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, in 1985, after they decided to go into business together and were seeking new ideas outside groceries.
At the time, there were no office-supply superstores. Kahn and Stemberg were touring 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 CEO and Kahn, in his late 60s at the time, chairman. They started the chain the next year with investments from former Massachusetts governor 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 School of Journalism.
After Staples, he went on to open natural supermarkets Fresh Fields and Nature's Heartland, which Whole Foods bought in 1999.
"He was a guy who cared about people," Stemberg said. He remembers Kahn being upset with himself when he couldn't remember the name of someone he met 12 years ago, and bringing pizza, soda and a much-needed pep talk to Stemberg and others on their third straight all-nighter the night before the first Staples opened in 1986.
On the business front, he was an innovator. At Staples, Stemberg said it was Kahn's ideas to put merchandise that caters to the secretary or 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."
According to the Boston Globe, Kahn is survived by his wife, Emily (Gantt), sons Joseph Kahn in New York and Daniel in Needham, Mass; a daughter, Elizabeth Mallon of Topsfield; two stepdaughters, Lisa Birk of Cambridge and Xandria Birk of Asheville, N.C.; eight grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.