In 1932, both William H. Child and the business that would dominate his adult life were born.

But there were no silver spoons around the Syracuse-area farm where Child was raised.

"Like most farmers, we didn't have a lot of money," Child said. "(Child's father, Fay) worried about debt, but he was very honest. He had a good reputation and a good name."

Child has tried to keep up that good family name. And now, 50 years after Child was handed the keys to the first RC Willey store, billionaire investment guru Warren Buffett says of him, "I wish I could clone him."

How does a farmboy grow up to attract the attention and admiration of one of the richest men in the world? For that matter, how does a man who earned an education degree from the University of Utah end up running a retail empire?

Child will tell you he has been blessed. That he has worked hard, but he also has been fortunate to make the right business moves at the right times.

Those who know Child say it isn't just good fortune that has determined his success at building RC Willey into a household name. Rather, they say, he has used those same qualities of honesty and integrity he learned from his father and mother, Viola — as well as a natural ability to know what consumers want and how they want to get it.

"I think anybody that's as successful as he is has to have a sense, or feel, for what he's doing, and . . . I'm not sure you can learn that," said Arnie Ferrin, former U. athletic director and a longtime friend and golfing buddy of Child. "I think it's an innate sense of what the public wants to buy and how it's priced. . . . I think Bill got into the business and ended up with that innate sense of when to expand and how to buy. It's just remarkable."

All the more so considering how Child got into the retailing business.

Humble beginnings

Child married Darlene Willey, the daughter of Rufus Call Willey, in 1951 and worked sometimes at Willey's Syracuse appliance store.

On the day Child graduated from college in 1954, Willey turned the store over to him. He was sick and said he would be back in two weeks. A few months later, Willey died of cancer, leaving Child in charge of a store that he didn't really know how to run.

The business had one employee, no restroom and a phone on a party line. It was tough to pay the bills in those early days, and Child was doing almost everything in the business, from taking customer calls to making deliveries.

"I had to learn pretty much by myself," Child said. "I learned quickly through necessity, I guess, and just common sense. . . . I was very lucky to survive."

There were obstacles, including a dishonest accountant, but he kept trying to make the store better. Lessons learned growing up on a farm helped in that respect.

"When I got a chance to talk to people, . . . and not do backbreaking work out in the hot sun, it was like a vacation," he said. "I adapted very quickly to retail."

As he adapted, he decided to make some changes. First, he thought RC Willey should move into the furniture business. And he pushed the company to expand beyond Syracuse, which led to the opening of the Murray store in 1969.

Core beliefs

But growth did not change Child's basic philosophies. For example, he said, the company has never mortgaged a building.

"I learned many years ago that you just wanted to avoid debt," Child said. "I learned frugality was very important to be able to sleep nights."

Treating employees well is another hallmark of Child's success, said Monty Peterson, RC Willey's senior buyer in its major appliance division, who has worked for Child for about 24 years.

Peterson said he was running his own business, competing with RC Willey, when he met Child. He grew to respect Child through a few trips they took together, and at a time when his company was in a state of flux, Child offered Peterson a job.

"He was very kind, and he said, 'Well, if you'd like, why don't you come over and go to work for me. And then if you decide you want to go back on your own, because you're not happy here, I'd understand,' " Peterson said. "That was an amazing sound to hear, because the whole world seemed to be coming in on me at that time. That cemented my relationship with him."

Peterson said he has never regretted his decision to work for Child at RC Willey.

"He's always been not only a very honest man with impeccable integrity and smarts in business — what RC Willey has become is a great indicator of that — but he's also a very genuine and . . . caring and understanding man," Peterson said.

Clark Ivory, chief executive officer of Ivory Homes, said Child's ability to change with the times makes him unique.

"The thing that's helped Bill more than anything else is that he's humble, and he's been open to making ongoing improvements to his business," said Ivory, who knows Child as a mentor and neighbor to his parents, and who has purchased furniture for model homes from RC Willey.

"He also recognizes the need to get other people involved and use the best possible people. . . . He was always out there asking, 'What can I do to run this business better?' "

Demonstrating that humility, Child said the furniture business "is not rocket science."

"If you try to be the best you can . . . and never be satisfied with where you're at, and if you're in a good industry, you're going to do well. . . ," he said. "You don't survive if you don't change."

Change and growth

Change came for Child in both his personal and professional life. His first wife died in 1965, leaving Child with four children. He married Pat Wright about a year later, and they also had four children together.

