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21 Leadership Tips from Nordstrom

July 13, 2017
Today, Blake, Pete and Erik Nordstrom serve as co-presidents of Nordstrom Inc. From one tiny store, Nordstrom has grown into a leading fashion specialty retailer with a global reach, and 2016 earnings of $3.34 billion.

By Mark Matteson

There is a Todd Wilson in every graduating class. He is the early bloomer who has a mustache in the 9th grade. He is a three sport star without really trying. He passes all his classes without doing homework. Todd was 6’2” and 200 pounds at 15 years old. Todd scored 27 points in a junior high school basketball game, could punt the ball 60 yards and had a 90 mph fastball. He had real influence. Whatever he wore, you wanted. 

One day in a business class my sophomore year, I asked him about his shoes. 

“Oh, I got these at Nordstrom and Best at Aurora Village. My mom buys all our clothes and shoes there.” 

“Why Nordstrom and Best?” I asked. 

“Well, I can take anything she buys there back with no receipt, even if I just don’t like them and they give me free pair, no questions asked.” 

Word of mouth. Malcom Gladwell calls these people, “Marketing Mavens.” 

Nordstrom founder Johan (John) Wilhelm Nordstrom was born in 1871 near Lulea, Sweden, 60 miles from the Arctic Circle. His father died when he was eight years old. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 16 with $5 to his name, arriving in Seattle in 1896. 

While working at a saw mill in Arlington, he read a newspaper account of the discovery of gold in the Klondike and headed to Alaska to seek his fame and fortune.

He invested in a claim on Gold Run and worked it for two years. He came back to Seattle with $13,000 and started a retail shoe company with his good friend Carl Wallin. Their first store was at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Pike Street in 1901. His three sons eventually came to work for him. They struck real gold selling shoes. He came into the store every day, well into his 90s.

I have read three different books about Nordstrom. The most recent, “The Winning Team,” was written by his son Elmer J. Nordstrom.

This is an attempt to understand the unprecedented success as Nordstrom continues to defy the odds in its fourth generation of leadership. Today, Blake, Pete and Erik Nordstrom serve as co-presidents of Nordstrom Inc. Just like their grandfathers did. From one tiny store, Nordstrom has grown into a leading fashion specialty retailer with a global reach. In 2016, Nordstrom earned $3.34 billion. 

So why are they so successful? What exactly do they do from a leadership perspective that allows them to continue to prosper? Here is my list. Submitted for your approval.

1. Elmer said, in is delightful little book “The Winning Team,” “Dad taught us to believe in ourselves and success comes from hard work.”

2. Empowerment. “Trust your employees and children.”

3. Teamwork. John’s three sons made a great team. They discussed every key decision at length and only went forward after they were in total agreement. That philosophy continues to this day.

4. Open Door Policy. You can walk into the president’s office and ask any question without an appointment.

5. Every employee starts at the bottom and works his way up.

6. They hire from within whenever possible.

7. Cash is king. From the early days, they were frugal and reinvested into expansion and remodeling.

8. Their operating principles that have not changed in 116 years? Quality, products, massive selection and extra-mile service.

9. They offered “Employee Stock Options” in the sixties, when that was unheard of.

10. They encourage competition by making internal sales public and their sales people work on commission.

11. They treat their suppliers and vendors with respect, kindness and pay them on time.

12. Their leadership has always studied their competition. They formed an association of shoe retailers, a kind of mastermind group in the early 60s, again, unheard of for that time period.

13. They studied growth trends and expanded into markets that were booming. 

14. Every generation wrote about what they did, in an effort to understand their own success.

15. They treat their employees like royalty. “Nordies,” the loyal people who stay and fit into their corporate culture, are extra-mile salespeople.

16. They hire the best people, train them like crazy and get out of their way.

17. Decentralized Management. Driving decision making to the front lines.

18. Humility. They give the credit away to their employees.

19. Leadership gets out of the office and walks around, calling employees by name, and asking about their family and interests.

20. They constantly look for and find ways to add value. You can still get a shoe shine for $2!

21. They invest in the community. The Nordstrom family was responsible for the success of several hospitals and brought professional football to Seattle in 1976, becoming 51 percent owners in the Seattle Seahawks.

I need to contact Todd Wilson and thank him for the referral. I wonder if he still shops at Nordstrom? After all, he doesn’t need a receipt to get some new shoes, but can he still throw a 90-mile-an-hour fastball? Thanks Todd.

Book of the Month

“The Winning Team” by Elmer Nordstrom (1985)

This little “Bathroom Book” comes in at 99 pages. It is cogent, succinct, simply written in a conversational style. There is gentle, humble quality to the writing. I believe it was written to honor his father. 

“Writing this book was not my idea. However, occasionally I am asked to speak to our personnel, to tell them about the old days and the things that worked well for us. For the most part they are simple things, but it is good to hear about them now and then, so that they are not forgotten. Unfortunately my brothers aren't here today, so it is up to me to write this book. I would like to dedicate it to their memory. Here then, is our story.” — Elmer Nordstrom

Mark Matteson is one of the EGIA Contractor University faculty members. EGIA Contractor University has assembled the most experienced and dynamic faculty ever put together. Faculty members have personally built some of the most successful contracting companies in America. Visit Contracting Business for more information and to learn about the Contractor Leadership Live event. 

Matteson gives over 75 presentations each year. You can book him now to secure the inspiring message that will spark your group’s success! To read free blog posts, articles, special reports, to sign up for Mark’s monthly e-zine or watch Mark’s demo video, go to, call 206.697.0454 or email [email protected].