Stew Leonard, Jr.
President and CEO, Stew Leonard's
The worst day of Stew Leonard, Jr.’s life was New Year’s Day, 1989.
The extended Leonard family was at their vacation home in St. Maarten. The supermarket mogul was walking around the house, blowing up balloons for his three-year-old daughter’s birthday party, and his 21-month-old son, Stew Leonard III, was following him, handing him balloons. “Then, boom, he’s not there. I ask my wife if she’d seen him, and she thought he was with me,” Leonard remembers.
The family all ran around the property looking for Stewie. Leonard saw a yellow t-shirt floating in the pool. “We did CPR and everything, and it was just too late,” he says.
The rest of the week was a blur. Leonard knows that his family took care of the arrangements, and American Airlines flew everyone back on New Year’s Day. “I was still in shock,” he says. “It was the most difficult day in our lives. If your parents pass away, it hurts a lot, but you expect it. It’s really different when one of your children passes. But we still had our daughter. She forced my wife and me to keep going. We had to get back into our routine.”
Leonard went to work soon after his son died. “I could go right to the store and start working. It occupied my time, just to get back into some routine,” he says. Both he and his wife, Kim, agree that coping with their son’s death was harder for her because she was a stay-at-home mom and didn’t have work as an escape. “I had been the mother of two children, and all of a sudden I was the mother of one child. The reality of it was always right there,” Kim says. “Stew could get up, get ready, go to work, and at least immerse himself in something for eight to ten hours a day. I was living it.”
The store’s staff was a comfort to both Kim and Stew. “Our company had a lot of people who had been there for twenty or thirty years, who I’d grown up with. They all were very supportive of me and my wife. It wasn’t like I worked for a corporation where I had X weeks off for bereavement pay. Everyone was like, ‘What can I do to help you?’” he says.
Over the years, the Leonards had three more daughters, and Stew Leonard’s opened its second supermarket in Danbury, Connecticut. But in 1993, another, different sort of tragedy hit: His father and the company’s founder, Stew Leonard, Sr., pled guilty to tax fraud and was sentenced to 52 months in prison. Leonard was already involved in the day-to-day management, but with his father in “camp,” he immediately found himself president and CEO of the family business at a time of family crisis.
“I felt the weight and responsibility of really running the entire business—the marketing, sales, PR, supplier relations, HR things," he says. "Emotionally, it was hard to go through. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have been equipped to go through it if it hadn’t been for losing my son. I felt like it put those problems in perspective. Even though it was difficult to go through the tax situation in the early '90s, I’d suffered even a worse tragedy with losing my son.”
Leonard grew Stew Leonard’s into a $400 million business, opening a third store in Yonkers in 1999 and a fourth in Newington, Connecticut, in 2007—in addition to a chain of wine shops. He and Kim have also established the Stew Leonard III Children’s Charities to promote water safety. “After our son drowned, we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we should have been better parents. We should have read some books about water safety to our children.’ We researched all over for information about teaching kids to swim. There wasn’t really anything available,” Leonard says. “We wanted to help other parents [learn] about the danger of having children around the water. We’re able to help tens of thousands of kids learn to swim.” The charity sponsors swimming classes, has sold 100,000 books, and released a free iPhone app on April 4, 2012—which would have been Stewie’s 25th birthday. “Being involved with the charity is therapy. It keeps the link between my son and my family alive,” he says.
Looking back on the years of his son’s death and his father’s incarceration, Leonard says those trying times have made him stronger. “I look back on it, and it was a difficult time,” he says. “But it was also a strengthening and building time. No matter who you are, you’re going to suffer setbacks. I lost my son, we had the tax problems, and other things have happened. But you have to really just step back up, dust yourself off, and keep going.”