Jeff Benedict: Bill Child — The accidental CEO and his surprising life

Published: Sunday, July 10 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Two years ago, I wrote a book called "How to Build a Business Warren Buffett Would Buy: The R.C. Willey Story." Monday at 6 and 8 p.m., a television documentary based on the book will air on BYUtv, a cable channel that reaches 60 million homes.

When BYUtv called last year and asked if I'd make the film, I couldn't pass up the opportunity. Neither could the superb film director, writer, editor and associate producer that worked with me. All of us were drawn to this rags-to-riches story where the good guys finish first.

The documentary is titled after the book's main character: Bill Child.

If you look at Child's humble beginnings, you'd never expect him to end up a millionaire, much less one of Warren Buffett's business partners. Bill grew up on a small family farm. But he didn't want to farm. He wanted to teach. In 1954, he graduated from college with a teaching certificate. He was offered a teaching job in his hometown when the unexpected happened. Bill's father-in-law, Rufus Call Willey ("R.C."), suddenly died.

R.C. had been a master door-to-door salesman with a tiny appliance store located at the edge of a cornfield in Syracuse, Utah. Just before his death, R.C. handed Bill the key to his store and asked him to look after it. A fiction writer couldn't make up what transpired over the ensuing 40 years.

First, Bill discovered that R.C.'s store was deep in debt; the IRS was auditing the business for failing to pay income taxes; and a local bank wanted to recall the loan that financed the store's inventory. Conventional wisdom said to sell the business and get on with teaching.

But Bill wasn't a conventional thinker. That's one reason he became such a success. Besides, conventional wisdom would not have worked in this case. When Bill had his father-in-law's business appraised, he found that there was really only one asset — an old pick-up truck used for home deliveries. The truck wasn't worth anything. Neither was the business. So selling wasn't an option.

That's how the story starts. It ends 41 years later when Bill receives a call in his office one night from Warren Buffett. By then, Bill's company was worth $200 million and it had become the most dominant furniture and appliance chain in Utah. In 1995, Berkshire Hathaway acquired the Utah-based company, and just like that, Bill Child worked for Buffett.

Buffett's acquisition of Utah's most trusted company seemed like a great place to start the documentary. But the middle of the film provides the most emotional moment. That comes when Bill's first wife, Darline Willey, dies from a rare condition that predisposed her to blood clots. She was 31 and left behind four children and a husband with a shattered heart.

It was the kind of tragedy that would sink most people. Not Bill. He rallied his children and he rallied himself. At a juncture where he could have easily given up on building a business, Bill stepped up his efforts. It's a rare man who can jump-start his heart after it's been broken.

Between writing a book about Bill and then making a film about him, I've spent a lot of time with him. Yet I've only known one thing that makes him cry — remembering the loss of Darline.

The healing would not have happened without the arrival of Patricia Wright. They met on a blind date. Neither of them figured anything would come of it. Especially given that Pat had three personal rules for marriage:

1. Never marry a man who has previously been married.

2. If, for some reason, she made an exception to rule No. 1, definitely don't marry a previously married man with children.

3. Don't marry a man living in a small town.

Pat broke all three rules when she married Bill and instantly became a mother of four, living next to a cornfield in Syracuse, Utah.

That was in 1966. Today, Bill and Pat Child live in Salt Lake City. During the making of this film, their home was converted into a makeshift television studio, complete with cameras, monitors and cords everywhere. I even slept there more than once. That experience exposed me to a side of the Childs that isn't visible to the public.

Let's just say the view was genuinely good. If more corporations were run by people like the Child family, CEOs would have a much better image.

Warren Buffett sees it the same way. That's why he wanted to do business with Bill. "You don't want to marry anybody with the idea of changing them," Buffett told me when I interviewed him, "whether it's in business or in personal life."

Needless to say, Bill and Warren have become fast friends. Their business isn't doing bad, either. Today, R.C. Willey is worth about $1 billion and its stores are no longer confined to Utah. They are in Las Vegas, Sacramento and Boise, too. It's a testament to the ideals of hard work, honesty, endurance, patience and overcoming adversity — one day at a time.

Jeff Benedict is the author of "POISONED: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat."

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