Trader Joe's founder Joe Coulombe died on Friday at 89 at his home in Pasadena. His career, and the success of his grocery chain, which has grown to 504 stores, all began with an uncanny ability to spot coming trends and find new approaches to serving a new category of customer.
Coulombe was born in 1930 in San Diego, and -- like many famous entrepreneurs who would come after him -- graduated and got a Master's degree from Stanford. He then went to work for the Rexall drugstore chain, which assigned him to set up a chain of convenience stores. He had six such stores up and running when Rexall changed its mind and told him to sell them. Instead, he borrowed money, bought them himself, and launched himself into the convenience store business.
His timing wasn't great. By the time he'd grown his chain to 18 stores, 7-11 was headed into the Southern California market, and Coulombe knew that a smaller operator such as himself wouldn't be able to compete. It was time for a pivot, and Coulombe's pivot was a master stroke.
By then it was the late 1960s. Coulombe, who was talented at reading the trends, noted that Boeing was on its way to introducing the 747, which would enable increased travel between the United States and other countries, particularly in Europe. As more Americans were exposed to other cultures, he figured, they would become more interested in foods from other places.
As Americans became more educated, their interest in such exotic foods, and also in wines grew. But, he knew, just because they were educated did not necessarily mean that people had lots of funds to buy such goods. And so he determined he would make them affordable. His store would be "for overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists," he explained in an interview. That's how he came to sell products such as low-end Charles Shaw California wine, which the company self-mockingly called "Two-Buck Chuck."
In 1972, the company introduced its first private-label product, a granola, which it later said was a "game-changer." That began Trader Joe's transition to focusing on private-label products, allowing the company to buy in bulk and sell quality foods at affordable prices.
Trader Joe's also developed a reputation as one of the best companies to work for in America, despite the fact that retail in general and groceries in particular can be a grueling and unrewarding business. The chain landed on Glassdoor's best places to work list in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2017, and 2018. When Business Insider asked employees why, they mentioned good pay and benefits, as well as flexible scheduling. But over and over again, they talked about the chain's reputation for niceness, competent and understanding managers, friendly co-workers, and the general sense of freedom to be themselves in the workplace.
What's perhaps most remarkable about this beloved and idiosyncratic supermarket chain, described by the New York Times as "equal parts gourmet shop, discount warehouse and Tiki trading post," is that from 1979 on, Coulombe didn't own it. He'd sold to a German entrepreneur named Theo Albrecht who also owned the German chain Aldi Nord. (Albrecht died in 2010 but his family still owns Trader Joe's.)
The fact that Coulombe could sell his company and still keep it pretty much unchanged speaks volumes about both men, but especially about the powerful brand Coulombe built. He continued to run Trader Joe's until his retirement in 1987. John Shields took over as CEO and ran the company until his own retirement in 2001. Dan Bane has been CEO ever since. In other words, the company has had only three CEOs in more than 50 years because once people take the top slot, they're happy to stay there.
That's the power of consistency, of valuing and engaging employees, and of wisely reading the trends to understand what customers will want. Those are lessons Coulombe can teach us all.