As his family grew, so did his business. RC Willey now has about 2,500 employees at 11 stores, including one in Boise and two in the Las Vegas area.

Each new store seemed to open at just the right time, Child said. By 1995 RC Willey was doing about $259 million in annual sales. At about the same time, offers to buy the business started rolling in, but Child was determined not to sell to just anyone.

"We wanted to take care of our associates, No. 1, and No. 2, we wanted to stay closed on Sunday," he said. "With most of the offers, we would have lost control."

So he talked to a business associate who knew Buffett, head of the Berkshire Hathaway Co. This friend was about to have lunch with Buffett and said he would mention Child's business to him. A couple days later, Buffett called, and that got the ball rolling on the 1995 sale of RC Willey to Berkshire Hathaway.

"We assured our employees that nothing would change," Child said. "We knew if we sold to him we could continue to be closed on Sunday. He lets you run the business. . . . He liked our philosophy and liked our company, and we love the man. He's been great."

Ferrin said Child and his company were an ideal fit for Buffett.

"I believe that (Child) is a man of extreme integrity, and I believe when Warren Buffett was looking to buy his business, he was interested because he likes to do business with people like that, that don't have any shadows in their lives, and they're straightforward and deal above-board," Ferrin said.

Beyond Utah

Which isn't to say Child and Buffett have always agreed on the direction RC Willey should take. In the late 1990s, Child said, he was convinced the Utah market was "pretty saturated," and he wanted to expand out-of-state. His first inclination was to enter the Las Vegas market, but Buffett said no, largely due to Child's insistence that any new stores be closed on Sunday.

So Child looked to Boise. Again, he could not convince Buffett that a Boise store would work. So, Child said, he decided to make Buffett a proposition that "he couldn't turn down."

Child said he would buy the land and building in Boise with his own money. If the store was successful, he would sell it to Buffett at his cost. If it wasn't, he would let Buffett exit the business without paying Child a cent.

"This was our opportunity to expand," Child said. "If we were better than our competition, it wouldn't matter if we're closed on Sunday."

The Boise store did $118,000 in business on its first day. And as Buffett wrote in a letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders in the company's 1999 annual report, it continued to be a "huge success."

"If a manager has behaved similarly at some other public corporation, I haven't heard about it," Buffett wrote. "You can understand why the opportunity to partner with people like Bill Child causes me to tap dance to work every morning."

Success in Boise led to the opening of those two stores in Vegas. Now, the three out-of-Utah stores account for more than 40 percent of the RC Willey chain's business.

And the growth is not over yet. Another store will open in Reno, Nev., within the next nine or 10 months, Child said, and he hopes to open two stores in Sacramento, Calif., and another one in the Las Vegas area in the near future.

"We'll do a little over $600 million in sales this year," he said. "We're shooting for $1 billion. Then (Buffett's) going to take me back to golf at Augusta."

Giving back

Golf is another passion in Child's life, especially now that he only goes into work about two days a week, unlike the six-days-per-week schedule he used to follow. In 2001, Child turned over the position of chief executive officer to Scott L. Hymas. But Child remains as chairman of the board and continues to report to Buffett.

"I'm sort of a chief agitator now," Child said. "I write memos every week to management. They do things a little differently than I would, but that's their prerogative."

With more free time, Child works on his golf game and on giving back to the community. He has donated millions of dollars to various charities, arts programs and schools, including the U., Westminster College and Weber State University.

Ferrin said he has, on occasion, helped Child in those philanthropic endeavors.

"He's maybe the most generous man I know," Ferrin said.

In fact, he said, he remembers a time when his family was at a football game with Child, and one of Ferrin's sons remarked that he liked Child's binoculars.

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"He said, 'I have another pair. Here, take them,' " Ferrin said. "They say if Bill has something, don't tell him you really like it, because he'll give it to you. . . . He feels that he's been blessed and that the people of the community are the ones who have made it possible for him to do these things, and he wants to give something back to them."

So the farmboy from Syracuse keeps trying to give back to the cities and state that brought him success. And though he has cut down on his activities with RC Willey, he has not quit. Child said he'd like to stay active in the business for at least another 10 years, and he figures that "as long as (Buffett) is alive, I'll be here."

"It's been really a fun 50 years," he said. "It's kind of the American dream."


E-mail: gkratz@desnews.com

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