The Humble Beginnings of Nordstrom

Work & Business

The Humble Beginnings of Nordstrom

When 16-year-old Johan W. Nordstrom left the northern Swedish village of Alvik in 1887, he did so with little more than the clothes on his back – or perhaps more appropriately, the shoes on his feet.

What the nascent entrepreneur did have, besides his sixth-grade education and $5 in his pocket, was a Nordic-born capacity for hard work, an instinct for business and a kind of peripatetic ambition – a three-legged combination that would help him begin building the bricks to what is today one of America’s most successful fashion retailers.

John W. Nordstrom, Nordstrom’s website

Nordstrom’s Life in Sweden

By all accounts, Nordstrom’s childhood was not a happy one. Raised just 60 miles from the Arctic Circle where economic opportunity ran as cold as winter streams into nearby Lake Hedavan, Nordstrom knew hardship at an early age. His father, a blacksmith and wagon maker by trade, died when he was eight, and by the time he was 11, his mother had pulled him out of school to work side by side on the family farm with a brother 10 years his senior.

Before long, hardship turned to opportunity. The wave of Swedish immigration to the United States peaked in 1887, and Nordstrom – along with two buddies – were among the more than 50,000 Swedes who made their way to America that year. Most, like young Johan (who later changed his name to John), did not speak a word of English.

Starting Over in the U.S.

He initially landed in Michigan where he would begin the first of many backbreaking jobs – first loading iron ore onto railroad cars and later mining coal, gold and silver while at the same time progressively moving westward: to Iowa, Colorado and California.

Carl and John, Seattle Pi

Soon after he turned 25, he moved to a small town north of Seattle where other Swedes had settled. He decided to resurrect his farming roots, tilling 50 acres of rural Washington land for a potato farm. He also began planting other kinds of seeds, more romantic ones. One of the local Swedish immigrant girls, Hilda Carlson, caught his eye, and before long the two were dating.

Then came the gold strike in the Yukon, and Nordstrom’s potato crop was not enough to hold him back. He hitched a ride on a coal freighter to Alaska and made his way 1,000 miles more by horse and foot to the hub of gold country. Relying on his mining experience and with the dint of hard work, Nordstrom put his heart and soul into the mines, finally striking the mother lode after two years. He sold his claim for $13,000 and returned to Washington, marrying Hilda a year later. The two settled in Seattle.

The new husband and soon-to-be father of five was looking for a career change, something that relied more on his instincts for business and people and less on the sweat of his brow. A gold-mining friend was also back in Seattle where he worked as a shoemaker, and the two decided to open a shoe store together, with Nordstrom investing $5,000 and Carl Wallin chipping in $1,000 of his own.

From Bucks to Billions

In 1901, Wallin & Nordstrom opened for business in a 20-foot wide storefront. With an inventory of $3,500 in shoes, no experience as shoe retailers and, between the two of them, a severely limited English vocabulary, they set off to make a go of it. That first day’s sales totaled $12.50. But the two soon realized something about their predominantly Swedish customer base: They needed larger sizes than the medium widths they had been stocking. Sales began to pick up and by 1905 that first tiny store had $47,000 in sales.

Soon there was a second store and the expansion continued many times over.

A generation later, Nordstrom sold his interest in the business to his sons, Everett and Elmer, who had worked in the store as stock boys since they were young. After Wallin did the same a year later in 1929, the sons renamed the store Nordstrom, and while John Nordstrom (he had changed his name years before) officially retired at age 57, he kept an office in the store for the rest of his life. He died in 1963.

His legacy lives on in the $14 billion company that still bears his name. Nordstrom operates some 329 stores in 39 states and Canada, employs more than 72,000 people and ranks 197th on the Fortune 500.

It’s safe to say that Johan Nordstrom made that $5 go a long way.

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