SAN FRANCISCO—W. Howard Lester, former chairman and chief executive officer of Williams-Sonoma and one of the signature figures in U.S. retailing for more than three decades, has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 75.
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 Web sites.
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.
Speaking about Lester’s passion for retailing, Chuck Williams, founder and director emeritus of Williams-Sonoma, called him “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.”
Lester is survived by his wife, Mary; three children; and five grandchildren. The funeral will be held at St. Ignatius Catholic Church here on Nov. 21. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to MD Anderson Cancer Center, UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Delancey Street Foundation and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.