Utah Entrepreneur Offers Unusual Advice: Going Into Business With Warren Buffett
Bill Child, speaks to Huntsman Students about his time at R.C. Willey
Photo by Steve Eaton
By Connor Child
Bill Child spent an hour speaking to students at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business in early April. After detailing R.C. Willey’s rise to becoming a giant in the home furnishings industry and its eventual sale to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in 1995, Mr. Child summed up his last 12 years in one sentence:
“If you ever have a chance to do something with Warren Buffett, do it,” Mr. Child said.
Mr. Child was at Utah State University as a featured speaker in the Huntsman School’s Lectures in Entrepreneurship series. Mr. Child took over R.C. Willey in 1954 when it was a 600-square-foot store with annual sales of $250,000, and he sold it to Warren Buffett 41 years later when it had sales of $257 million.
Several times during his presentation, Mr. Child referred to the R.C. Willey story as “the American dream.” It’s a story that has been published in a book titled, “How to Build a Business Warren Buffett Would Buy: The R.C. Willey Story.” Attendees at Mr. Child’s speech were given free copies of the book, which was written by Jeff Benedict.
Douglas Anderson, dean of the Huntsman School of Business, spoke glowingly of Mr. Child in his introductory remarks. He said that Mr. Benedict’s book highlighted one of the best business cases that he knew of. He also spoke at length about the value he places on his friendship with the man behind R.C. Willey’s success.
“You probably all have mothers who have said to you, at some time in your lives, ‘Be careful who your friends are…Make sure you choose friends who can help you rise to a higher level of behavior and performance,’” Dean Anderson said. “I want you to know that if my mother were here tonight, she would say that I have chosen wisely in my friend, Bill Child.”
At Dean Anderson’s urging, Mr. Child told the story of how he was able to convince Mr. Buffett to let him expand R.C. Willey outside of Utah. Mr. Buffett was skeptical because Mr. Child insisted that the store should be closed on Sunday like the other R.C. Willey stores. Mr. Child offered to personally buy the land and build a store in Boise, Idaho, and sell it to Mr. Buffett at his cost if the store was successful. If it wasn’t successful, though, Mr. Buffett could back out without paying a cent. If the business were to fail because of the Sunday closing consistent with Mr. Child’s religious beliefs, he said, he didn’t want Mr. Buffett to suffer as a result.
Once the store opened, it was a huge success. Mr. Buffett was so pleased with the experience that he wrote about it in his annual Chairman’s Letter, issued to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders at the annual meetings in Omaha. He ended with this glowing tribute to Mr. Child:
“If a manager has behaved similarly at some other public corporation, I haven’t heard about it. You can understand why the opportunity to partner with people like Bill Child causes me to tap dance to work every morning.”