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In Bill Child’s office at RC Willey headquarters in South Salt Lake, it’s hard to find a blank spot on the walls or on top of the tables. Photographs of him shaking hands with Warren Buffett, family portraits and awards from various organizations decorate the room. The office virtually chronicles the life of a man who turned around a failing business at just 22, built it into a furniture empire, and then sold it for millions of dollars to one of the richest men in the world.
“It’s amazing what life has in store for you,” says Child, who now serves as chairman of RC Willey. “I never had any intentions of working [at RC Willey] or running the business, but here I am at 82 years old, still getting up every day.”
Child grew up on a farm, but despised mundane farm work and the unpredictability of factors like the weather and feed prices. “I didn’t want to be in farming or agriculture,” he says. “I wanted something different. I wanted to go to college.”
Child had plans to complete a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before college, but “all at once the government came along and said I had to go into the service first,” he says. So he enrolled in the Naval Reserve Officer Training program and began college at Weber State. He completed his first year of college just a few weeks before marrying his high school sweetheart, Helen Darline Willey.
“I was dating a beautiful little girl and we decided to get married,” he says. “Eleven months later our first [child] came. Two years later, another one came and when I graduated from college, [the government] didn’t want me in the service with two kids, so I got out and decided I was going to teach school.”
After his year at Weber State, Child transferred to the University of Utah to continue working on his teaching degree. During his final years of college, he worked for Darline’s father, Rufus Call Willey, at his appliance store, aptly named RC Willey. The store, a 600-square-foot cinderblock building, sat just yards away from the homes of both the Willeys and Childs in Syracuse. Electricity and a nine-party telephone line strung from Willey’s home to the store completed the building’s charm.
Child graduated with his bachelor’s degree on June 1, 1954. He had a contract lined up to teach at North Davis Junior High School—all he had to do was sign. But that summer is when life totally changed for Child.
Willey had decided to go on a trip to California with his wife, Helen, because he hadn’t been feeling well. He thought he had an ulcer and figured some rest would cure him.
“He said he’d be back in two weeks, so he gave me the keys and told me to take care of the store,” Child says. “I’d helped him throughout the last summer, so I knew more about the business than anybody else, even though I never had any intentions of running the store.”
But Willey came home after just four days and went straight to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He passed away just a few months later, never stepping foot back in his store.
Stepping up with Confidence
Willey started his career in 1917 as a lineman for Utah Power & Light and worked his way up the corporate ladder to substation manager. Once electricity became increasingly popular in the Weber-Davis area, he got the idea to start selling appliances—specifically refrigerators—part time for extra income. He got a loan and began selling, soon discovering he could quit his job and focus solely on selling appliances.
“He sold for 18 years door-to-door,” Child says. “But then the competition forced him to build a store [in 1949]. He was proud of that store; he’d become really official.”
After Willey passed away, Child quickly learned the business wasn’t doing as well as he thought. “RC was a wonderful guy and a great salesman, but he was not the best businessman. He loved to sell, but I don’t think he ever really knew how he was doing financially. If he had money in his pocket, he was OK. He never had a cash register—his back pocket was his cash register.”
The family was shocked to learn there wasn’t enough money in the business to operate on. “The bank was nervous and pressing us for payments; all of the statements were in the red, so I started writing checks,” Child says. “Then the banker called me and said I couldn’t write checks if we didn’t have money. That’s when I realized we weren’t a very stable business.”
The company owed $9,000 on a loan for a warehouse, and there were several contracts with customers that hadn’t been paid on in months. “The banker met with me and my mother-in-law and told us we had to close the store,” Child says.