Obituary: Norman Diamond, Retail King

MR Magazine is saddened to learn of the passing of industry icon Norman Diamond, who died of cancer this past November at age 86.

Norman grew up on the east side of Cleveland, the son of a hat salesman who sold on the road. He was one of seven children: three of the four boys went into the retail apparel business. His oldest brother Joe opened the first store in East Cleveland in 1941; Norm went to work for him for several years. When his father died, his mother gave Norm the $10,000 insurance money, declaring that she had faith he’d be successful.

Norman Diamond

Norm opened his first store in 1949, but was soon drafted into the Army for the Korean War. Before his unit shipped out, they were asked “Who here can type”? Because he could type, he was sent to Germany instead of Korea, serving there a couple of years. While away, his younger brother Herb operated his store; when Norm returned, they worked together a while until Herb opened his own store. After the early years, the three brothers operated their stores separately, although they remained personally very close, particularly Norm and Herb. At the peak, among the three brothers, they ran 35 stores. Norm and his two sons, Rick and Randy, ultimately expanded into higher-end stores: Christian St. John, Cricket West (casual/denim-related) and Professional Woman (better women’s apparel) as well as off-price stores called Suits Incorporated.

“In a sense, he invented the outlet business,” says Arlan Nagel, a Midwest rep who worked with Norman for many decades (so many, in fact, that he remembers Rick and Randy as kids playing checkers while their dad shopped the lines). “As a merchant, he was way ahead of his time, segmenting the business to attract different customer types. As a person, he was in a class by himself, always helping people without ever telling anyone he was doing it. When he went to buy a car, he’d give the business not to the top guy but to the dealer who most needed the business. He was always compassionate, always generous. He could be tough; you’d sometimes hear him yelling and screaming but he got over it quickly and never held grudges.”

“His bark was much worse than his bite,” agrees Norm’s son Randy. “He was incredibly kind and generous and honest. At one point in time we had 500 employees and I’d bet he personally helped out each one. As for business, he ran it on instinct. My brother and I had to fight him just to get things computerized. But his instinct was incredible…”

“He was the King,” says Ron Wurtzburger at Peerless, “the ultimate merchant of the greatest specialty store operation in its day. More importantly, Norm Diamond was a unique person who took care of everyone. He didn’t know how to say no, whether it was lending money or giving away garments. Plus he was so full of life: he gave 100 percent to everything he did; he didn’t know the meaning of second best, whether it was tennis, golf, business or looking in the mirror…He was a special breed that unfortunately no longer exists in our industry.”

And from his son Rick: “As tough as Norm could be on the outside, he had a heart of gold. Whether he was right or wrong (and most times he was in the right), he could never stay angry at anyone. He is already missed by so many.”

In addition to his sons Rick and Randy, Norman is survived by daughters Carol and Cathy, seven grandchildren and many loving family members and friends. Donations in his memory can be made to the Norm Diamond Philanthropic Fund, 2471 Blossom Lane, Beachwood, Ohio 44122.

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