Author/businessman Chuck Williams’ recent death reminded me of a conversation I had with him in February 1999. I thought it fitting to honor his work by reprinting his contribution to my book, “What Do You Stand For?”
After enjoying good food and friends for years, Chuck Williams went to France to experience the food and culture, returning with the idea of opening up a store that would sell the same quality cookware that those same fine restaurants and chefs used. Since the start of his modest store in Sonoma, California, the Williams-Sonoma stores and catalog have become the gold standard for anything to do with the kitchen – at least, according to my wife. Chuck’s answer demonstrates that one component of a good reputation is keeping your word.
“I can think of six words that express what I stand for – service, quality, creativity, integrity, knowledge and simplicity. They are the principles I have lived by and are the principles that the first small Williams-Sonoma was based on over 40 years ago.
“In January 1959 on my first attempt at finding and buying kitchenware, I went to Paris, not knowing a thing about buying or importing in a foreign country. After a couple of days of hopeless encounters in shops and offices, I found that I needed a buying agent. With the help of a friend I was sent to see Mr. Andre Friedman of an old established buying office.
“He welcomed me and listened to my story of just opening a small shop in San Francisco with the dream of having a French kitchenware shop. He said that they had no experience with kitchenware manufacturers but that he might consider working with me. He then said, ‘But first, before we go any further I must know, who are you? I don’t know you. What is your credit rating? What are your references?’ I replied that I knew nothing about credit ratings and references. He finally said, ‘Oh, go away and come back in a half hour and I will tell you if we can work together.’
“So, a little dejected, I departed, walked the neighborhood for a half hour and returned. He greeted me with, ‘Okay, let us get started. You are okay.’ But, I said, ‘How do you know? What made up your mind?’ ‘Oh it is very simple,’ he said, ‘I simply telephoned the Chase National Bank in New York, and they checked with Dun and Bradstreet and your bank. They reported back that you are okay.’
“At that moment he became my buying agent on an open account basis, which is unusual in the import-export business. No letters of credit or guarantee, just a bill sent to me after receiving the merchandise. It was a ‘moment of mutual trust’ that I have never forgotten, and each year thereafter on my return to Paris on a buying trip, he always took me to one of his favorite restaurants for a lunch to renew that feeling of mutual trust. His company remained my buying agent for more than 20 years until his heirs closed the business.
“It was an experience that would probably not happen today, which makes me treasure it even more. This really adds another word – Trust – to the six that I gave you, which makes seven words that express what I stand for and live by.”