"Growth for the sake of growth still troubles me. It seems unnatural, even perverted," writes Joe Coulombe in Becoming Trader Joe: How I Did Business My Way and Still Beat the Big Guys.
The California businessman is best known for founding Trader Joe's, a quirky grocery chain owned by Aldi since 1979. On paper, its success seems a bit unlikely: all products are private label; the company rarely offers sales or coupons; its stores are small and cramped; it barely advertises. Yet Trader Joe's has developed a cult following for its cheerful staff and unique products— like speculoos cookie butter, two buck chuck, "everything but the bagel" seasoning, and almond butter (which Trader Joe's created with discarded almond parts!).
Coulombe passed away in February 2020 at the age of 89, and his book was released in June of this year. Without pretending to be a literary masterpiece, it offers a fascinating peek into the grocery industry. The New Yorker calls the book "an unusually colorful and sensible business guide that refuses to glamorize entrepreneurship."
He comes off as obsessive and well-read, citing obscure quotations from economists, François Rabelais, Scientific American articles from the seventies, Goethe, Jean Renoir, and more. He disliked traditional forms of advertising, instead choosing to publish an offbeat and educational periodical called Fearless Flyer to help sell consumers on Trader Joe's. Perhaps most crucially, he harbored an outsized disdain for the standard business practices of corporate America, condemning things such as a "Byzantine management atmosphere," venture capitalism (what he calls "vultures"), investment banking, corporate consultants, and money borrowing.
Thinking about the hallmarks of the Trader Joe's brand, it's easy to imagine Coulombe as a progressive idealist, obsessed with the idea that his business was helping to make the world a better place. This was not the case; as the leader of a profit-driven company, he did not try to sell his colleagues or readers on the illusion that he was first and foremost a do-gooder. He didn't even seem to have much of a kinship with the hippies, hipsters, intellectuals, and health-food junkies he catered to. But he did discover, along the way, that doing good often benefitted his bottom line. He was prone to "doing the right things for all the wrong reasons," or engaging in acts of "selfish altruism," he writes. Chief among these "right things" was a respect for his workers. "This is the most important single business decision I ever made: to pay people well," he writes. He reasoned that employee turnover was the biggest cost to his business, and by paying his workers high wages and offering them excellent benefits he would ultimately reduce his costs.New Yorker