Vital Voices in Entrepreneurship Featuring Stew Leonard, Jr.: The Ups and Downs of Running A Successful Family Business
An audience of more than 300 gathered at Goodwin College on February 26 to hear Stew Leonard Jr., president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s, deliver an inspiring, uplifting speech, often laced with humor, at Vital Voices in Entrepreneurship, a speaker series focused on first-hand perspectives from leaders who are making their mark in business and the community.
President Mark Scheinberg set the tone for the evening as he addressed the packed auditorium buzzing with energy. “Goodwin College is anything but institutional. We are deeply customer based,” he said, making Leonard a perfect guest speaker. “What’s amazing about his stores is that you don’t feel like a customer. It’s an event. It’s an experience that’s really, really special.”
“This crowd is a testament to our guest. We are very blessed and very appreciative to have him here.” He welcomed Leonard to the podium, referring to him as a “true icon of Connecticut business.”
Stew Leonard’s, a unique family owned and operated fresh farm food store, came from humble beginnings in the 1960s, as a milk company — one with a distinctive flair for marketing. During the last 50 years, the company has expanded its products with four farm store locations in Connecticut and New York, as well as nine wine stores in the tri-state area, accounting for more than 20 million visitors annually.
Leonard referenced the four main STEW principles of business that he and his family follow: Satisfy, Teamwork, Excellence, and Wow!
Satisfying customers and maintaining the philosophy that the customer is always right have proved essential to Stew Leonard’s business plan. Listening to customer needs and providing for them are something the Leonard family insists on. “People want to help local farms, they want organic foods, and they don’t want antibiotics in their food. We get a lot of our products from farmers in Connecticut, and we provide whole, organic foods that customers want,” Leonard noted.
The dictionary defines teamwork as a “cooperative effort on the part of a group of persons acting together in the interest of a common cause.” Leonard understands the importance of a healthy working environment. “You can’t make a great place to shop without first making it a great place to work,” he stated.
The number of Stew Leonard’s employees is growing at a steady pace with no layoffs in the history of the business. Achievement awards are presented at events to show appreciation for all of their hard work in the common cause of providing quality products. Employees are the key to making a business prosperous. Something is certainly working: Stew Leonard’s has been included in FORTUNE Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for the last 10 consecutive years.
“Stew’s business messages are wrapped in honesty and humor. They are simple, clear, and very affective. He understands that his employees make his business what it is,” said Lee Housley, a current student in Goodwin’s Management and Leadership program.
Leonard’s third philosophy, excellence, means providing top-notch products and staying up to date with the latest trends. Leonard explained, “We make our bread fresh in store, we meet with ranchers to find the best quality meat, we get our lobsters from Maine, we provide fresh fruit platters, and we are always in search of new products.”
When “cronuts” (a cross between a croissant and a donut) became a recent fad, Stew Leonard’s developed their own version, selling over $100,000 worth since August. Another treat, “crogels” (a cross between a croissant and a bagel) have created profits upwards of $50,000 in a just a few weeks of their premiere.
Researching, being ahead of the curve, and visiting with farmers to understand where their products are coming from have allowed the company to reap endless benefits. “With competitors like Walmart, Costco’s, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, we can’t just sit back. We are always trying to make the stores better,” Leonard said.
The final philosophy — the Wow! Factor — is all about creating a unique, uplifting experience. “We don’t act like a chain. We keep that family feeling alive,” Leonard stated. Stew Leonard’s provides an interactive environment complete with costumed characters for kids, milk containers that sing, and much more. No one who visits a Stew Leonard’s location is likely to forget the experience.
As with all businesses, Stew Leonard’s has experienced its share of failure. “The reality of life is that there are bumps and setbacks and you stumble,” Leonard explained, “but you pick yourself back up.” Failure is a part of business and life in general. “[Leonard] embraces the failures as opportunities to be better,” Housley noted.
Some of Leonard’s setbacks have been personal. He lost his 21-month-old toddler in a drowning accident in 1989. This sparked Leonard and his wife to seek ways to prevent this tragedy from striking other families, especially since drowning is the leading cause of accidental death in children under five. In 1990, the Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation was founded. In 2006, the Leonards expanded the foundation’s mission to address childhood obesity through better nutrition. To learn more about the Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation, visit their site: http://www.stewietheduck.com/12ourstory.cfm
“Triumph through tragedy” seems fitting for Stew Leonard and his success story. In business and in life there are hurdles to overcome, but once crossed they can lead to endless possibilities through effort and hard work.
Goodwin thanks the East Hartford Chamber of Commerce for sponsoring the event. In addition, Scheinberg made an announcement that T. Boone Pickens, Texas businessman, philanthropist, and Goodwin College 2013 Honorary Doctorate recipient, will be providing funding for future speaker series at the College called the T.Boone Pickens Endowed Speaker Series – Vital Voices in Education, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
By: Hannah Stacy