Jeffrey and Susan Brotman were long one of the most dynamic public-spirited couples contributing to the region’s well being, their efforts ranging over the arts, health care, education, and diversity. Jeffrey Brotman, born in Tacoma, Washington, into a family of retailers, was co-founder and chairman of Costco Wholesale Corporation, the largest membership warehouse club chain in the world. He was appointed a University of Washington Regent in 1998, reappointed in 2004, and named board president in 2004. Susan Thrailkill Brotman, born in Hamilton, Montana, was a retail executive prior to her marriage, and then served as an officer for a variety of non-profit institutions, from the Seattle Art Museum and Pacific Northwest Ballet to the University of Washington Foundation. The Brotmans gave millions of dollars to various causes over the years. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Jeffrey and Susan Brotman First Citizens of 2005.
Jeffrey H. Brotman was born in Tacoma in 1942, to Bernie and Pearl Brotman, and Susan Brotman was born in Hamilton, Montana, in 1949 to Bette and Ray Thrailkill. Jeffrey and Susan met on a blind date at a Seattle SuperSonics game in 1975 and married in 1976.
Jeffrey’s grandparents had emigrated from Romania to Balgonie, Saskatchewan, where Bernie and his five siblings were born. The family moved to Tacoma in the 1930s and Bernie was a star athlete at Stadium High School. In addition to Jeffrey, Bernie and Pearl had another son, Michael. Jeffrey's mother, Pearl, died in 1975 and his father, Bernie, died in 1996 at age 84.
Bernie Brotman was a retailer who by the 1970s operated 18 stores with his brothers in Washington and Oregon and was an owner of Seattle Knitting Mills. "He also was the originator of the Costco idea,’ said son Jeff Brotman" (Beers).
If Jeff Brotman manifested the Jewish obligation of tzedakah -- charity, redress, justice -- so did his father, Bernie. “On more than one occasion," according an account in The Seattle Times, "Mr. Brotman also helped pay employees’ college tuition. ‘If I questioned a few of his charitable gifts, he’d tell me he’d never missed a meal because of a donation he made,’ said his wife of 20 years, Sally Brotman of Seattle” (Beers).
Jeff Brotman would say later: "Helping the disadvantaged, encouraging diversity, fostering a community that treats its people well -- these were values I learned from my parents as well as in Sunday school, values from Rabbi Richard Rosenthal, my rabbi at Temple Beth El, and my grandfather, who helped with the movement to plant trees in Israel. When I see some of the fundamental unfairness built into the system for people who are less fortunate, and couple that with my family’s tradition of helping others, I am compelled to act, compelled to give what I can to help” ( Jewish Federation of Seattle website).
Jeff also attended Stadium High, where he played football. A year ahead of Jeff at Stadium High was Dale Chihuly (b. 1941), who also worked in Bernie Brotman’s Tacoma store. Chihuly would go on to attain international eminence for his glass sculptures and Jeff and Susan Brotman would become major collectors of his works. (Chihuly would be named Seattle First Citizen by the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors in 2006, the year after the Brotmans won the award.)
Bernie moved his family and offices to Seattle in 1965.
Jeff graduated from the University of Washington in1964 with a degree in political science. He attended the University of Washington School of Law "to get out of the retail business" but he helped open a Bernie’s clothing store in the University District while in school (Moriwaki). He graduated in 1967 and did practice law, but only briefly. He and his brother, Michael, started Bottoms, a jeans store for young women, and in the 1980s to mid-1990s they operated Jeffrey Michael, a chain of men’s stores.
Roots in Bitterroot
Susan Thrailkill also had been in the retail industry before meeting Jeffrey in 1975. She was born and raised in Hamilton, in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, with her older brother, Grant. She graduated from the University of Montana in 1972. She had worked at I. Magnin in San Francisco and was working as a buyer at Nordstrom's in Seattle when she and Jeffrey met. They have a daughter, Amanda, born in 1979, and a son, Justin, born in 1982.
Jeffrey was an early investor in Howard Schultz’s Starbucks coffee empire and was involved in other retail ventures, including Garden Botanica, a Redmond-based retailer of natural cosmetics and personal-care products, Logan Drive, a men’s private-label clothing chain, and Sweet Factory, a San Diego-based candy-store chain. He also was an officer in ENI, a company dealing in oil and gas partnerships.
But it was with Costco Wholesale Corporation, based in Issaquah, Washington, that Jeff Brotman attained international success. The company grew to be the largest membership warehouse club chain in the world. Costco was formed in 1982 by Brotman and James Sinegal and the chain has become a retailing phenomenon. As of February 2007, it operated 504 stores and expected to expand to 1,025 stores by 2017, most of them in the United States. It earned $1.1 billon on nearly $59 billion in sales in 2006, a record year.
Costco succeeded despite some "radical" business practices. Employees not only enjoyed excellent pay and benefits -- among the best in the retail business -- but employees on military leave received supplemental pay and continued health benefits. Such enlightened policies irritated Wall Street, which preferred the stingier, less-friendly model of Wal-Mart. Costco, in fact, has been called the “anti-Wal-Mart” and it outperformed Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart’s warehouse-club division, in sales volume. Costco also takes no-frills management to extremes. There are no advertising, marketing, or public relations departments, and it keeps its energy bills down by using skylights and monitoring light.
