Howard Lester, the driving force behind the Williams-Sonoma retailing empire, announced his retirement earlier this week. At age 74, Lester certainly deserves to enjoy that retirement. but just as importantly the industry needs to recognize his role in helping to advance the home furnishings business.
When he bought Chuck Williams' little housewares retailing and catalog business, the idea of cooking and the kitchen as a lifestyle activity barely existed. Sure, Julia Child was out there on PBS, but the Cuisinarts, Wolf ranges, Sub-Zero refrigerators and $1000 espresso machines were still pretty much non-existent for the home market.
Lester helped change that. The first to admit he was not a classic merchant, Lester built a business that allowed for Sonoma to change both the way America lives and the products they used to achieve that lifestyle.
And then he and his company did it all over again for the living room, dining room and bed and bath with Pottery Barn. Remember when he bought that operation, it had been owned by The Gap and it looked nothing like the Pottery Barn of today.
Lester brought an analytical, business-like mind to retailing, two traits one does not often see in the business. He's the only retailer I've ever met who used the word logarithm in an interview --and actually knew what it meant.
Lester developed a terrific group of people at Sonoma, including his successor Laura Albers. And to those who say perhaps some of them moved on when their upward path was blocked, you can't blame Lester for wanting to keep a hands-on style for the company he built. He sure didn't do such a bad job in the process.
Lester leaves a solid company, but one that has its challenges. If the luxury market is not what it used to be, Sonoma has to figure out what to do with its fledgling Williams-Sonoma Home unit, as well as get across a better value image for the housewares stores. Pottery Barn, while seemingly on a recovery path, is still about the most copied home retailer in America and staying ahead of the curve is not easy.
West Elm, once touted as the nameplate with the biggest upside potential, needs to get the care and feeding any relatively new business must have to grow.
With his Texas drawl and easy-going manner, Howard is a likable guy--at least to me--and whatever happens at Sonoma, it won't be the same without him.
Howard Lester not only built a great company, he built entire industry segments that simply didn't exist before he came along.
And you don't need any logarithm to figure that out.