There was a moment, a quiet, visionary moment, when the Investment Club students were transformed into houseware aficionados, transported from the chic nestle of the Crate & Barrel headquarters back to an old shop, where furnishings arrived in crates and rustic barrels.
Gordon Segal, the founder of Crate & Barrel, as well as a 1956 graduate of Evanston Township High School, displayed a unique wine glass. He remarked on its minute, seemingly insignificant properties: the shape of the glass’s bottom was smooth, with no semblance of a ridge, and its beautiful contours could not have been replicated by a machine. His passion for each individual product flowed outwardly, capturing his audience, weaving a web of sensory details: a truly good product must evoke feelings in its buyer.
When examining a couch, Segal expounded the color choice process, the fabric, how it looks, how it feels; all of these elements combine together to attract and satisfy customers. His attention to the smallest details, among a number of other things, allowed Mr. Segal to improve and expand Crate & Barrel into the company it is today.
Despite running a billion dollar company, Mr. Segal welcomed the Investment Club into the headquarters, giving a presentation about his life and business for an hour-and-a-half before personally guiding the students around the building. He detailed his upbringing, how he loved his time at ETHS, which he contends prepared him for Wharton business school. Segal shared his great experience at Northwestern, and the value that a liberal arts education had in opening up a worldly view that would help him pioneer his business.
One trait that sets his leadership apart is his incredible ability to listen to people, whether they be employees of his company or the consumers at his stores. If someone at Crate & Barrel has a good idea, it doesn’t matter if that person is the director of sales or a store manager; Segal will hear them. While many retail companies are struggling, Crate & Barrel’s business plan is simple, effective, and open to constant improvement and development based on consumer input; the brand is built from the bottom up, so to speak, with the stores each having energized, passionate staff members who know the in’s-and-out’s of the merchandise and can assist and direct consumers as needed.
Several themes emerged as Segal gave his presentation. Being an entrepreneur is hard work; for the first seven years that Crate & Barrel was in business, Mr. Segal never took a vacation. While his friends played golf on Sundays, Segal was crafting his business, making sales, discovering Wüsthof knives and other gorgeous home items that he believed his customers would enjoy.
When the company continued to proliferate, opening stores in malls, adding new tiers to existing shops, expanding the brand to new destinations like Dubai and the Philippines, Segal adopted his policy summed up as, “stay humble, stay nervous”; never did he allow himself to be too arrogant, because he was afraid he’d harm the relationship with consumers.
Money, Mr. Segal explained, was not the goal of a business; if money is the goal, more often than not the business is going to fail. With a room-full of young entrepreneurs hanging on his every word, Segal candidly stated that the key to business is doing what you love, having the line of work where you want to run to work every morning to get started. In order to succeed in business, a retail store has to be so fantastic, so meticulously cared for and operated, that customers want to buy from you.
This statement epitomized its orator, the man who lovingly inspects knifes and bedspreads, whose eyes still light up when he sees a Danish bookcase or an exquisite teapot. This passion was infectious, a positive pandemic that had taken hold of the rest of Segal’s employees and his stores, and one that the fortunate members of the Investment Club were lucky to be exposed to.
Special thanks to Jonathan Segal for helping us arrange this excellent meeting. This post was written by Ben Osterlund, edited by Noah Silverman. Photos by Ben Silverman.
Gordon Segal with members of the Investment Club