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What entrepreneurs can learn from Costco's CEO

Costco co-founder and CEO Jim Sinegal.

ROBERT SORBO/REUTERS

The news that Costco Wholesale Corp. chief executive officer Jim Sinegal plans to retire this year brought back a flood of memories. Mr. Sinegal always seemed like one of the good guys – an outstanding example of how to be a CEO – when I covered the company for a weekly newspaper. He played a major role in building Costco into the third-largest retailer in the U.S., creating a model that rewards workers handsomely even while competitors cut benefits.

Here are five CEO traits that other entrepreneurs could learn from Mr. Sinegal:

Use your products. Mr. Sinegal is often clad in one of Costco's basic dress shirts, long a staple of the company's apparel department. He proudly wears them to company annual meetings, too.

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Be accessible. The thing that blew me away about Mr. Sinegal was that his office is in the hallway at Costco's Issaquah, Wash., headquarters. That's right, not even a door that shut. Not even a glass wall between him and the rest of the staff. Anybody can wander by and chat him up, any time. He also gave me his cellphone number once, where most execs would make you call in through one of those conference bridges or have a secretary patch you through. There are no layers of handlers around Mr. Sinegal.

Treat your employees great. Costco is well-known for offering above-average pay for warehouse store workers. The result is low turnover, low training costs and a family feeling to the company. They don't have to do much recruiting, as current employees are happy to put out the word to family and friends.

Stay humble. Despite commanding a $76-billion (U.S.) retail empire, Mr. Sinegal is still honest, straightforward and down-to-earth. His desk on my last visit was a cheap, Formica-topped folding table, and behind him sat an aged, fabric-covered message board. No burnished hardwood executive desk and fancy whiteboards for him.

Listen. If there was a store opening across the globe from Seattle, Mr. Sinegal was there. He wanted to talk to customers and employees, so he could learn more about how to serve them.

Copyright © 2012 Entrepreneur Media Inc., All rights reserved

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