The Willson Company

Counseling Small Towns & Businesses One At A Time! ~ (703) 999-3048

Since 1867, the legacy lives on - Background & Business Activities



The Willson Company History

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY – The Willson Company

  • Founded in 1867 by General Lester S. Willson as a mercantile company in Bozeman, MT.
  • Re-established in 1990 by Lester S. Willson, Jr. (III) consulting major regional shopping centers and specialty clients, and winning several MAXI and MERIT Awards from the International Council of Shopping Centers.
  • Re-established in 2010 by Marc Willson to serve as a business advisor to America's small towns and merchants.


Lester S. Willson enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 as a private from Canton, NY.  He mustered out in 1865 Lt. Col. of the 60th New York Volunteer Infantry after being wounded at Chancellorsville and accepting the surrender of the
 city of Savannah during General Sherman’s famous “march to the sea.”  He returned to NY as the state’s Quartermaster General to demilitarize the state and, at a meeting in Horace Greeley’s office in 1866, heeded Schuyler Colfax’s advice to “Go West.”

In 1866, Lester sent his brother Davis Willson  with Charles Rich and L.W. Tuller, on an “immigrant” wagon train, up the Bozeman Trail, to Montana.   As many as Forty travelers lost their lives to Red Cloud’s Native Americans that year, but the Willson party persisted on to Bozeman. The men commenced in business in tents and log cabins, and Lester joined his partners the following year. The first enterprise was a freight company, followed by the first bank in town, and later a mercantile store owned solely by Lester and known as The Willson Company.  The brick edifice built in 1903 still stands as a cornerstone of Bozeman’s Main Street.

Gen. Willson started the business as any enduring business should start – with a vision:

“My business standards shall have in them a note of sympathy for our common humanity.  My business dealings, ambitions and relations shall always cause me to take into consideration my highest duties as a member of society.  In every position in business life, in every responsibility that comes before me, my chief thought shall be to fill that responsibility and discharge that duty so that when I have ended each of them I shall have lifted the level of human ideals and achievements a little higher than I found it.”

The Willson Company, in fact, endures today with the same ideals.  The General died in 1919 and The Willson Company building was eventually occupied by other retailers in the latter part of the twentieth century.

The Team

Marc Willson, Principal
Marc Willson is the Retail Consultant workinf for the Virginia Small Business Development Center (VSBDC) Network and brings 35 years of retail experience to bear in helping retail, restaurant, and tourism-related small businesses refine and promote their concepts to the public. In his role working with the VSBDC, Marc meets personally with small businesses throughout Virginia as part of the Small Town and Merchant Program, providing confidential one-on-one counseling in partnership with the local SBDC office.

Marc started his retail career in 1975 as co-owner of the largest distributor of Earth Shoes in the United States. As Earth Shoes went the way of the Pet Rock, Marc joined Britches of Georgetowne as a sales person and finished a 12-year career there as Vice President of Operations after growing the company from 9 stores to 109.  He then joined Circuit City and opened 83 mall-based Circuit City Express stores. At Crown Books he managed 250 bookstores as Vice President and General Manager. The son of the founder of Circuit City asked him to be President and CEO of the Bicycle Exchange, a chain of bicycle superstores that he had invested in and in dire need of a turnaround.

Marc then took his career into cyberspace as the Vice President of Merchandising of an online college bookstore specializing in textbooks and emblematic apparel. As President of Storetrax, Inc., he managed an Internet site dedicated to landlords and developers leasing retail space.  Most recently he traveled to Dallas, Texas, to open the world's first energy efficiency store for Current Energy, LLC, a company funded by Ross Perot, Jr. The store helps small businesses and residential customers reduce their consumption of gas, water and electricity. He continues to broker commercial power to industry and manufacturers in deregulated states throughout the country.
He is known as an operation’s expert and has counseled countless retailers in best practices, financials and cash flow, marketing and customer service, customer loyalty, merchandising , window dressing, buying, social media and just plain old how to treat customers. In an attempt to keep small retailers relevant during this turbulent economic time, we focus on why their offering is unique, who are their customers and how to reach to them. His client's revere his honesty, delivered with the genteel manner of a southern gentleman.

Lester S. Willson, Advisory Board Chairman, Emeritus

In 1989, Mr. Willson founded The Willson Company, a consulting firm that won several MAXI and Merit Awards from the International Council of Shopping Centers for its innovative training and customer service programs.  In addition to 26 regional shopping centers as clients, The Willson Company worked with The Clyde’s Restaurant Group, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Escada Laurel of NYC, and other organizations and businesses that depend on excellence in all aspects of their operations to attract and retain customers from all over the world.  He has worked and lived in Taipei, Taiwan and was privileged to be Chief Operations Officer of The Aga Khan Foundation, USA.

From 1985 thru 1989, he was employed by Britches of Georgetown as Director of Employee Relations and Development and sat on the Operating Committee as that company expanded from 23 to 75 stores in a three-year period, ultimately reaching 110 stores before being sold.  He joined the Delaware SBDC in 1996 and directed economic outreach and retail consulting throughout the state.  As part of a turnaround team, he served as VP of Human Resources for BikesUSA, a $31M/year chain of 23 bicycle shops, until joining the MDSBDC in 2001.

Mr. Willson’s working knowledge begins with his early experience in owning/operating seven shoe stores, and opening and acting as Regional Director for thirteen optical shops.   He holds an MBA from James Madison University and an MA from George Washington University, has taught in the School of Business at JMU, and is a veteran of the U.S. Army.

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502 Niven Court Suite 200
Leesburg, VA 20175
(703) 999-3048
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