James D. Sinegal co-founded Costco Wholesale Corporation with Jeffrey H. Brotman — a UW Medicine advocate and Laureate — 35 years ago. Mr. Sinegal remembers Mr. Brotman, who died on Aug. 1, 2017.
Right after someone dies, it’s hard to remember that they’re gone. The other day, I drove to work and my first thought was: where’s Jeff’s car? Later, I was at a budget meeting and wondered: why isn’t Jeff in his usual seat?
It catches me off guard every time. And I’m glad it does, because I don’t want to lose the immediacy of my grief. We were more than colleagues; he was one of my dearest, most trusted friends.
When you’re looking for a business partner — which is what Jeff and I were doing 30-some years ago — you’re looking for intelligence, vision and persistence. Really liking and enjoying that business partner is a gift. I remember hitting it off with Jeff immediately; he was a charming guy. And a good thing, too, because we spent a lot of time together. The other day, I was calculating how many miles we logged on business flights over the last 35 years, and it totaled around 6 million.
About 20 years ago, we were on one of those flights, and when the plane landed, we were chagrined to find that we had the wrong paperwork. We needed Chinese visas, but what we had were visas from the Republic of China (Taiwan). The military guard rolled his eyes at our idiocy. Although we eventually got the right visas, our adventures weren’t over. A few days later, as we were leaving China, airport authorities intercepted us, locked us into a tiny white room, and left us to cool our heels.
About 90 minutes into our wait, Jeff looked me in the eye. “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,” he said.
I like to think that Jeff and I were a much more efficient, productive team than Laurel and Hardy, at least where Costco was concerned. We made all our major decisions together, whether it was about a merchandising opportunity, a new site or a new partner.
This is not to say that we didn’t argue. Of course we did. We had some doozies over the years, but here’s the thing: they didn’t last more than a day. Jeff never harbored animosity towards anyone. We’d see each other and exchange a hug — it’s very difficult to be angry with someone when you’ve just given them a hug — and we’d work past our difficulties.
I imagine Jeff taught other people the same kinds of lessons he taught me: laugh a little at your problems. Don’t hold on to anger. And, of course, be bold. In later years, when reporters asked us if we were surprised by Costco’s success, I always gave the literal answer: yes. Because our original business plan had us developing, at max, 12 stores.
Jeff gave the better answer, the one that delivered the joke. “Well, I always knew it was going to be that big,” he said with a twinkle. “Jim just lacks my vision.”
We were a great team. Together, we lived through many scary moments as we built our business, but many more happy times as we celebrated every success over the past 35 years.
All of those memories are indelibly fixed in my mind. I’m going to miss him very much.
Photos courtesy of James Sinegal.