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Thomas Stemberg dies at 66; Staples founder created ‘Toys R Us for office supplies’

Thomas Stemberg, a former grocery business executive who founded Staples Inc. and revolutionized the office supplies retail business, has died at his home in Chestnut Hill, Mass. He was 66.

Highland Capital Partners, a venture capital firm that Stemberg joined in 2005, said he died Friday of cancer.

Stemberg had been a New England grocery executive but left after a dispute with his bosses. He came up with the idea of Staples after driving around the Boston area searching unsuccessfully for printer ribbon in 1985 on the Fourth of July weekend, when stores were closed.

Staples, based in Framingham, Mass., grew into a chain with $22.5 billion in revenue and 83,000 employees last year. It was among the first big-box stores that applied price pressure on competitors and lured shoppers from downtown stores and shopping malls.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney, whose Bain Capital invested in Staples, called Stemberg “an extraordinarily creative and dynamic visionary.”

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Romney, a Republican, told the Boston Globe that Stemberg persuaded him to draft Massachusetts’ groundbreaking healthcare legislation.

“Without Tom pushing it, I don’t think we would have had Romneycare,” he said.

Born in Newark, N.J., on Jan. 18, 1949, Thomas George Stemberg was the son of Austrian refugees. After his father, a lawyer turned restaurateur, died when Stemberg was 13, he and his mother moved to Vienna.

Stemberg won a scholarship to attend Harvard, where he majored in physical science. After receiving his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1973, he worked for large grocery chains.

Within a year of his printer-ribbon epiphany, he had meticulously researched the office-supply business, interviewed his dry cleaner, his doctor and scores of other business people, run spreadsheet after spreadsheet, and answered a question that had seized him months before: “Could we create a Toys R Us for office supplies?”

Stemberg and Leo Kahn, a former rival in the grocery world, opened their first Staples store in Brighton, Mass. They aimed to lure in not just individuals but also small businesses, which had not typically reaped the same discounts as companies that purchased supplies in greater quantities.

“Stemberg learned how to be a low-cost operator through his experience in the low-margin, high-volume grocery business,” Investors Business Daily said in 2008. “The original Staples store resembled a supermarket. It was self-service, whereas other sellers of office supplies had salespeople.”

Stemberg was chairman of Staples until 2005, when he founded Highland Capital Partners. He also founded chains that specialized in flowers, dry cleaning, and children’s shoes, with varying degrees of success.

He was a devotee of Harvard basketball and a donor to the university, where he funded a scholarship for students who, like him, had lost a parent.

Stemberg’s survivors include his wife, Katherine Chapman Stemberg; six sons; three stepdaughters; and three grandchildren.

Two earlier marriages ended in divorce.

A Los Angeles Times staff writer contributed to this report.

news.obits@latimes.com


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