Costco co-founder Jeff Brotman put people and principles above profit

Entrepreneur, philanthropist and volunteer Jeffrey Hart Brotman, '64, died on Aug. 1 in his Medina home.

“He simply loved to help people,” says his brother, Michel Brotman, ’68. To many, Jeff Brotman was a “famous entrepreneur” and “beloved boss.” To those closer to him, he was a mentor, role model and dear friend.

“You just liked yourself more when you were with him,” says John Meisenbach, Brotman’s business associate and good friend of 47 years.

Growing up in Tacoma, the oldest son of Bernie and Pearl Brotman worked many hours in his parents’ clothing store. The Brotmans’ work life was their family life, even dominating the talk at the dinner table. “We learned early and often that money was fleeting and work was the answer to your problems,” says Michel.

After high school, Brotman enrolled at the UW. He completed an undergraduate degree in political science in 1964 and law degree in 1967. He practiced law for seven years at Lasher, Brotman & Sweet, but was drawn back to retail, opening a women’s jeans shop and men’s store, Jeffrey Michel, with his brother. He put into practice lessons he learned from his parents, including treating employees the way you would treat family members. He also credited time spent at Temple Beth Israel in Tacoma with setting his moral compass—doing the right thing and helping the disadvantaged.

Brotman met Susan Thrailkill, a Nordstrom executive originally from Montana, on a blind date at a Sonics game in 1975. They married the following year. Susan is widely known for her volunteerism and support for arts, education, medicine and social services. She has chaired the UW Foundation Board and the board of trustees for Pacific Northwest Ballet and was president of Seattle Art Museum. Together, she and Jeff were general chairs of the UW’s current fundraising campaign.

The idea to start Costco came after a trip to France, where Brotman saw a hypermarket that combined a discount grocery store with a department store. At the time, his father encouraged him to look at Price Club in California. With those ideas in mind, Brotman sought out Jim Sinegal, who already had a reputation in the wholesale club business, to join him. “We hit it off immediately,” says Sinegal. “He was so much more than a business partner.”

They first financed the new operation with their own money. Then Brotman made the rounds of friends and acquaintances with a three-ring binder full of pictures and details, raising $7.5 million to open the first three stores. That was in 1983. Today, Costco has 727 locations, operates in eight countries, and has 85 million members.

While he was building his business into the second-largest brick-and-mortar retailer in the nation, Brotman still prioritized and relished his time with friends and family. As a dad, “he was pretty much perfect, and he let us know that he loved us at every possible moment,” says his son, Justin. If Brotman had to leave home early to attend a meeting, he would write loving messages for Justin and his sister, Amanda. He taught them to have passion and principles, and nurtured them to care about social justice.

In developing Costco’s corporate culture, Brotman and Sinegal didn’t worry about Wall Street, Brotman said in a UWTV interview. Instead, they offered employees better pay and benefits than their competitors. “We felt we had the duty to build a company and treat the employees right and treat the community right,” he said.

They pioneered a different type of retail, too. Rather than filling their shelves with different versions of the same item, they prioritized quality and cost. They didn’t spend money on advertising or marketing; they promoted from within; and they concerned themselves with the quality of life for their employees, their customers and the communities where they did business.

Brotman took the same pragmatic approach to his work as a volunteer and philanthropist. In his roles as a member of the UW Board of Regents from 1998 through 2012, chair of UW Medicine’s major fundraising campaign from 2000 to 2008, and an alumnus who regularly spoke in classes, he gave thousands of hours to the University. “His greatest gift was of himself—his time and his wisdom,” says UW President Ana Mari Cauce.

He also helped establish the UW’s biomedical research complex at South Lake Union and served as chair of the UW Investment Management Company, which manages the University’s $4 billion endowment.

In 2000, he and Sinegal created the Costco Scholarship program in the wake of Initiative 200, which had removed the University’s ability to consider race or gender when admitting students. The scholarship provides significant financial support to underrepresented students at both the UW and Seattle University.

“My wife, Susan, and I have always felt that what we have acquired in material wealth was transitory,” he said in a 2013 interview. “We expect to give all of it back to the community in one way or another.”

When asked about his legacy in that same interview, he said he thought it would be establishing employment policies that “have allowed people to have a great life and a great standard of living—to live their lives and to be able to give back to their communities.” He quickly added, “that and two great kids.”

Brotman died unexpectedly Aug. 1 at the age of 74. He is survived by his wife, Susan, children Amanda Brotman-Schetritt (Antoine) and Justin Brotman (Margot), and two grandchildren.