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What I Learned From Stew Leonard: My Story

Date Read: 04/11/2018

How strongly I recommend it: 8/10

Stew Leonard’s success in building a unique retail business has made him among the most revered entrepreneurs in the world. Guinness Book of World Records cites Stew Leonard’s as the food store in the United States with the greatest sales per unit area. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! identified Stew Leonard’s as the world’s largest dairy store. Those milestones were achieved because of the passion and loyalty of his customers, 100,000 of whom visit his flagship store each week. Forbes, the New York Times, People, CNN, 20/20, and Tom Peters’ PBS series A Passion for Excellence have all praised Stew for his business and creative genius.
Basically as I go through any book that I read, I underline interesting ideas/quotes/paragraphs and then later come back through the book to get the lessons gleaned from these underpinnings and try to figure out what they mean to me and apply them to my own life.
Here were the most interesting lessons in the book for me:
*Be Quirky: Stew was trying to grow his grocery store/dairy so he tried all sorts of odd marketing tactics that ended up working out really well. He installed animated cow’s heads on top of their trucks and rigged the horns to moo, held contests that awarded their highest selling milkman trips to Bermuda etc. Don’t be afraid to be a little ‘out there’ with quirky ideas.
*Invest in Quality: Stew would say “even though our store looked like a barn, I insisted on using only high-quality materials, I believe that the cheapest in the short-term is the most expensive in the long run.” We all know this, but rarely live it, opting for the cheapest option that ends up failing us very quickly only to cost us twice as much in the long-term. As Walt Disney said “do what you do so well that people will want to see it again and bring their friends.”
*Get Away From Negative People: Stew was building a new dairy store and everyone told him he was doomed to fail because of how much money he invested to make it just the way he wanted, luckily his wife has tremendous faith in him and she sparked new energy in his fire. He said “my new motto was going to be don’t walk away from negative people….run.” If it wasn’t for his wife and her positive constructive attitude, he may have quit…
*Think Indirectly: A watermelon merchant pulled up outside Stew’s grocery store one day and had a load of watermelon’s but his local order fell through, Stew offered him $1 a watermelon and he would buy all 2,000 of them, the guy accepted and Stew sold them all for $1, limit 3 per customer. He made no money on the watermelons but since it was such a great deal on something people wanted, customers came inside the store and bought tons of other things. You have to think indirectly sometimes, where are the watermelons in your life that you can leverage to your advantage?
*Develop Empathy: When Stew was younger he would play chess with his brother Leo. He would never win so one day he asked him why he never won. Leo said “your problem is your are so interested in what you are trying to do that you don’t give any thought to what I’m trying to do. Before I make my move, I mentally go around to your side of the table and look at the game from your point of view, it improves my move a lot.” Running a business is a lot like Leo’s advice for playing chess, the secret is having enough empathy to put yourself in the customers shoes.
*Take Action Quickly: Each morning they would empty the suggestion box and go through all of the ideas, and then take action on those the same day, not in four to six weeks. Take action and take it quickly. Experiment more than others and you’ll be a lot more likely to win.
*Recruit & Nurture The Best People: Stew uses the quote from Walt Disney “You can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality.” This has been so true in my own projects, who I work with is more important than what I work on.
*Be A Contrarian: Walt Disney had another practice that Stew admired, that basically said whenever ten people told him that one of his ideas was no good and wouldn’t work, he then moved ahead with it because he knew that he probably had a winner.
*Seek People To Emulate: When we’re starting out especially, but all throughout life we need people to guide us along the way, to show us new ways of thinking, people to admire…Obviously Stew learned a lot about creating & business from Walt Disney. Find someone you admire and learn from them, in their books, their products, or in person.
*Creatively Use Your Resources: Stew had an open parking lot he wasn’t using because they still were going through the approval process for a new store, so his son had the idea to fill with the lot with hundreds of Christmas trees in a huge circus tent and sell them there. It grew larger and larger, as the next spring came around and he expanded the tent to include fresh local vegetables and fruit, it turned into a sizeable business! What resources do you have right now that you’re not using to their full potential?
*Act On Your Dreams: Stew asked his mom at 93 if she had any regrets, she told him “at my age you don’t have regrets, you just regret the things you dreamed of doing, but never got around to, so when you dream of something, do it.”
*Customers Have Great Ideas: A customer suggested to Stew to sell Beanie Babies in the store, he said “dolls in a food store?” But as soon as he did, customers flocks to them! It’s extremely important to listen to your customers.
*Be Obsessed: Frank Purdue, chicken magnate went into Stew’s store and checked the temperature in their coolers before he would let them carry his chicken because he didn’t want to ruin his brand with customers.
*The Obstacle Is The Way: Before Stew started Stew Leonard’s grocery store, they owned a little dairy and the state of Connecticut was building a highway through the center of their plant, forcing them to move they thought it was all over, but without that obstacle Stew would have never started this huge business and would’ve just been a local dairy plant. Obstacles present opportunities if you’re willing to flow with them and look long enough.
Such an interesting guy, and creative genius when it comes to business/branding/marketing.


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