As a Longview teenager during the Great Depression, Wilbur J. Fix learned skills that would later help him rise to top executive of one of the fastest-growing retailers in the Pacific Northwest.
Desperate to find work to support eight children, Fix's father moved the family to Longview from North Dakota in 1936. Young Wilbur, known as Bill, picked strawberries one summer in Gresham, Ore., and earned enough money to buy a bike. He picked up a paper route delivering the Longview Daily News around Hudson Avenue.
One route grew into four, and Fix hired three neighborhood boys to do some of the work for him. A budding businessman was born - leading to a 42-year career with The Bon Marche, starting from the ground floor and ending at the penthouse.
"I'm a risk-taker. So far, it's paid off," Fix, now 82, said.
Fix stopped by Paperbacks Galore in Longview on Friday afternoon to promote his first book, "Go to the Edge of Disaster," in which he outlines the business strategies he used during his 12-year tenure as corporate executive officer at the Seattle-based Bon Marche.
A Seattle resident, Fix occasionally returns to Cowlitz County to visit family. He spoke with students at R.A. Long High School Friday morning, marking the first time he has set foot in his alma mater since he graduated in 1945.
Sharply dressed in a dark suit and red, leaf-printed tie, Fix was quick to smile as he recounted the upward trajectory of his life. As an R.A. Long High School student, he worked after school at Longview Fibre Paper and Packaging. He joined the Army after graduation, and he was assigned to monitor foreign communications out of Washington, D.C., in search of codes after World War II ended.
After he left the Army, Fix earned a degree in industrial management from the University of Washington in 1950, and he started looking for work again. He found a job on the ground floor at a Bon Marche store in Yakima selling men's shirts - something Fix said he never expected would evolve into a career.
In Yakima, Fix met Beverly Corcoran, who would later become his wife of 53 years. After the couple married, Fix was transferred to a Bon store in Boise, Idaho, and he told Beverly he expected to become vice president of the company one day.
"She said, ‘No, you're not. You're going to be the president and CEO,'" Fix said.
It took 30 years, but Beverly was proven right.
Fix took the reins of the Bon in 1980, and he began looking to improve the company from the bottom up. He put all his sales people on commission, then empowered them to make decisions based on customer satisfaction, not company rules.
For example, the company prohibited customers from using company phones, fearing it left nearby cash registers vulnerable to theft. Fix said he changed that policy after a salesperson pointed out its absurdity.
"I encouraged people to come up with creative ideas," Fix said.
He didn't want people to fear trying something new. The Bon had been known as a budget retailer before Fix took charge, and he decided to push the envelope.
In the early '80s, while the nation was still recovering from a recession, Fix invested millions in higher-end clothing at higher prices.
"Don't be skittish about this. Take me to the edge of disaster," Fix told his employees at the time. (That moment was the inspiration for his book, he said.)
The gamble paid off. Customers flocked to the new merchandise, and the Bon established itself as a quality clothing store. Sales rose during every year of Fix's tenure as CEO.
"You have to take a chance, take a risk. By adding all of this merchandise, we developed new customers that hadn't been shopping at The Bon Marche," Fix said.
Following his retirement in 1993, Fix has stayed busy traveling and serving on corporate boards. He's slowed down since Beverly died five years ago of cancer, he said.
Fix credits his economic struggles in Longview as a catalyst for his later achievements in life.
"I thought, ‘This is not my kind of life. I'm not going to live that way.' It caused me to have a passion for success."