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Originally published Monday, June 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Value Village founder Bill Ellison, 79, built chain on Golden Rule

Retired Northwest entrepreneur William (Bill) Ellison, whose chain of Value Village and Savers stores grew to become the largest for-profit...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Retired Northwest entrepreneur William (Bill) Ellison, whose chain of Value Village and Savers stores grew to become the largest for-profit chain of thrift stores in the nation, was known for his sense of humor and smile, said Ellen Spiess, a spokeswoman for the Bellevue-based chain.

Mr. Ellison, 79, died at his Bellevue home May 25 after a period of declining health. A private gathering is planned, Spiess said.

At 24, Mr. Ellison, who grew up in the Northwest and attended Seattle's Roosevelt High School, opened his first thrift store in San Francisco's Mission District in 1954 after earning a business degree from the University of Washington in 1950.

His father, Benjamin, who was a Salvation Army career officer during the Depression and managed secondhand clothing stores, helped bankroll the store.

In 1966, Mr. Ellison opened his first store in Renton under the name Value Village. The next year, he opened a store in Redwood City, Calif., under the name Thrift Village. Within five years, he had added stores in Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle.

In 1970, with six stores in three states, he moved his family and the company's headquarters to Bellevue, said his son, Thomas Ellison, of Bellevue, who has headed the business since 1987.

The company opened its first Canadian store in Vancouver in 1980. It is now a multinational corporation with thrift stores in over 220 locations in the United States, Canada and Australia, Thomas Ellison said.

Mr. Ellison's business model was to contract with nonprofit organizations to provide a steady stream of good, reusable, resellable clothing and household goods. He paid them a price well above market value for the cloth commodity, the bulk of the supply, giving the nonprofits a steady and reliable stream of revenue.

"In a nutshell, [Mr. Ellison] believed in treating people — his vendors, employees and customers — very well," said his son. "The culture of the company was the Golden Rule."

In later years, Mr. Ellison was the company's board chairman before his retirement in 2000.

Tom Ellison said his father was a Big Brothers volunteer and had a philanthropic side.

For years, he financially aided a Pierce County couple who adopted more than 50 children over the past 15 years. "He got involved in helping them financially, and every year he had a tradition of shopping and buying Christmas presents for every one of them and delivering them to the family the day after Christmas," said his son.

Mr. Ellison also is survived by his wife, Carole; another son, Jeff Ellison, of Maui, Hawaii, and a daughter, Debbie Bacon, of Medina; two stepchildren, Jon and Nicole LaFollette, both of Kirkland; and eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Also surviving are a brother, Dr. Herbert Ellison, of Bellevue, and a sister, Beverly Tullis of Tampa, Fla.

The family suggests remembrances in Mr. Ellison's name to Northwest Center, 7272 W. Marginal Way S., Seattle, WA 98108.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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