Williams-Sonoma’s Lester Remembered

Howard Lester

Howard Lester

The retail and housewares industries were saddened last month by the passing of Howard Lester, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Williams-Sonoma.

Lester, one of the signature figures in U.S. retailing for more than three decades, died after a long battle with cancer. He was 75.

“Our industry has suffered a great loss,” said Volker Lixfeld, president and CEO of Groupe SEB North America. “Howard was a true original and quintessential business leader. His vision, his forward thinking, his dedication and his tremendous passion leave a legacy that will inspire the culinary world for years to come.”

Lester joined Williams-Sonoma in 1978, after a 20-year career as an entrepreneur in which he sold typewriters, operated an employment agency and ran companies that provided computer and software services. As chairman and CEO, he expanded what was then a local kitchen-products store into a retailing powerhouse which now encompasses more than 600 stores, seven direct-mail catalogs and six retail websites.

“Williams-Sonoma changed the entire industry,” said Chris Robason, national sales manager, Regal Ware. “[Howard Lester] felt there’s no reason why people at home can’t be exposed to really good product. And then gourmet shops started popping up, and manufacturers started making better product.

“All of the independent gourmet shops, the mom-and-pop stores—those places don’t exist without Williams-Sonoma. People do want a really good stand mixer or food processor and they’re willing to pay for it.”

Along with the company’s core namesake brand, Williams-Sonoma is also parent to Williams-Sonoma Home, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, PBteen and West Elm. Lester took Williams-Sonoma public in 1983, and its total annual revenue was $3.1 billion in fiscal 2009. The company ranked 16th in HFN’s most recent Top Retailers listing with more than $2.8 billion in home-furnishings revenue last year.

Chuck Williams, founder and director emeritus of Williams-Sonoma, called Lester “a shopkeeper at heart.”

Lester retired in May. He was succeeded by Laura Alber as CEO and by Adrian Bellamy as non-executive chairman. Alber said, “Howard was a pioneer in retail and an incredible leader who served as a friend and mentor to many.”