A born entrepreneur, Steve Westerfield sold his miniature golf course while still in high school, splitting the $20,000 profit with his brother. His paintings sold in art galleries, and he got a degree from the University of South Florida on a golf scholarship.
But his true calling was in retailing, where he started out mopping floors for 70 cents an hour at the Maas Brothers department store in Sarasota.
A quick ascent to the executive suite of the Tampa Bay department store chain's New York parent opened the door to a career in the stratosphere of U.S. retailing that included calling the shots at many familiar store nameplates.
Mr. Westerfield died Monday (March 16, 2009) in Gulfport at 66 after a long battle with melanoma. Over his 50-year career he held top-tier jobs at Gimbels and Kohl's, and ran Silo, at the time the biggest rival of Circuit City among electronics superstores. Later, he built Workplace, a St. Petersburg startup among office supply warehouse chains, to 10 stores in Florida before selling it to Staples Inc. for $35 million in 1992.
In the 1990s, venture capital companies hired him to fine-tune upstart regional acquisitions that could be groomed into big chains. At one point he was simultaneously chairman of mall hat shop Lids, party goods chain the Big Party (slogan: Pay Less, Party More) and Kitchens Etc., while weighing whether to jump into 14 other ventures including a chain called Yard Depot, a teen fashion discounter and a store that sold nothing but copy machine toner.
He summed up his formula:
"You find a category of merchandise that's selling well to a fast-growing segment of the population and fill the void with a neat, clean store," he said. "But too many retailers today forget retailing is really just as much about managing a partnership with your suppliers."
His instincts weren't always right: He advised clients against investing in a nascent Starbucks Corp.
Mr. Westerfield would serve on the boards of Staples Inc., Beall's Inc., onetime mall kitchen gadget chain Lechters Inc., mail-order company Brendle's, and Dante, a department store he also advised in Panama.
Mr. Westerfield, whose business style could be characterized as charmingly in-your-face, had a flair for theatrics.
When Office Depot rented a billboard touting lower prices next to his Workplace stores, he planted palm trees that blocked the view, then sued his rival for false advertising.
He rented Hollywood searchlights for Big Party grand openings, cut costs by using employees in TV ads and stationed a greeter at the door dressed in a gorilla costume, grass skirt and Carmen Miranda hat.
"He could be a real ham," said Peggy, his high school sweetheart, wife of 44 years and a former Shore Acres Elementary School teacher. "But he was very spiritual, too. He felt God put people in front of him to help, and he did."
Mr. Westerfield was a big contributor to local charities such as the YWCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, Alpha House and Immaculate Conception preschool in St. Petersburg.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.