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American industry has been fortunate to have more than our share of great leaders who contributed to creating what I call the “American Business Machine.” One such leader has been Howard Lester of Williams-Sonoma Inc.
When Williams-Sonoma announced in January that Lester would retire from the posts of CEO and chairman after 31 years, I had to take a deep breath and let it seep in.
Lester has been a key visionary and guide for Williams-Sonoma, as well as the entire housewares industry. He has led thousands of employees and partners through Williams-Sonoma Inc.’s back doors and millions of consumers through the Williams-Sonoma front doors.
Working side by side with Chuck Williams since 1979, Lester helped elevate the products, branding, customer service and consumer satisfaction levels in our industry and has challenged us to keep doing better.
When they started, Williams-Sonoma had four retail stores and a small mail order business. Yet, as news got out about the man in San Francisco with the kitchen shop filled with incredible cooking ideas, people started looking for a Williams-Sonoma. Eventually, those four stores became 600 stores, and $4 million in retail sales became almost $4 billion over 30 years in business.
I think Lester bought Williams-Sonoma because he saw a potential for a brand and respected Williams’ commitment to being the best on all levels. Lester is a natural risk taker, dreamer and strategist— an American Entrepreneur par excellence. He had already built businesses and taken calculated risks in complicated markets. And he thought selling great kitchen equipment and culinary ideas would be fun.
Lester saw an opportunity to create better products and brands for the housewares industry, as well as ways to innovate, improve quality, encourage investment in new technologies, improve service and then create a need for these new products through marketing initiatives such as retail stores, catalogs, public relations and the Internet.
In the course of this revolution, customer service standards were front and center, and Lester and Williams listened with care to what their consumers wanted and delivered on these expectations.
Williams-Sonoma products became breakfast conversation, were featured by the hottest celebrities and chefs on TV and ultimately found their way into the American kitchen. Many consumers came to define their level of cooking sophistication by the Williams-Sonoma products on their kitchen counters.
Over the years, Lester never stopped taking chances on products or people. He respects talent and is always on the lookout for the next “superstar.” Lester knows that two people can do more with a vision than one.
Lester’s confidence in others shows in his philanthropic ventures too. He and his wife, Mary, have served on philanthropic boards in support of education, medical research and the Arts. In 1991, he endowed the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation within the Haas School. In 2008, Lester was recognized as Lifetime Humanitarian of the Year by the Housewares Charity Foundation. I was proud to be selected to ask him to accept this industry honor.
I have, over the years, heard Lester speak formally and informally about what he feels is important in life and business.
Lester’s message has always been clear to those around him:
Have a vision and build a dream
Arrogance is a terrible thing
Celebrate your associates and accomplishments
Have integrity and honesty in all that you do
“Be continually focused on what can be rather than what is. We either lead or follow. It is better to go where no one has gone than where many have been before.”
What are the traits of great leaders?
They have a passion and a standard of excellence
They share a vision and can explain it to those who will listen
They exude confidence and make others feel important
They admit mistakes at any cost and use adversity as a learning opportunity
They treat their followers the way they want to be treated
They never lose touch with people and maintain that special shopkeeper mentality
They respect what team members and partners built and help building on those successes
They are committed to educate, not just sell
They stay close to the store and walk the floor at every opportunity
They find time to celebrate success and build relationships
They are team builders
They have strong character with the utmost in integrity
All that any of us can ever hope for in life is the opportunity to make a difference and improve on what was originally given to us during our careers. Howard Lester has always grabbed life and made it better for all around him.
Lester helps those of us in the industry realize what we can do and set us on a path for future success. His example encourages others to reach for the stars and embrace change as a catalyst for tomorrow.
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