With only $2,000 in his pocket, Joe Coulombe sought out to create Pronto Markets. A recent graduate of Stanford University, Coulombe saw an opportunity to open up a convenience store with extended hours in the Los Angeles area. Nearly six decades later, Coulombe’s cultural impact on his company remains very much intact, even after selling it to the prestigious Albrecht family in 1979.
Taking me through the corridors of his home in Pasadena, California, Coulombe walks with a jubilant pace and whistles as I thank him once more for letting me interview him. “I thought you’d be a very interesting person to interview,” I express.
“There are many interesting people,” he replies without hesitation.
As we sit down in his living room, Coulombe tells me about his illustrious career as a businessman. Fearing that bigger chains like 7-Eleven would catch up to Pronto Markets, Coulombe had to develop an edge over his competition. That’s when he discovered evidence that more people than ever were going to college. Coulombe felt that this newly educated “but not smarter” generation would be seeking something fresh, so in 1967, Coulombe began to sell alcohol in his stores. He names off some of the notable wine brands that were discovered on the shelves of what has now evolved into Trader Joe’s. But that’s not all. In order to retain quality employees, Coulombe chose to pay them median income. Today, he tells me that store managers at Trader Joe’s can receive yearly salaries upwards of $100,000.
It was “going green,” however, that Coulombe felt marked a turning point in his life. “I planted my own garden. I used to subscribe to the Rodeo Press, to Mother Jones, to all of the health food magazines. And for a while, I had sunflowers in my front yard. The neighbors put up with me.” On one occasion, Coulombe read about the positive health benefits of wheat bran for the colon and decided to sell the item in his stores.
Reflecting upon his career, I ask him if he would have done anything differently. “You can go nuts. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. On the other hand, I never did get involved in real wine brewing. That’s a black hole,” he laughs. We chat about our philosophical outlooks on life. He attributes much of his world view to a book by José Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher of the 20th century. The book is called The Revolt of the Masses. “It is still in print and taught me so much about how to look at the world. [Gasset] said, ‘The only real worthwhile thought is that of a castaway thrown up on the beach and he’s asked himself what do I do now?’ There were times, like when Fair Trade went away, that I felt cast away.”
While Coulombe ultimately sold Trader Joe’s to provide long-term stability for his family, the culture that he’s established within the company lives on. After retiring as the CEO in 1988, Coulombe worked with a variety of notable brands, most recently serving on the board of directors for True Religion Apparel.
“The world keeps changing. I’ve fallen behind. The demands that society makes on one keep changing. As long as you aspire, I suppose hard work can never hurt.”