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W. Howard Lester of Williams-Sonoma dies at 75

November 16, 2010 |  5:47 pm

Lester W. Howard Lester, chairman emeritus of gourmet-cookware retailer Williams-Sonoma Inc., died Monday at his home in Indian Wells, the company announced. He was 75 and had cancer.

Lester, who worked at San Francisco-based Williams-Sonoma for 32 years, purchased the company with a partner in 1978, when it generated $4 million in annual sales and had four stores. During his time as chief executive, from 1978 to 2001, and later as chairman, Lester took Williams-Sonoma public and expanded it to 600 stores and more than $3.4 billion in sales.

"Howard was a shopkeeper at heart. More importantly, he has been my friend for over 30 years, and I will miss him," Chuck Williams, founder and director emeritus of Williams-Sonoma, said in a statement.

Lester became chief executive again in 2006 after the company cut its sales forecast because of weaker growth at its Pottery Barn chain. By the time he retired in May, the company had pulled out of the recession and posted a 17% increase in sales for the first quarter.

Born Aug. 14, 1935, in Durant, Okla., Lester served in the U.S. Army in counterintelligence in the 1950s before starting his career selling typewriters for IBM in 1958. During the next two decades, he founded several companies.

-- Bloomberg

Photo: W. Howard Lester in 2004. Credit: Chris Hardy /San Francisco Chronicle