Williams-Sonoma Owner W. Howard Lester Dies at 75

Williams-Sonoma chairman emeritus W. Howard Lester, who helped build the chain from a four-store retailer into the 600-store multi-brand giant it is today, has died at 75 after a long battle with cancer.

Lester, who had already made a fortune in the computer business, and a partner bought the company from its founder Chuck Williams in 1978. Lester asked Williams to stay on as chairman and to continue to hunt for unique, specialized cooking utensils that were used by aspirational home gourmets. Today the retailer's brands include Williams-Sonoma Home, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, PBteen and West Elm, and it publishes seven direct mail catalogs and operates six e-commerce sites.

Lester's expertise in software and analytics was a key factor in the company's growth. Williams-Sonoma's catalog sales allowed it to gather detailed information about its customers in the pre-Internet era. Lester developed a 4.5 million-member customer database that tracked 150 pieces of information per customer. As early as 1991, the retailer was able to determine what a customer had bought from each of the company's five catalogs, what time of year the customer tended to buy, the customer's preferred merchandise categories, and other pertinent information.

Lester retired in May; he was succeeded by Laura J. Alber as CEO and Adrian D.P. Bellamy as non-executive chairman of the board.
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