By Patti Payne – Columnist, Puget Sound Business Journal
Blake Nordstrom was a husband, father, son, brother, cousin, uncle and friend — few people knew he was on the 2018 Harvard Business Review’s “Best-Performing CEOs in the World” list, and one of only six global leaders named on that list five times in a row.
Rather, Blake Nordstrom, who died on Jan. 2 at the age of 58, was known as someone who was genuinely interested in everyone he met, answering his own phone, knowing everybody by name, from car and boat people to restaurant workers, to employees at Nordstrom, the retail giant that he led as co-president with his brothers Pete Nordstrom and Erik Nordstrom.
“It wasn’t the grand gesture or the big donation,” said Erik, now Nordstrom’s principal chief executive and co-president. “It was the very genuine human connections Blake made that had people feeling important and appreciated, and rightly so.”
Blake wasn’t one way with some and another way with others, Erik said, adding that his brother genuinely loved making connections with people and making things better.
He said Blake never wanted anyone at the company to hide behind policies and procedures and tried to ensure Nordstrom was not a faceless company.
“So much of our lives were intertwined, yet he did small and big gestures that we never even knew about,” Erik said. “Since his passing, I am amazed at the huge impact I am learning he had. And as I go around our company, so many people have pictures and stories about how he made them feel — an amazing quantity of things he did to help people under the radar.”
Because of his dedication to humbly help in the community on his own and to being the motivating force behind Nordstrom’s philanthropy in the community, the Business Journal has created the Blake Nordstrom Humanitarian Award for Corporate Giving, which will be awarded annually at our Corporate Philanthropy event.
Last year, Nordstrom employees volunteered 40,000 hours of their time and the company contributed nearly $12 million across more than 600 organizations located in every community where Nordstrom operates. Locally, more than 600 employees participated in United Way Day of Caring, completing 26 service projects throughout King County.
The United Way was one of the organizations Blake championed and felt especially passionate about. Blake and his wife, Molly, served as co-chairs of the organization’s major gift effort for six years, and in a blog post the organization said he was a tireless champion for the nonprofit and that he “gave his time in a way that is unusual for someone with such a demanding day job.”
Plymouth Housing CEO Paul Lambros knew Blake well, serving with him on a committee to end homelessness. He said Blake was not just a great business leader, but a leader in the fight against homelessness, offering more than two decades of support to Plymouth Housing.
“There he is, this humble business leader, with service providers and government people and people who have experienced homelessness,” Lambros said. “He was all in with us — part of a team — side-by-side as an equal, just trying to make a difference.”
Plymouth honored Blake and his wife, Molly, in 2014 for their work quietly supporting the nonprofit to help ensure that the community offers all its residents a safe, healthy place to live. Lambros said the couple had been on his list for years, but it took years of convincing for Blake to take the spotlight.
For decades, in Blake’s old, beat-up leather bifold wallet, he kept a laminated card from the late Rev. Dale Turner, with the words “Extend yourself.” His daughter Alex found the card after Blake passed and said her father was the first one always to extend himself.
That phrase was his mantra, along with “Leave it better than you found it,” the title of a book by and the mantra of his father, Bruce Nordstrom, whom Blake idolized.
“Our father is our hero, and Blake was so much like him,” said Erik. “Blake really modeled his life after our dad, who sets such powerful examples.”
Blake rowed at the University of Washington and was a lifelong devotee of the sport. He eventually joined the Washington Board of Stewards where he was quietly committed to the lives of the rowers present and future.
Dr. Paul Ramsey, CEO of UW Medicine and a rower himself, says the rowing crew is using Blake’s mantra as motivation.
“But for me personally, the message Blake leaves is ‘Extend yourself for others,” he said.
Molly Nordstrom feels like “Extend yourself” has now almost become a movement.
“He was the love of my life, such an inspiration and a remarkable human being, and the hole he left is going to be with us forever,” she said. “But he also left this legacy of goodness, and this movement of people trying to live better lives and give back more.”