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Kind-hearted entrepreneur Leo Kahn dies

(Globe Staff / File 1978 Photo / William Ryerson)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / May 13, 2011

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Leo Kahn, who built his family’s wholesale business into the Purity Supreme grocery chain, then cofounded the Staples office supply company and was a pioneer of selling natural foods in supermarket-sized venues, died Wednesday in the Springhouse care facility in Jamaica Plain of complications from a series of strokes. He was 94 and lived in Newton.

Longevity was as much a hallmark of his entrepreneurial imagination as it was his life. Mr. Kahn was 69 when the first Staples store opened, and in his 70s when he founded the Fresh Fields and Nature’s Heartland natural foods chains. He ran his first marathon in his early 60s and was still jogging into his 80s.

Outdistancing the competition in other venues, too, Mr. Kahn launched the Heartland grocery store chain, which in the 1970s was an early experiment in warehouse-style shopping, where low overhead meant shoppers bagged their own purchases and plucked goods from bulk shipping boxes rather than from tidily arranged shelves.

“Leo was an incredibly savvy guy,’’ said Thomas Stemberg, who cofounded Staples with Mr. Kahn in 1986 and now is managing partner of the Highland Consumer Fund at Highland Capital Partners, a venture capital firm in Lexington. “He had a huge brain, but he had an even bigger heart. Leo is one of the kindest individuals one could ever imagine.’’

For years after selling the Purity chain, Mr. Kahn privately lamented the decision to friends, in part because he missed walking through his stores and greeting employees, many by name. Ultimately, though, his creative drive prompted him to keep finding new approaches to attracting shoppers.

“He really had this kind of entrepreneurial gene,’’ said his son Joseph of New York City. “He was constantly inventing things, thinking of new ways of doing business that others took for granted.’’

From Purity and Heartland onward into Staples, Fresh Fields, and Nature’s Heartland, Mr. Kahn refined the discount shopping experience.

“One penny less for a pound of turkey in those days was a major selling point, and my father thrived on that,’’ his son said. “He was always looking for a way to take a penny off the price of a pound of turkey or the price of a banana.’’

With Staples, Mr. Kahn and Stemberg undercut the prices in neighborhood stationary stores that had controlled the market for office supplies purchased by small businesses.

“He always had great insights,’’ Stemberg said. “He said, ‘Tom, nobody’s going to deprive you of the right to make a nickel if you save them 50 cents on the dollar.’ ’’

Frank Giacomazzi, who was Mr. Kahn’s business partner for decades and became president of Purity after Mr. Kahn sold the chain, recalled that the idea for the Heartland discount chain came about when the two were playing golf.

Mr. Kahn, Giacomazzi said, placed a high value on epiphanies that translated into tangible results.

“Leo was the kind of guy who gave his people license to be creative,’’ he said. “And if you failed, that was OK, as long as you were trying, and as long and as you were innovative. That’s what he wanted, not ‘yes’ people, but people who could make the company successful.’’

After sales and mergers, Purity Supreme became part of the Stop & Shop chain, while Fresh Foods and Nature’s Heartland eventually became part of the Whole Foods chain.

“Leo Kahn was a brilliant food retailer who had vision, leadership, and strong competitive abilities,’’ John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, said in a statement. “I admired him greatly and was glad that I was able to meet him and learn from him over the years. Although he was a competitor of Whole Foods Market, he helped make us a better company.’’

The younger of two brothers, Mr. Kahn was born in Medford, the son of Lithuanian immigrants who ran a wholesale food distributorship. He graduated from Malden High School.

He graduated from Harvard College in 1938 and received a master’s in journalism from Columbia University in New York the following year. Mr. Kahn worked as a reporter and in public relations for a political campaign before he was drafted in 1941.

During World War II, he served as a navigator in the Army Air Force, stationed in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Upon returning home, he joined his brother, Albert, in the family business. Mr. Kahn took over leading the company when his brother, who died 1984, left to become a professor at Boston University.

In 1963, Mr. Kahn married Dorothy Davidson, and they lived in Chelmsford and had three children. She died in 1975.

As he built the family business and bought another chain to create the Purity Supreme name, Mr. Kahn tried to get to know as many of his employees as possible.

On the eve of opening the first Staples in 1986, Mr. Kahn and Mitt Romney, an early investor in the chain, showed up unannounced at the Brighton store.

“I’ll never forget the night before we opened the first Staples,’’ Stemberg said. “People pulled an all-nighter and Leo and Mitt Romney showed up with boxes and boxes of pizza and soda and gave us a pep talk. Leo always made sure that if you were working your hardest, you were appreciated. That’s who Leo was.’’

In addition to his son, Mr. Kahn leaves his wife, Emily (Gantt), whom he married in 1976; another son, Daniel of Needham; a daughter, Elizabeth Mallon of Topsfield; two stepdaughters, Lisa Birk of Cambridge and Xandria Birk of Asheville, N.C.; eight grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.

“Leo was just old time, one of a kind,’’ his wife said. “He ran his first marathon at 63 or 64 years old. He just set his mind to it and decided he was going to do it.’’

Mr. Kahn ran a couple of more marathons, but that first in Northern California was a test.

“He finished the race and came in looking good,’’ his wife said. “He finished in great time. It was just such a triumph, and that encapsulated the way he looked at life and the way he approached it.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.