Serving with a Smile

Blake Nordstrom, the late co-president of his family's department store chain, had a passion for customer service—and a serious smile.

For Blake Nordstrom, retail was detail. He once left a store manager a list of 59 items needing attention—including helping a store employee with transportation to and from work.
For Blake Nordstrom, retail was detail. He once left a store manager a list of 59 items needing attention—including helping a store employee with transportation to and from work.

Blake Nordstrom’s passion for customer service was infectious.

The Smile.

That’s the first image that will always come to mind when I think about Blake Nordstrom. His toothy grin was ever present, broad, and genuine. He was a happy warrior who loved the company founded by his great-grandfather in 1901, and he never failed to express his appreciation to the 72,500 people who proudly call themselves Nordies. Blake was co-president of Nordstrom, his family’s eponymously named chain of high-end department stores.

I first met him 25 years ago, while working on the book that would become The Nordstrom Way. Back then, he was vice president and general manager of the Washington and Alaska group of stores. Over the years, as I saw firsthand his love and passion for the company and its employees—he also always demanded and expected results—it became obvious to me that he would one day lead Nordstrom.

Whether I was interviewing him for an update of The Nordstrom Way, saying hello at the annual shareholders meeting, or crossing paths with him at Sea-Tac Airport, it was always “Hi, Robert. How are you doing?”—punctuated with The Smile.

Blake was eager to hear from customers about their experiences at Nordstrom—whether good or bad. A couple of years ago, a hotel bartender overheard me chatting about Nordstrom with a colleague. The bartender told me that she had once worked at Nordstrom and was a regular customer, but had endured what she termed “the worst experience I have ever had with a Nordstrom employee.” A department manager had been rude to her, which had embarrassed the Nordstrom salesperson helping her. I asked the bartender to email me her story, which I forwarded to Blake. He responded to her immediately: “I’m most appreciative to hear of your constructive feedback…. I’m so sorry our folks fell woefully short.” He concluded with a promise (which he kept) to contact the store manager, who then followed up with her.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Blake began working in the store as a 12-year-old, sweeping the floors in the stockroom. His father, Bruce, paid his son out of his own pocket, his way of encouraging the family work ethic—just as Bruce’s father, Everett, had done when Bruce was 12. Rising up through the ranks, Blake became president of the company in 2000. In 2015, he and his brothers, Pete and Erik (who took the same career path as Blake), became co-presidents of the retailer. Last year, Nordstrom reported sales of $15.5 billion, almost triple the $5.5 billion it reported the year Blake became president. He made Harvard Business Review’s list of the world’s top-performing CEOs every year from 2013 to 2018, one of only six leaders to do so.

To Blake, retail was detail. It is an article of faith at Nordstrom that the employee experience determines the customer experience. He was famous within the company for taking four-hour-long walks through a store, compiling a long list of things that managers and staff could do better.

A former store manager told me of a time in 1994 when Blake, then regional manager, “took me under his wing to teach me the ropes.” After filling in for her one day, Blake left her a friendly note (praising her team) and a list of 59 items he had observed—his focus ranging from displays and housekeeping to being considerate of a salesperson’s transportation needs: “Mark B. can’t drive—be sensitive to the shifts he is scheduled.”

Blake was the embodiment of this detailed approach to running a business. He and his brothers were constant presences in Nordstrom’s coast-to-coast empire, which now includes 121 full-line stores in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico, 244 off-price Nordstrom Racks, and a significant online presence.

Following his death in January after a battle with lymphoma, the Nordstrom Friends Facebook page overflowed with tributes by current and former employees, who told of Blake remembering not only their names but also their previous jobs, spouses, hobbies, and even pets. Blake enjoyed that whole process of connection, with employees and, of course, customers, as well as with suppliers and even competitors.

“Blake was the one individual in the footwear business, that I never heard anyone, ever say a negative word about during my 30 years in the business,” Greg Tunney, global president of Hush Puppies, told the trade publication Footwear News.

But don’t let The Smile fool you. Blake was as competitive as they come. He wanted to win every contest—fair and square. “He was a gentleman as a competitor…but was also a friend,” Steve Sadove, former chairman and CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue, told Women’s Wear Daily.

During Blake’s tenure, he and his brothers made their store the gold standard for customer service by adhering to a set of nonnegotiable values: trust, loyalty, and respect. Blake’s legacy includes a focus on employees, a focus on customers, and a belief that every transaction should conclude with The Smile.

Robert Spector is the author of the Nordstrom Way book series. He fondly recalls bumping into Blake’s father, Bruce Nordstrom, at the flagship store in downtown Seattle. When Bruce noticed that Robert was not carrying a Nordstrom bag, he said, “Don’t just stand there, buy something.”

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