Since leaving Trader Joe’s more than two decades ago, founder Joe Coulombe has had little to do with the grocery chain. He lives a few blocks away from current CEO Dan Bane in Pasadena, but he claims they never talk shop. These days Coulombe, 80, is more interested in oil painting and organic gardening. But his fingerprints are all over the company that bears his name, from the robust selection of nuts and dried fruit to the Hawaiian-print shirts that employees wear.
After graduating from Stanford and securing his MBA there in 1954, Coulombe landed a gig doing research on convenience stores for drugstore chain Rexall, which eventually asked him to start a 7-Eleven knockoff in California. Coulombe launched — and eventually acquired — Pronto Markets. He decided to pay his average full-time employee the median California family income to avoid what he called “the quasiserf environment of 7-Eleven.”
In the early years a cutthroat retail environment forced Coulombe to alter his business strategy constantly to stay afloat. Inspiration came from surprising places. In the 1960s a Scientific American article explained that the majority of people qualified to go to college in 1964 took advantage of higher education. In 1967 he founded Trader Joe’s to serve those well-educated kids of Depression-era parents. The original store, in Pasadena, had extra shelf space, so Coulombe started selling alcohol, which proved to be a hit with the smart set.
His second Scientific American epiphany: the growing environmental movement. In 1970 he read an article about the biosphere. “I became what is now called a green,” he says. The stores fully embraced the health food movement. (He is still a hard-core vitamin taker.)
Coulombe, who sold the chain to Germany’s Albrecht family in 1979, has moved on to other pursuits. He’s active in the retail world through his roles as nonexecutive chairman of Cost Plus and as a board member of True Religion Apparel. And whether he likes it or not, he’ll always be Trader Joe: “My children say that the Albrechts own the business,” he quips, “but I own the cult.”