Williams-Sonoma’s Home Cooking Visionary
By Tom Ryan
Williams-Sonoma’s longtime chairman and CEO Howard Lester, who
saw an opportunity in home cooking aficionados before many others, passed away
last week at the age of 75.
In his first career, Mr. Lester founded and sold
two software businesses to become rich enough to retire at a young age and
focus on his golf hobby. In 1978, at the age of 41, he grew restless and acquired
Williams-Sonoma, which at the time had four stores in San Francisco and Beverly
Hills with annual sales of $4 million. Today, the company has 609 stores, seven
direct-mail catalogs and annual sales of $3.4 billion. Pottery Barn, acquired
from Gap Inc. in 1986, is now its largest division. It also operates Williams-Sonoma
Home, Pottery Barn Kids, PBteen and West Elm.
At the time of the purchase, the
four stores, specializing in items for gourmet kitchens, were popular with
local chefs and home-cooking enthusiasts, but failing. Founder Chuck Williams
stayed on as the company’s merchant but Mr. Lester’s business smarts quickly
turned the business around. By 1983, an initial public offering was completed.
"Howard was a shopkeeper at heart," said Mr. Williams in a statement
After taking charge, Mr. Lester initially focused on the
catalog business but soon began expanding Williams-Sonoma’s stores, which were
designed to resemble a French cottage. The business particularly capitalized
on a boom in cooking as a hobby.
"Chuck, when he started it, did it out of love," Mr. Lester told
Francisco Chronicle in a 2004 interview, according to an obituary in
Angeles Times. "He loved to cook. Williams has a magnificent eye
and curiosity. He has incredible taste and created this wonderful little
store. … After about a year, I think I started to see that there was
much more here. There was a craze of cooking. We started to see that we
could build a national brand for the upscale customer."
According to an obituary
in The New York Times, Mr. Lester’s "grand
vision" developed in the eighties was to position Williams-Sonoma as
store" for baby boomers "eager for a more luxurious, creative way
Tapping the software expertise of his former career, Mr. Lester
also developed a sophisticated database of 4.5 million customers.
"With a few keystrokes," Forbes reported in 1991, "the
company can tell you what you’ve bought from each of its five catalogs
(an estimated 60 percent of customers have bought from more than one), what
time of the year you tend to buy, what category of merchandise you lean toward,
and so on and so forth."
But Mr. Lester still believed product was critical.
Asked in the 2004 Chronicle interview
whether Williams-Sonoma would ever run out of ideas for new cookware items,
he said, "People replace old things, and it’s amazing how you can sell
food processors and KitchenAids in a dozen different colors and toasters in
different colors. I have great faith in the American consumer to continue to
Discussion Questions: What’s been the key to Williams-Sonoma’s success? How
has the company managed to capitalize on the home cooking boom seemingly so much
better than other retailers?
- W. Howard Lester, Chairman Emeritus of Williams-Sonoma, Inc. Dies at
Age 75 – Williams-Sonoma
- W. Howard Lester, Williams-Sonoma Owner, Dies at 75 – The New York
- His Wares Brought Luxury to the Kitchen – The Wall Street Journal
- W. Howard Lester dies at 75; former chairman of Williams-Sonoma – Los Angeles