Jim Warner, who founded Warners' Stellian and helped grow it into a local appliance-retail empire, died Friday morning.
At a time when mom-and-pop shops are shuttering in the face of online and big-box retail competition, the Warners' Stellian patriarch, 90, saw the family-owned company expand and flourish under the leadership of his children and grandchildren.
"My father was virtuous. Of course, I'm biased, but he had no enemies," said Jeff Warner, his son. "My father delighted in creating happiness, in satisfying people. He loved what he did. He loved winning, and he did a lot of winning."
After returning from the Korean War, Warner worked a handful of jobs before taking a position as bookkeeper at Stellian's Appliance in Falcon Heights in 1955. The company's name was created by owners Steve and Lillian Farkas, combining their first names. By 1960, Warner was the manager. In 1971, he bought the appliance store from the couple.
Warner changed the company's name, adding the plural possessive version of his last name to include his wife and kids in the business. Now, Warners' Stellian is a highly recognized brand in Minnesota.
"What really delighted my dad was building that reputation and trust so that his customers would do his advertising for him," Jeff Warner said.
With 10 retail locations and its first non-Minnesota shop under construction in Iowa, Warners' Stellian last year ranked among the top 25 appliance retailers in the nation by revenue, with giants such as Home Depot Inc., Best Buy Corp., Amazon and Walmart, dominating the top.
His son attributes the company's success to the principles established by his father.
"He worked harder than everybody else. He worked massive hours," Jeff Warner said. "He was smart. He was driven. He was competitive. His sense of self was that he didn't accept failure. And with nine kids at home, he didn't have a choice but to succeed."
Despite his grueling work ethic, he was happy, humble and deeply religious, his son said. "His favorite line to us was to leave your ego at the door. He was truly humble. He was quiet. He led by example. … My father was genuinely lovely."
The St. Paul-based appliance retailer now employs about 500 people and remains an independent, family-owned business with both the third and fourth generation — which they call "3G" and "4G" — now working there.
"My dad was an icon in the business. He was an icon in the community. He was an icon in his family," Jeff Warner said. "He was very beloved."
Born in St. Augusta, Minn., Warner moved to St. Paul at the age of 7, one of 12 siblings. He is survived by his wife Wynona Lewis Warner, two sisters, nine children, 37 grandchildren and 42 great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are still being made.