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Bruce Nordstrom, who ran his family's retail empire, dies at 90

Bruce Nordstrom, who along with three other family members transformed a small chain of shoe stores in the Pacific Northwest into an international fashion giant with more than 150 stores worldwide, died Saturday at his home in Seattle. He was 90 years old.

His death was confirmed by a company spokeswoman.

The grandson of John W. Nordstrom, the Swedish immigrant who founded the company, Mr. Nordstrom was part of the third generation of the family to run the company together, sharing power and making decisions by consensus – an unusual but successful Nordstrom tradition continues to this day.

He shared leadership with his cousins ​​John N. Nordstrom and Jim Nordstrom, who were brothers, and Jack McMillan, who was married to their cousin Loyal Nordstrom.

“Management by committee” is considered a formula for business school disaster. However, the Nordstrom family, starting with Bruce's father Everett and Everett's brothers Elmer and Lloyd, decided they could be more effective as co-heads of the company, which was founded in Seattle in 1901.

When Lloyd Nordstrom called 30-year-old Bruce into his office in 1963 and appointed him president of the company, the younger Mr. Nordstrom accepted the post. But he soon decided to emulate his father's generation and share leadership with his three relatives.

“Obviously the arrangement worked out great,” Bruce Nordstrom wrote in his 2007 autobiography “Leave It Better Than You Found It.” “It was wonderful for her and it was wonderful for me because it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

Robert Spector, author of “The Nordstrom Way,” a 1996 book about the company's vaunted reputation for customer service, noted that Bruce Nordstrom was “the nominal leader of the group.” But the company's egalitarian system, in which each leader was responsible for an area of ​​expertise, worked because of a combination of pride and humility, always putting the company first and each individual's needs as a priority.

“Bruce was a very humble guy, but also a very proud guy,” Mr. Spector said in an interview for this obituary in 2019. “He was low-key and didn't take himself too seriously. But he wanted to win.”

Starting with seven shoe stores in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, the family expanded the chain rapidly from the late 1970s through the 1980s, expanding to California and then nationwide, adding a full line of clothing and accessories. What was once a regional shoe store chain with sales of less than $40 million grew into a retail giant that operates 182 stores in 28 states and offers online shopping in 30 countries with sales of more than $9 billion .

When the family opened a store in Southern California in 1978, Bruce Nordstrom and his cousins ​​encountered a wave of skepticism about their planned growth. “There were some people at the time who said, 'Why are you screwing it up by opening there?' You're doing fine in the Northwest, but in California it's a different, more sophisticated customer, 'and you're going to screw it up,'” Mr. Nordstrom said in a 2018 interview with Footwear News.

Although mild-mannered, Mr. Nordstrom was still an ambitious and determined leader, and he said his response to this negativity was to work harder. “I liked proving that we could really achieve something,” he said. “We evolved, moved and had success. The success gave us the confidence to keep going.”

Mr. Nordstrom acknowledged that there were occasional disagreements among the company's executives. “We don't always agree,” he told Footwear News, “but we vote when we have to make decisions.” Sometimes there can be smoke behind closed doors. But we are determined to find a solution. When we go out, we go out as one.”

Bruce Allen Nordstrom was born on October 1, 1933 in Seattle. His mother, Elizabeth (Jones) Nordstrom, known as Libby, was an accomplished singer who appeared on radio.

During World War II, at age 9, Bruce began working at the Nordstrom shoe store in downtown Seattle on Saturdays and summers. He swept floors and dismantled boxes for 25 cents an hour. He recalled in his memoirs standing in line with the other employees to collect his wages, proud of being a paid employee.

He then earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Washington in Seattle, where most of Nordstrom's men graduated and where he rowed for the prestigious rowing team. While in college, he met Fran Wakeman, a freshman student from Seattle, and after years of on-and-off dating, the couple married. They had three sons, Blake, Peter and Erik, all of whom worked for Nordstrom.

After graduating from college in 1955, Mr. Nordstrom joined the Army and served for six months as a lieutenant at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. When he returned to Seattle, he began managing one of the company's stores. His future in management was set.

Mr. Nordstrom retired as chief executive in 2006 but remained an important presence in the company's stores. Forbes estimated his fortune at $1 billion this year.

Fran Nordstrom died in 1984. Four years later, Mr. Nordstrom married Jeannie O'Roark. His eldest son Blake died of cancer in 2019.

He is survived by his wife; his sons Peter and Erik, who continue to run the company; a sister, Anne Gittinger; and seven grandchildren.

Alex Traub contributed to the reporting.

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