Published on: November 16, 2009by Kevin Coupe
Timed to coincide with the late November 40th anniversary of the opening of the original Stew Leonard’s, the legendary founder of the Connecticut-based fresh food stores is out with an autobiography (co-written by Scotty Reiss) that for many of us has been much-awaited.
The reason for the anticipation, to be honest, is that Stew has a great story to tell. (It seems somehow inappropriate to call Stew by his last name, and as a matter of full disclosure I’ve known him - not well - for years) Not just his entrepreneurial adventure, which in its own way is as much a unique American retailing story as Sam Walton’s or, more recently, Jeff Bezos’. But there is what Stew would call the 800-pound gorilla in the room - his conviction and four-year incarceration on federal tax fraud charges back in the early nineties.
Stew does the absolute right thing in dealing with his fall from grace almost from page one; he uses his crime and time in prison as a framing device and weaving it in and out of his story in a way that is frank, and yet turns it into a redemptive experience. That’s important not just to his story, but to the way in which Stew deals with life: this is a guy, to use just one of many aphorisms that he employs in the book, who whenever life has handed him lemons, has turned them into lemonade.
The outlines of the Stew Leonard story are well known. When his father’s milk delivery business and dairy farm were being put out of business by changing customer tastes and the construction of the New England Thruway, Stew opened a small dairy store that has turned into a four-store limited assortment chain doing in excess of $400 million a year in sales. But Stew, with frank and unadorned language, takes us through the process - explaining the business decisions he made, describing how close to failure he came time after time, and featuring the unambiguous and compelling optimism that even in tough times got him through.
I’ve been shopping at Stew Leonard’s for more than 25 years, and even I was surprised at some of the details and anecdotes described in the book; he talks about how to accomplish growth while maintaining the company’s culture, he offers insights about the branding of the store, and he writes with great affection about his family and the succession issues that all companies such as his must face. One of my favorite anecdotes is how poultry legend Frank Perdue didn’t want to sell Stew chickens because he was concerned about a two degree differential in the company’s refrigerators; Perdue is just one of the luminaries that Stew has been lucky enough to encounter in his travels, and in each case, he describes what he learned from them and how he implemented those lessons - which makes the book terrific reading for extant and would-be entrepreneurs.
This doesn’t surprise me. Let me digress for a moment to tell you a little story. About 10 years ago, Stew Leonard, Jr. was celebrating his 45th birthday at about the same time that the company was ready to open its third store in Yonkers, NY. For some reason, my wife and I were lucky enough to be invited to a big birthday party at the new store, which was scheduled to be unveiled to the public in just a few days. One of my most vivid memories was bumping into Stew Sr. by the dairy case, and how he sat me down to find out what stores I’d seen lately, what impressed me, and what I’d learned from recent travels.
That kind of unrestrained enthusiasm and curiosity is, I think, the best part of Stew’s autobiography. He’s a merchant, he’s a marketer, and he’s a student of the business. And frankly, he’s just a lot of fun to spend a couple of hours with in the pages of this book.
FYI...for the moment, at least, “My Story” is only available at a Stew Leonard’s store, or on the company’s website: www.StewLeonards.com.