Brotman did not limit his business interests to Costco. He served on the boards of several local firms, including the former Seafirst Bank (later Bank of America), Starbucks, and Sequoia Capital, a venture capital company.
Brotman and Sinegal were both major contributors to Democratic Party candidates and liberal causes, though not exclusively. In 1998, both contributed to the campaign against Initiative 200, a measure to end many affirmative-action programs in Washington state. Costco also donated $25,000. In 2004, they each gave $95,000 to the Joint Victory Campaign, which sought to “change the course of this country away from the Bush administration’s radical agenda,” according to the fund’s website.
Giving Back to the Community
In 2000, Brotman and Sinegal launched a scholarship program for minority students at Seattle University and at the University of Washington. Brotman was a member of the UW Board of Regents and Sinegal was a member of Seattle University’s Board of Trustees. Both are basketball fans and for their first annual Costco Scholarship Breakfast, they enlisted basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson (b. 1959) to be featured speaker. In an op-ed piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer September 1, 2000, Brotman and Sinegal wrote: “Both schools are working hard to increase their numbers of minority students. To succeed they need help with scholarship funds.”
Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center also has been a major recipient of assistance from the Brotmans, the Sinegals, and Costco, through the Friends of Costco Guild. Children’s Hospital has received about $46 million in donations through Costco, including $14 million from the corporation and $32 million from customers. Susan Brotman served on the Children’s Foundation Board in the 1990s, and the hospital named a wing for Janet Sinegal.
For University of Washington
Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) appointed Brotman to the University of Washington Board of Regents in 1998, along with Gerald Grinstein, CEO of Delta Airlines, and Ark Chin, a retired engineer.
The Seattle Times editorialized on October 13, 1998: “Gov. Gary Locke has made three fine choices for the University of Washington Board of Regents, assuring continuity of business savvy and fund-raising experience on the board.” Brotman was elected UW Board of Regents president in 2004.
The Brotmans’ longtime commitment to the University of Washington was deep and wide-ranging, not unlike their other exhaustive philanthropic endeavors, donating large sums for a variety of UW causes and fundraising as well.
Locke was a pro-business-development governor. He earmarked $250 million to foster biotechnology in the state and Jeffrey Brotman shared Locke’s biotech vision. The Seattle Times, a Brotman fan, editorialized on April 27, 2003: “Jeff Brotman, a UW regent and founder of Costco Wholesale, typifies the civic glue that binds together philanthropy and scientific star power with can-do results. Brotman is a committed presence in the business community to raise $60 million for UW expansion into South Lake Union.”
When the UW School of Medicine landed a $250,000 donation in 2004 from KeyBank for the South Lake Union biotech enclave, Brotman estimated that the medical school’s annual payroll “could grow to $2 billion with 24,300 jobs in the next nine years” (Cook).
Both Brotmans served on the board of the UW Foundation, the school’s fundraising arm, Susan as president, and played key roles in the creation of the new home for the law school, William H. Gates Hall. They funded a Jeffrey and Susan Brotman Professor of Law chair and the law school includes the Jeffrey and Susan Brotman Galleria.
They supported the university’s Diversity Compact, signed in 2000, and funded a Brotman Diversity Award to advance diversity at the university. They also contributed time and funds to the UW Medical School, Henry Art Gallery, Husky athletics, Campaign UW: Creating Futures, and other programs.
The Brotmans received the University of Washington Recognition Award in 1998 for their efforts.
For the Arts
The Brotmans’ philanthropies beyond the University of Washington were also formidable, addressing a range of society’s needs, from encouraging the arts to aiding the disadvantaged.
The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) has been a major recipient of the Brotmans’ time, energy and largess, “sometimes together, sometimes separately” (S. Brotman). Susan served as president of SAM's Board of Trustees for seven years and Jeffrey served on the board at the time of the museum’s most spectacular expansion. To mark the museum’s 75th anniversary, a massive fundraising drive collected more than $200 million. In 2007 SAM unveiled its Olympic Sculpture Park on nine acres of reclaimed waterfront industrial property and its expanded downtown museum, with nearly double the gallery space.
Acknowledging the fundraising effort, Susan Brotman said, “This is an extraordinary moment for culture in Seattle ... . One of the most rewarding aspects of SAM’s transformation has been the community’s recognition of these projects as a great civic effort with national and regional significance. We are thrilled by the outpouring of support from throughout the community” (SAM website). The Brotmans also gave $10 million to the museum campaign.
Susan also was chairwoman of the Pacific Northwest Ballet board when the $127 million, highly acclaimed Marion Oliver McCaw Hall was completed at Seattle Center in 2003. The structure replaced the old Opera House, which was home to Pacific Northwest Ballet as well as the Seattle Opera. Jeff Brotman donated a naming gift for McCaw Hall’s Susan Brotman Auditorium “to honor his wife’s longtime commitment to Pacific Northwest Ballet and her efforts in the creation of McCaw Hall” (Tice).
Of her volunteer work, she said: “It just became my job” -- a job she obviously enjoyed.
The Brotmans also gave back to the community in a variety of other ways. Jeff Brotman in 1977 led the United Way campaign which raised a record $60 million, a 17 percent increase over the previous campaign. The Brotmans received the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors 2005 First Citizen Award for their “outstanding support of numerous local civic and cultural organizations.”
Jeff Brotman, who had been in seemingly good health, died unexpectedly in the couple's Medina, Washington, home on August 1, 2017, at the age of 74.