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What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Costco's CEO

Costco CEO Jim Sinegal

The recent news that Costco Wholesale CEO Jim Sinegal plans to retire next year brought back a flood of memories for me. I covered the company for nearly 7 years as part of a full-time retail beat at Seattle's regional weekly business paper.

For me, Sinegal always seemed like one of the good guys -- an outstanding example of how to be a CEO. He played a major role in building Costco into the third-largest retailer in the country, creating a model that rewards workers handsomely even while competitors cut benefits.  

Here are five CEO traits Sinegal has that I wish more business leaders would acquire:

  1. Use your products. Sinegal is often clad in one of Costco's $17 dress shirts, long a staple of the company's apparel department. He proudly wears them to company annual meetings, too.
     
  2. Be accessible. The thing that blew me away about Sinegal was that his office is in the hallway at Costco's Issaquah headquarters. That's right, not even a door that shut. Not even a glass wall between him and the rest of the staff. Anybody can wander by and chat him up, anytime. He also gave me his cellphone number once, where most execs would make you call in through one of those conference bridges or have a secretary patch you through. There are no layers of handlers around Sinegal.
     
  3. Treat your employees great. Costco is well-known for offering above-average pay for warehouse-store workers. The result is low turnover, low training costs and a family feeling to the company. They don't have to do much recruiting, as current employees are happy to put out the word to family and friends.
     
  4. Stay humble. Despite commanding a $76 billion retail empire, Sinegal is still honest, straightforward and down-to-earth. His desk on my last visit was a cheap, Formica-topped folding table -- I think it had been a Costco sale item -- and behind him sat an aged, fabric-covered message board. No burnished hardwood executive desk and fancy whiteboards for him.
     
  5. Listen. If there was a store opening across the globe from Seattle, Sinegal was there. He wanted to talk to customers and employees, so he could learn more about how to serve them.

What are the best traits for a CEO? Leave a comment and give us your take.

Carol Tice, a freelance writer, is chief executive of TiceWrites Inc. in Bainbridge Island, Wash. She blogs about freelance writing at Make a Living Writing. Email her at carol@caroltice.com.

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