Blake Nordstrom, who disclosed a lymphoma diagnosis in December, is remembered by employees, customers and others as a humble leader who treated employees as family. In an archive video, he talks about the evolution of the “Nordstrom Way.”
Blake W. Nordstrom, part of the fourth generation to lead his family’s namesake retail company through one of the industry’s most tumultuous periods, died in Seattle on Wednesday morning. He was 58.
The company confirmed his death. On Dec. 10, Mr. Nordstrom announced that he had been diagnosed a week earlier with lymphoma, sharing optimism at his prognosis of a “treatable” form of the cancer, which affects the immune system.
He told employees, customers and shareholders he planned to undergo chemotherapy and reduce his travel schedule but “otherwise continue to work throughout this process as normal.”
Nordstrom employees, customers and observers shared memories and condolences Wednesday, painting a picture of a humble leader who carried on his forebears’ tradition of treating employees as family and who was not above performing low-level tasks even as he advanced to the company’s top ranks.
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One woman described Mr. Nordstrom distributing a cart full of directories ahead of a new store opening and then buying her a piece of pie in the cafe.
Fashion designer Kenneth Cole called Mr. Nordstrom “one of our industry’s truest leaders and finest individuals.”
“Everyone who worked with Blake knew of his passion and deep commitment to employees, customers and the communities we serve,” Brad D. Smith, chairman of Nordstrom’s board and former CEO of Intuit, said in a statement, adding that the company is fortunate to have Mr. Nordstrom’s younger brothers, Pete and Erik, to continue leading the company as co-presidents.
Mr. Nordstrom epitomized “the Nordstrom style of management,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of analysis firm GlobalData Retail and a longtime Nordstrom watcher. “Not being afraid to test things out, not being afraid to change, making decisions to invest in the business even though it causes short-term challenges.”
Over a nearly five-decade career, Mr. Nordstrom rose to lead the company co-founded in 1901 as Wallin & Nordstrom on Fourth Avenue and Pike Street in Seattle by his great-grandfather, Swedish immigrant John W. Nordstrom.
Mr. Nordstrom started in the family business when he was about 11, working in the stockroom, he writes in his father Bruce’s 2007 corporate history. Mr. Nordstrom also spent a summer at Vic Franck’s Boat Co., which nurtured his lifelong love of boats, even if he was assigned to clean out holding tanks, as Bruce Nordstrom recounted in the book, “Leave it Better Than You Found It.”
Mr. Nordstrom inevitably made his way in the family business. He sold women’s shoes — a business line closely associated with Nordstrom’s origins — was a merchandise buyer and regional manager and then a vice president overseeing stores in Washington and Alaska. It was a career arc that afforded Mr. Nordstrom “a very good understanding of the market and of retailing and most important of Nordstrom’s customers,” Saunders said.
In the 2007 book, Erik Nordstrom recounted working for his brother in various positions in the company as they both ascended through the ranks.
“It was always the best working for my brother because he had more confidence in me and gave me more autonomy than anybody I had ever worked for,” Erik Nordstrom wrote. “But he also had higher expectations than anybody I had ever worked for. He believed in me more than I believed in myself.”
Mr. Nordstrom became a co-president in 1995 with responsibilities that included the company’s off-price Nordstrom Rack, as several members of the next generation stepped up to senior leadership roles. Mr. Nordstrom’s assignment was the “lowest-profile job” among the fourth generation, Bruce Nordstrom wrote in the history. “He occupied a tiny, windowless office in the Nordstrom Rack on Second Avenue.”
In 2000, at 39, Mr. Nordstrom was named corporate president, a singular title that belied the joint leadership that has characterized the family and company going back generations. Bruce Nordstrom wrote that Pete and Erik were “willing to defer the title to Blake, knowing that their brother doesn’t make a move without talking to them.” (In 2015, Mr. Nordstrom again shifted to co-president, a title he shared with his brothers.)
The early 2000s saw Nordstrom recover from a period of slowing sales through merchandising changes, new inventory and sales-tracking technology and a renewed commitment to Nordstrom’s vaunted customer service.
Bruce Nordstrom, along with another third-generation family member, director John Nordstrom, retired in 2006, leaving the fourth generation fully in charge.
Like all long-tenured retailers, Nordstrom has been navigating the upheaval driven by online shopping, now well into its second decade. Mr. Nordstrom was instrumental in guiding the company’s strategy through this period with an increasingly sophisticated e-commerce offering that has sought to blend the convenience of shopping online with the unique attributes of Nordstrom’s luxurious department stores, which it has renovated, relocated and continued to expand.
“For a mature company in a disadvantaged market, they have just done an amazing job, particularly over the last 10 years,” said Steve Dennis, retail analyst and founder of SageBerry Consulting.
More recently, the company has focused on building out new retail formats and concepts, including its “Local” stores in Los Angeles, which provide fitting rooms, online-order fulfillment and services such as tailoring and personal stylists.
As far back as the mid-2000s, Nordstrom was searching for a prime location to make a mark in Manhattan — the storied home turf of its top-tier competitors in fashion retail. Last April, Mr. Nordstrom was on hand to mark the opening of the Nordstrom Men’s Store. A flagship women’s store is planned in 2019.
Mr. Nordstrom was among the group of Nordstrom family members who last year made an ultimately unsuccessful bid to take the company private, a reflection of the pride and faith they hold in the business and its future, and out of a desire to get away from the public-company scrutiny and emphasis on short-term results.
Outside of the family company, Mr. Nordstrom’s business endeavors included a stint as a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 2004 to 2012, and serving as a director of Whole Foods from 2011 to 2012.
He was active in local business and philanthropic groups, including the Downtown Seattle Association, whose president, Jon Scholes, described Mr. Nordstrom’s key role in the late 1990s revitalization of the city center. “We will miss Blake’s passion, focus and dedication to his hometown,” Scholes said in a statement.
The United Way of King County noted the longtime support of the Nordstrom family, adding, “Blake’s commitment and energy has particularly stood out.” Mr. Nordstrom and wife, Molly, were co-chairs of the charity’s major gifts effort — the local Tocqueville Society — for six years and served as a mentor to many in and out of the organization.
Brad L. Smith, the Microsoft president, said in a statement that “Blake was a role model for the entire business community, combining astute leadership for his company with a compassion for the community and a commitment that always pushed people to raise their sights in imagining what’s possible.”
Blake W. Nordstrom was born Oct. 4, 1960.
He attended Mercer Island High School, showing early leadership acumen as manager of the basketball team.
Mr. Nordstrom studied economics at the University of Washington, graduating in 1982. He rowed on the crew team, describing his time there as “a really rich and important experience in my life, a chapter I’m very proud of.” (He cited as a favorite book “The Boys in the Boat,” by Daniel James Brown, which chronicles the UW crew team’s trip to the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936.) Mr. Nordstrom would go on to support the Huskies’ standout rowing program as co-chair of the Board of Rowing Stewards.
Mr. Nordstrom’s family asked for privacy on Wednesday. Details about arrangements and survivors were not immediately available.
Seattle Times reporter Paul Roberts contributed to this report.