Founder, Stew Leonard's
Stew Leonard Sr., a native and lifelong resident of Connecticut, is the founder of one of the most famous, innovative and studied food retailers in the world: Stew Leonard's.
A Norwalk, Conn. native and graduate of the University of Connecticut's School of Agriculture, Stew began early in his family's dairy business, Clover Farms Dairy in Norwalk. Beginning in the early 1920s, Stew helped his father deliver milk and other dairy products and took over the dairy when his father passed away; Stew was just 21 years old. A state-of-the-art dairy by the standards of the time, with a pasteurizing and bottling plant, Clover Farms was a fixture in the neighborhoods of Fairfield County, known for its farm-fresh products and delivery trucks that were crowned with plastic cows that "mooed" when neighborhood children waved.
From Clover Farms, Stew traversed many changes-those brought by the state, others by the marketplace-to forge what is now one of the most successful retail operations ever, serving millions of customers every year, employing 2,500 Team Members, and selling annually 3 million half gallons of milk, 4 million bagels, 500,000 pounds of lobster, and 50,000 Christmas trees. As an industry leader, Stew Leonard's is studied in university management programs around the country, and is visited by scores of companies every year to understand its practices, bringing a reputation for business leadership to Connecticut.
Stew Leonard's has remained a family business. To ensure that his children would find a role in the business and carry it forward, Stew worked with each to help them find a passion that could be unleashed within the company. Eldest son Stew Leonard, Jr. earned a master of business administration at UCLA and in 1987 took over as President and CEO. Stew's daughter Beth founded Bethy's Bakery, the largest in-store scratch bakery in the country. Stew's daughter Jill is Executive Vice President of Culture and Communication, helping 2,500 Team Members to not only do a great job, but to create a rewarding and enriching career path. And his son Tom, who opened and served as the president of the Danbury store, set off create his own franchise, opening Tom Leonard's Farmers Market in 2004 in Richmond, Virginia. Like their father, Stew Jr., Beth and Jill are all Connecticut residents who contribute regularly to business forums and seek to improve the business climate of the state.
Stew Leonard's, in addition to being known for its business success, is also widely known for contributions to local and national charities. Stew always sought to give generously and regularly to both worthwhile causes and to recognize the achievements of others. From donating turkeys at Christmas to local families who needed them, to donating each day's unsold goods to local churches and soup kitchens, to rewarding Team Members with turkeys at Thanksgiving, giving back to the community has been a closely held value from the earliest days. In the 41 years since, Stew Leonard's has built a reputation in our local communities as a generous and giving corporate neighbor.
Stew has also always been a supporter of personal and professional enrichment, for both his Team Members and for the larger community. From hosting the bestselling author Tom Peters in a local speech at the Longshore Country Club-to which Stew invited hundreds of local business leaders as well as the leaders from his store-to underwriting Dale Carnegie coursework for more than 1,500 of Stew Leonard's Team Members over the years, to creating a tuition reimbursement program that allowed many Team Members to pursue higher education, Stew has always sought to encourage and support the aspirations of those around him. As a result, Stew Leonard's boasts a management team that is home-grown: 88% of company leaders have been promoted from within, many starting on the front lines at the cash registers or serving customers in the deli or produce departments.
Stew is still very active in the business and is a strong believer in the power and value of the family business. He has created a unique organization built on the foundation of team spirit and family pride. Stew and his wife Marianne, who live in Westport, Connecticut, dedicate much of their family and personal time to not only mentoring their children, but also their 13 grandchildren, to ensure that they each find a passionate and rewarding path at Stew Leonard's.
The path to becoming one of the retail industry's most recognized and celebrated leaders was the result of Stew's enduring desire to serve his customer in the best possible way. In the late sixties, Stew realized the milk delivery business was changing--going the way of the iceman, he said. He believed that it was time for a fundamental change in the way his dairy operated, an idea that was driven home when the state informed him that Clover Farms Dairy was in the path of the expansion of a new highway, Route 7. Faced with this challenge, and yet wanting to maintain the supply of fresh dairy to Connecticut (when most other available dairy came from farms far away and was sold in super markets) Stew's dream was to bring the dairy experience to a retail store. He wanted to create a place where children could watch milk being bottled, where they could see the farm animals that produced the milk and eggs, and that offered customers the freshest possible products, all in a farmer's market atmosphere. In December, 1969, Stew Leonard's opened its doors as a 17,000 square foot store carrying just eight items.
