W. Howard Lester, former chairman and chief executive of gourmet cookware retailer Williams-Sonoma Inc., died Monday at his home in Indian Wells after battling cancer, the company announced. He was 75.
Lester and a partner bought San Francisco-based Williams-Sonoma from founder Chuck Williams for $100,000 in 1978, when it generated $4 million in annual sales and had four stores — on Sutter Street in San Francisco, on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa and at the Town and Country Village in Palo Alto.
"Chuck, when he started it, did it out of love," Lester told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. "He loved to cook. Williams has a magnificent eye and curiosity. He has incredible taste and created this wonderful little store....
"After about a year, I think I started to see that there was much more here. There was a craze of cooking. We started to see that we could build a national brand for the upscale customer."
Williams, 95, holds the title of director emeritus at the company he founded.
"Howard was a shopkeeper at heart," Williams said in a statement. "More importantly, he has been my friend for over 30 years, and I will miss him."
Lester took the reins of the company as chief executive again in 2006 after it cut its sales forecast because of weaker growth at its Pottery Barn chain.
By the time he retired in May, the company had pulled out of the recession and posted a 17% increase in sales for the first quarter.
Besides Pottery Barn, the brands under the Williams-Sonoma umbrella are Williams-Sonoma Home, Pottery Barn Kids, PBteen and West Elm.
Born Aug. 14, 1935, in Durant, Okla., Lester served in Army counterintelligence in the 1950s before starting his career selling typewriters for International Business Machines Corp. in 1958.
During the next two decades, he founded several companies, including Coley/Lester Employment Agency and Centurex Corp., a banking-software supplier.
Lester sold his businesses and retired for the first time in 1976. Two years later, he went looking for an investment and landed on Williams-Sonoma.
In 1991, he founded the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.
Lester is survived by his wife, Mary; three children; and five grandchildren.
When asked whether Williams-Sonoma would ever run out of things to sell, Lester maintained the answer was no.
"People replace old things, and it's amazing how you can sell food processors and KitchenAids in a dozen different colors and toasters in different colors," he told the Chronicle in 2004. "I have great faith in the American consumer to continue to buy."
W. Howard Lester dies at 75; former chairman of Williams-Sonoma
When he and a partner bought the gourmet cookware retailer in 1978, it had four stores. He took the company public and expanded it to 600 stores and six retail websites with more than $3.4 billion in sales.
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