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Man Of The House

Bringing linens out of the closet turned this retail maverick into a household name.

When the department store muckety-mucks he worked for told divisional merchandising manager Bill Stroud to downsize the linen department in their stores, he felt a familiar twinge. It was 1979, and it wasn't the first time the geniuses in charge had decided to think small.

Stroud had already been through the shrinkage process as a merchandiser for the record department. Record store chains had moved in and made department store record departments obsolete. When Stroud suggested expanding his department to compete, he was met instead with an order to downsize. Eventually, the department folded.

So Stroud moved to sporting goods-with virtually the same result. Next came the toy department-relegated to the back burner and finally the ash heap with the advent of Toys "R" Us.

Now Stroud was in charge of merchandising linens-a department store staple, an indestructible stronghold. Then came the directive to downsize. "The amount of space being devoted to every department was changing," Stroud explains. "The company started building stores where, instead of having 12,000 square feet for linens, you were going to have to squeeze the department into 8,000 square feet. I knew the selection customers expected wouldn't fit into a department that size."

And Stroud knew from experience that the executives at corporate headquarters would insist on scaling down the department-even in the face of competition. That left Stroud with a choice. He could wait for some upstart to launch a specialty linens store and watch yet another department go down in flames. Or he could join the other side of the battle.

Stroud was 54 years old. He was not desperate to start his own enterprise, not anxious to revolutionize the retail industry. He was, however, sick of compromise. And he knew he had a hot opportunity on his hands. He would build a linens store so expansive and stylish that department store linen departments would seem paltry by comparison. And even though he had no entrepreneurial experience and only limited access to funds, Stroud had what it took to hobble his mighty, multimillion-dollar department store opponents: He was ready to fight. And he was sure they would doggedly, irrationally, as if destined by nature, shrink away from the challenge.

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This article was originally published in the January 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Man Of The House.

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