Stew Leonard's has grown at an amazing pace since 1969. With 30 additions to the original store, and with three additional grocery stores and nine wine stores, the company generates more than $400 million in annual sales. The path to success, which has been studied and touted in the business press and in best-selling books, including in the â€˜In Search of Excellence' series, springs from Stew's deep and ongoing desire to create new and better ways to serve the customer. The company has become known for constantly pushing the standards of excellence and customer service to new heights and its leadership in food trends, resulting in not only a great place to shop, but also a great place to work. To achieve this, Stew intertwined this love of the dairy business and marketing with his core philosophies of quality, integrity and empowerment, which have shaped the mission of the company. He also believes that everyone should have fun in his store-customers and Team Members alike. As a result, Stew Leonard's 2,500 employees have voted the company onto FORTUNE magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" for the past ten years in a row.
As a part of this constant refining of the promise to the customer, Stew Leonard's has become an industry leader in the farm-to-market concept, expanding its fresh dairy strategies into meats, fish, produce, bakery, cheese and wine, often working with local farmers and suppliers from throughout the state of Connecticut. In fact, unlike traditional grocery stores that sell an average of 30,000 items, each Stew Leonard's store carries only 2,000 items, chosen specifically for their freshness, quality and value. The company opened a second store in Danbury in 1991 and a third Connecticut store in Newington in 2007.
The success of this family-owned business and their legion of loyal shoppers is largely due to their passionate approach to customer service: "Rule #1 -- The Customer is Always Right"; Rule #2 - If the Customer is Ever Wrong, Re-Read Rule #1." This principle was born soon after the store opened in 1969, and one that Stew wanted to be sure that no one missed, so he had it etched into the face of a three-ton granite rock at the store's entrance.
In 2009, Stew penned an autobiography, My Story, with co-author and Greenwich resident Scotty Reiss. In it, he tells the story of his relentless search for and unwavering commitment to excellence, explaining how the store's dedication to customer service, its reputation for fresh-from-the-farm products, and its renowned and entertaining retail environment came about. Stew also writes of his own personal setbacks and tragedies, from the struggles of building his business to the death of his twenty-one-month-old grandson and the disastrous decisions that led to a forty-two month sentence in a federal prison camp. Through it all he shares the hard-won wisdom, strength, and insights he gained from his experiences, detailing how each of his four children found an outlet for their own passions within the family business, and how the family came up with a plan to guarantee that future Leonard generations will continue the Stew Leonard's traditions.
Stew Leonard Sr. has not only succeeded in creating a farm-fresh grocery shopping experience adored by legions of loyal customers, but he has built a business that has been praised by his peers, the community, and the media:
- In 1984, Stew Leonard, Sr. was recognized by President Ronald Reagan with the Presidential Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence.
- Stew Leonard's was named "World's Largest Dairy store" according to Ripley's Believe It or Not.
- Stew Leonard's earned a place in the 1992 Guinness Book of World Records for having the highest dollar sales per square foot of selling space.
- Stew and the store received worldwide acclaim for excellence in customer service and quality and is featured in two of management expert Tom Peter's books, A Passion for Excellence and Thriving on Chaos, and was featured prominently in the television program "In Search of Excellence."
- The New York Times dubbed Stew Leonard's the "Disneyland of Dairy Stores" because of its own milk processing plant, costumed characters, scheduled entertainment, Little Farm and animatronics throughout the stores.
- Named as one of FORTUNE magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" for the past ten years in a row.
- Stew has been a renowned public speaker, giving both local and national speeches as a part of the Washington Speakers Bureau, including the keynote speech at the annual International Dale Carnegie Convention in 1985, the University of Michigan's Creativity Symposium, Washington & Jefferson College, Perdue Farms, CitiBank and the Coca Cola Company; he also spoke at many, many local Chamber of Commerce meetings, as well as other local business meetings in Fairfield County, and led graduation ceremonies at Stamford's King Low Heywood Thomas school and Greens Farms Academy. He has additionally received an Honorary Doctorate of Business from the University of Bridgeport, was named "One of the Top 50 Visionaries" by Supermarket News, and had the declaration of Stew Leonard's Day by Norwalk Mayor Robert A. Moccia on the 40th Anniversary of the Norwalk store.