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Leo Kahn, who co-founded Staples, dies at 94

May 13, 2011 |  2:03 pm

Leo Kahn, who co-founded Staples and helped start the age of "big box" retail stores, died Wednesday in Boston. He was 94.

Kahn first made his name in the grocery business in New England. He started Staples with a former competitor, Tom Stemberg, after they decided in 1985 to go into business together.

At the time, there were no office-supply superstores. Kahn and Stemberg toured different types of stores each Friday afternoon and one day during a trip to warehouse clubs, they noticed an abundance of office supplies on sale.

"I said to Leo, 'Let's do a Home Depot or Toys R Us for office products,' " Stemberg said. "He said, 'Let's go open a store.' "

Stemberg became chief executive and Kahn, in his late 60s at the time, chairman. They started the chain the next year with investments from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and investment firm Bain Capital.

While smaller rivals OfficeMax and Office Depot sprung up quickly, Staples has remained the largest and best performing office-supply retailer, with revenue of $24.55 billion and 1,900 stores at the end of 2010.

Kahn was born in Medford, Mass. He served in World War II and went to Harvard College, and Columbia University's School of Journalism.

At Staples, Stemberg said it was Kahn's idea to put merchandise that caters to the office manager — the person most likely to be out buying office supplies — at the front of the store to "make it fun to shop."

"He was always into the people side of things," Stemberg said. For example, he came up with the idea to have a meeting every month with all of Staples' employees to listen to their ideas.

"That vision survives today with 80,000 employees," said Stemberg. "That's Leo."

-- Associated Press