If one measure of an entrepreneur's legacy is the way his businesses have changed the world, then Chuck Williams has left a legacy few can match.
Williams, the founder of $4.7 billion Williams-Sonoma--the home furnishings mail-order catalog and retailer with more than 600 stores--died at age 100 this past weekend. His life story is filled with points of inspiration for not only today's entrepreneurs but also anyone pondering a midlife career switch. Here are some highlights from his life, culled from his obituary in the The New York Times:
He didn't start Williams-Sonoma until he was over 40. He was born in 1915 in Jacksonville, Florida. He opened the first Williams-Sonoma store in Sonoma, California in 1956.
He overcame a difficult childhood. His father's auto-repair shop went bankrupt. The father moved the family to California and abandoned them. His older sister, Marie, died when she was 19.
Prior to launching Williams-Sonoma, he gained a wide variety of skills and experiences. As a boy, he learned to cook without recipes from his maternal grandmother, who once owned a restaurant in Ohio. His first job as a high schooler in California was at a date ranch in Palm Springs. Another early job was as a window dresser at a department store in Los Angeles.
During World War II, a medical condition kept him from military service. He spent the war years working at Lockheed as an airplane mechanic, spending time in East Africa and India. After the war, he settled in Sonoma. He built his own home and became a contractor who renovated homes for other people.
He followed his heart...and taste buds. During a two-week trip to Paris in 1953, he was amazed at the specificity of equipment and ingredients used by French cooks--none of which you could find in the U.S. back then. "There were heavy sauté pans, huge stockpots, fish poachers, bakeware, bains-marie, superior knives in many sizes, and an array of cutting, dicing and grating tools," notes The New York Times.
As for the ingredients, Williams saw that French pantries included balsamic vinegar, olive oils, sea salt, exotic peppercorns, Madagascar vanilla, and Italian pastas. When he returned to Sonoma, he bought and remodeled a hardware store, stocking it with items he found in Paris.
His talents as a jack-of-all-trades helped him as a retailer. In addition to having the skills to remodel a hardware store as a shop for cooking equipment, his experience as a window dresser came in handy as he built displays. The Times obit reports that he "effusively answered customers' questions" and grossed $35,000 the first year.
His diverse talents continued to help him in 1958, when he moved to San Francisco and opened the Williams-Sonoma on Sutter Street. At the Sutter Street store, he built the shelves, did the books, fixed the plumbing, wrapped packages, and swept the sidewalk. "What customers found inside were racks of gleaming copperware, crystal stemware, imported pastas, hundreds of items, and a proprietor who seemed to know everything about French cooking," notes the Times.
He rode the wave of the cooking craze led by Julia Child and James Beard in the 1960s. Child and Beard made many in the U.S. more passionate about their kitchen lives--and more interested in the equipment and ingredients Williams was selling. To reach all the new customers who were not in the Bay Area, the company launched a mail-order catalog with 5,000 addresses in 1971. Anyone could open a charge account to pay for their items. And like Williams, the salespeople you spoke to on the phone had in-depth knowledge of the products.
Meanwhile, Williams continued to make annual trips to Europe to find items not yet in U.S. kitchens: things like choppers and mixers, lemon zesters, stainless steel whisks, silicone spatulas, and sauté pans.
He retained his passion throughout his life. Even after he sold the company in 1978, Williams remained heavily involved in the buying of merchandise and the content of catalogs. He served as chairman until 1986. On his own, he wrote more than 200 cookbooks. And even in the later years of his life, he often drove from his apartment in San Francisco's Russian Hill neighborhood to Williams-Sonoma's offices near Fisherman's Wharf. The Times notes: "He took tea in the afternoons and loved to reminisce, especially about his discoveries."