Stew Leonard, Sr., who founded Stew Leonard's with a single store in Norwalk, Connecticut - built largely because a highway was putting the family dairy farm out of business - that evolved into a $600 million company with seven stores that celebrated fresh food, strong customer service, and a highly differentiated approach to marketing and merchandising, has passed away after a brief illness. He was 93.
Stew Leonard's and its founder became iconic - presented with the Presidential Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence in 1986 President Ronald Reagan, featured in books by management guru Tom Peters, and praised for his accomplishments and philanthropy by his peers and in the media. He exulted in the description of his store - using a directed traffic flow that focused largely on fresh and private label products - as "the Disneyland of dairy stores." He was proud of the enormous boulder that stands outside each of his stores bearing the legend, Our Policy: Rule 1, The customer is always right! Rule 2, If the customer is ever wrong, reread Rule 1. He delighted in creating what he called "Wow!" moments around the stores
It was a blemish on his reputation when, in 1993, he pleaded guilty to tax fraud and served 44 months in prison. But in typical Stew Leonard fashion, he reflected frankly on the experience in a memoir, "Stew Leonard: My Story," in which he not only talked about and expressed contrition for his misdeeds, but also offered suggestions on how to make incarceration more productive.
- KC's View:
I've been shopping at Stew Leonard's original Norwalk store once or twice a week since 1984, and I've known Stew Sr. for almost that long. He was a wonderfully enthusiastic public speaker, and when he complimented me a few years ago after I spoke to a Stew Leonard's company meeting it was one of the nicest and most treasured comments I've ever received.
I have some additional thoughts:
I have often written here about the degree to which Stew Leonard's was a reflection of the family - Stew's name was on the door, which created a degree of connection (and yes, personal accountability) that many stores don't have. This continued yesterday as Stew Jr. sent an email to all Stew Leonard's customers.