Nordstrom is known for service, and it understands how to serve the vendor community. It is a great player in the retail industry. It is hard when this happens. Yes, you’re a competitor, but also friends.”
Gilbert Harrison, chairman of Harrison Group and founder and former chairman of Financo Inc. said: “Blake is certainly one of the retail princes of his generation. What he did to grow Nordstrom, not only in the footwear business which was always their expertise, but in expanding the company throughout the U.S., as well as acquiring other brands and certainly building their e-commerce was nothing short of a great accomplishment.”
He said he worked closely with Blake Nordstrom when Harrison sold them the Jeffrey luxury fashion boutiques.
“Hiring Jeffrey Kalinsky to set their strategy of luxury brands was nothing less than brilliant,” said Harrison.
Joshua Schulman, ceo and brand president of Coach said, “Blake Nordstrom personified the values of the company as espoused in his father Bruce’s book, ‘Leave It Better Than You Found It.’ Always focused on his customer and his teams, Blake continued the family tradition of risk taking. While Blake’s father’s generation took the company from Seattle across the country, Blake and his brothers shepherded it into the digital era. Nordstrom became a leader both in the mall and in off-price. Blake led the expansion internationally to Canada and ultimately to New York City. While many family businesses lose the spirit of innovation after the first generation, Nordstrom has only accelerated. Blake truly left it better than he found it.”
Anna Bakst, chief executive officer and president of Kate Spade, said, “I’m deeply saddened to hear the news about Blake, and my heart goes out to the entire Nordstrom family. I’ve always been impressed by how entrenched he was in the business. He had a deep respect not only for the customer, but for the Nordstrom merchants, store associates and everyone around him. He empowered his teams and was always committed to maintaining the Nordstrom brand and building it into what it is today.”
Nordstrom was remembered as eager to bring in new ideas and took on assignments outside the retailer’s headquarters in Seattle, broadening his scope. He served as a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 2007 to 2012 and as a director of Whole Foods Inc. from 2011 to 2012.
“He always looked at everything,” said Deborah Weinswig, retail analyst and ceo and founder of Coresight Research. “He took the ordinary and made it extraordinary. He just had a very unique way of looking at everything. He would look at other industries and how they approached things and then try to apply them to the department store industry and also his company. He would leave no stone unturned, he looked for insights in unusual places.”
Weinswig said he was willing to share those insights while other retailers tend to hold tight to any notion that could potentially aid a competitor.
“He always had a kind word for everybody,” Weinswig said. “That, for me, was the hallmark of who he was.”
Given that the prognosis was good when Nordstrom started treatment for lymphoma, his passing hit many confidants and co-workers hard.
Retail consultant Walter Loeb said: “That is so sad. He was a good friend of mine. I admired him for his leadership, his family concerns, everything that he did. I think that Blake was a great leader in the company.”
Loeb said Nordstrom would look ahead regarding what would be good for the retailer and was focused on innovation and creativity.
“He was always thinking of who could help him identify new ways of doing business,” Loeb said. “He was very involved in the creative for the store opening in New York City this year in September. He wanted it to be a showpiece, as well as an attraction for all of New York. He was very proud of the development of that store. I spoke with him just a couple of weeks ago on the telephone. Nobody expected news like this. It is quite a shock.”
The Nordstroms have always been willing to make the bold move, whether that’s moving in to New York or taking on Canada. The family also tried to take the company private to reinvent away from the glare of Wall Street, but the financing for the transaction came at too high a price and the deal fell through last year.
But that seemed to have more to do with the banking environment than the company or its leadership.
Equity analyst Oliver Chen, managing director at Cowen, said: “Blake had a lot of courage and foresight to drive innovation, that was true to his mission and true to what the industry needed. Nordstrom’s really been a pioneer. The things they’ve been doing, from the local market strategy to personalization to rethinking mobile should be applauded as forward thinking.
“His signature seemed to me like he was pretty even-keeled in his speaking and also exceptionally committed to the mission,” Chen said. “His voice was kind of steady.”
The three Nordstrom brothers shared many of the responsibilities of running a public company — including calls with analysts and meetings with investors. But it was a back and forth that Blake seemed particularly comfortable with, patiently answering questions on a broad range of topics.
An exchange with an investor at the company’s annual meeting in May, caught the Nordstrom dynamic well, summing up the perception of the family and a bit of Blake’s own philosophy.
“Some shareholders may sometimes question your decisions,” said one investor at the meeting. “I don’t think many of us question the integrity of the Nordstrom family, and I think that’s probably a big factor in the integrity of the Nordstrom brand. But my question is: When you have such dominance and you seem to be such nice guys, how do you get people to tell you things you don’t want to hear? That there’s a better way to do things?”
His response was typical Nordstrom: “It’s a fair question, and it’s important that you have truth tellers. I probably get about 20 e-mails, calls and letters a day from customers that there’s opportunities. So I’m humbly aware of those opportunities. I think, for myself, personally, I feel fortunate that I work with my two brothers. They’re not shy about telling me when I have opportunities. We have an executive team that we work with. And…we have really strong independent directors. And so we think we have that, but we need to keep working on making sure we’re close to the customer and we’re aware of what’s going on and those opportunities.”
Arrangements for services are expected to be completed this week.