Stew Leonard’s CEO: ‘Make them leave happy’

Keeping customers happy may cost money, but for the president and CEO of a highly regarded New England food retailer, “it’s worth it in the long run.” Stew Leonard Jr. shared wisdom with more than 100 students this week in a campus visit co-sponsored by the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and Elon Career Services.

As the current head of a company that bares his name, Leonard, who earned his MBA from UCLA and oversees all operations of shops located in Connecticut and New York, told his audience in the LaRose Digital Theatre on Feb. 10 that entrepreneurial thinking has been critical to Stew Leonard’s evolution and success since 1969.

Stew Leonard’s, a New England food retailer, follows a simple rule: The customer is always right.

“Entrepreneurship is a continuous mind-set you need to be in, in order to keep your business innovative and unique,” he said. And customer satisfaction is key, Leonard explained as he shared their signature policy: “Rule #1. The customer is always right. Rule #2. If the customer is wrong, reread Rule #1.”

Leonard told stories that illustrate that philosophy, including an incident where the company refunded money to a customer for a product that wasn’t bought at a store. He emphasized the importance of being hands-on with customers, especially in the current economic climate.

Along with their rules, he said, Stew Leonard’s believes that “you can’t have a great place to shop, without first having it a great place to work.”

Stew Leonard’s is family-owned and operated with four food stores and five wine shops in Norwalk, Danbury and Newington, Conn., as well as in Yonkers and East Farmingdale, New York. The company employs 2,400 people, tallies annual sales of nearly $400 million, and has been named as one of FORTUNE magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” for the past seven consecutive years.

“Entrepreneurship is a continuous mind-set …” said Stew Leonard Jr., president and CEO of a company that bares his family name, in a Feb. 10 presentation at the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business.

The company has 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.’ In 1992, Stew Leonard’s earned an entry into The Guinness Book of World Records for having “the greatest sales per unit area of any single food store in the United States.”

Stew Leonard’s was dubbed the “Disneyland of Dairy Stores” by the New York Times because of its own milk processing plant, costumed characters, scheduled entertainment, petting zoo and animatronics throughout the stores.

– Submitted by Elon students Katie Pietrowski and Brent Gilmore