As a storytelling film producer my dream assignment in Umeå has been telling the story of the entrepreneur and developer Krister Olsson. In Seattle, the dream is putting on film the Nordstrom story. Writing this I am struck with the insight that I am actually in this moment realizing the Umeå dream. It took me many many years to convince Krister Olsson it would be a wonderful gift to his children and grandchildren to tell his remarkable story, but I actually did it.
The Nordstrom story is also in a way a Swedish story, and that’s one of the reasons why I feel so drawn putting it together. I am reminded about that dream this week when the three Nordstrom brothers at helm, Pete, Erik and Blake, announced they all will be co-presidents of the national retail company based in Seattle.
Pete, Erik and Blake are the fourth generation Nordstrom and their American family tree started with John W Nordstrom, born as Johan Nordström in Alvik, Luleå (four hours north of Umeå) 1871. He emigrated to America at age 16, mining and logging his way through the country to the Washington west coast. It was hard labour, and it turned out Alaska and the gold rush wasn’t an easy ticket either. John W Nordstrom was persistent though, and after two years in Klondyke he returned to Seattle with 13000 $.
A friend from Alaska, Carl Wallin owned a shoe repair store in Seattle, and in 1901, the two of them opened a downtown shoe store, Wallin & Nordstrom, that’s where the gold money were invested. Well invested too, since it was the start for Nordstrom Incorporated, today a luxury retail empire with 304 stores in 38 states and two in Canada.
What started out as a shoe store developed to stores featuring brand clothing and accessories (Swedes, think NK Stockholm), but even today the Nordstrom shoe department is the part of the store working as a magnet on it’s loyal customers. John W Nordstrom’s approach to business was to provide exceptional service, selection, quality and value. To me, the shoe department is the heart of the Nordstrom store, and I would be surprised if you anywhere in the world can find shoe sales persons more devoted than those in a Nordstrom store.
A Nordstrom store isn’t for anyone though. As quality and selection equals expensive, I find walking through the Nordstrom downtown store more like an exhibit. Beauty to lay my eyes on. But than there is the Half Year Sales. Nordstrom distinguishes themselves with not going cheap every other week, no, only twice a year. And for those occasions people go on pilgrimage, waiting in lines for hours before the doors open in the morning.
When I first came to Seattle in 1993, I actually tried to get in contact with the Nordstrom family, as I found the story so fascinating, wanting to tell it to a Swedish audience, Public Service journalist as I was back then. A friend had a way in, but they responded they never went on camera. That, they had in common with Krister Olsson in Umeå, preferring to stay out of the lime light.
Maybe it’s the Swedish heritage, I am pondering, learning this week about the fourth generation co-leading the company together. It’s very unusual three persons making consensus decisions on that level, but it might be in their genes. John W Nordstrom’s sons Elmer, Everett and Lloyd worked closely together too, as well as the third generation, including Bruce, father of Pete, Erik (notice the Swedish spelling) and Blake. And if there is one word symbolizing Swedes and Sweden, it is consensus.
Back in 1993 I remember there were 54 Nordstrom stores in the U.S. Today 304. Maybe the forth generation isn’t as shy as the generation before. And what do I know, they might already have captured their story on film for the future? But if not… As I told Krister Olsson 11 years ago: you have a story to tell, and I want to do it for you.For me, a Seattle visit includes allowing myself to purchase a pair of shoes at Nordstrom. Oh, that anticipation approaching the shoe department. Slowly making my way among Prada, Calvin Klein and Stewart Weitzman, being waited on by attentive sales persons who will not rest until I happily walk away with a treasure or two. Or maybe simply have them shipped to my temporary Seattle home. Exceptional service, the heritage of John W Nordstrom.