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Saturday, September 23, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lloyd Anderson,REI founder, dies

Seattle Times staff reporter

It was an idea borne out of frustration.

In the 1930s - generations before Internet sales, full-color camping catalogs and sprawling warehouse stores - avid outdoorsmen such as Seattle's Lloyd Alva Anderson had to rely on local ski shops to order much of their equipment.

But when he ordered an ice ax for mountaineering, Mr. Anderson complained about the quality and the price. An engineer and do-it-yourselfer, Anderson imported a better, cheaper ax from Austria.

It was a short step to ordering high-quality hiking and camping gear at reasonable prices for hundreds of his acquaintances.

Thus was created Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) - one of the nation's largest retail cooperatives and a $621 million-a-year business.

The Seattle-based company's modest beginnings and practical underpinnings mirror the life of Mr. Anderson, who died Sept. 13 of age-related causes at the age of 98. The announcement of his death was delayed because his wife was traveling and had not been informed.

Mr. Anderson and his wife, Mary Anderson, founded the cooperative in 1938 in their West Seattle home. Their attic was the REI warehouse; a room off the kitchen a makeshift office. She stitched tents, and he sprayed them with waterproofing.

REI's first 23 members contributed $1 each to build group-buying power. At the end of the first year, 82 members received dividends. Mr. Anderson and his wife held membership card numbers 1 and 2 - a low REI card number is a sign of prestige in outdoorsy circles.

Today, 1.7 million REI members get an average annual refund of 10 percent on their previous year's purchases.

The co-op, long a fixture on Capitol Hill, now has its flagship store in Seattle's Cascade neighborhood, and has more than 50 other outlets in the U.S. and Japan. In 1998 and 1999, REI was named by Fortune magazine as one of "The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America."

Mr. Anderson was born in 1902 to Scottish-American laborers on his uncle Dave Hays' dairy farm in Roy, Pierce County.

He chopped wood for neighbors and worked in a creamery to save money, then earned an electrical-engineering degree at the University of Washington.

He began climbing mountains in 1929. During the 1930s and 1940s, he logged many first ascents in the Cascades in Washington and the Bugaboos in Canada. In his lifetime, he scaled 400 peaks.

He subsequently wrote about those experiences in his "Climbing Notebook," published in 1980. He also had written a history of REI.

"Good climbing equipment was hard to come by in Seattle during the 1930s Depression years, as was the money to buy it," wrote his daughter Sue Anderson of the Chicago area, in a prepared statement. "Lloyd responded by ordering ice axes from Austria and selling them at cost to his fellow mountaineers."

They started REI in the West Seattle home Mr. Anderson had built himself and lived in for some than 60 years, his daughter recalled.

"Lloyd shuttled the climbing gear downtown (to various small stores) and stocked shelves before heading to his day job, which started at 7:30 a.m., as an engineer for the Seattle Transit System," Anderson wrote.

"In the evenings, headquartered in a makeshift office off his kitchen, he typed orders to European suppliers and kept his meticulous accounts in double-entry ledgers."

As REI prospered, moving to various locations until settling for 30 years on Capitol Hill, people asked why the Andersons did not form a full-fledged business and reap the profits.

Mr. Anderson answered, "REI is a co-op and it oughta stay that way. I never thought a man should make money off his friends."

Current REI CEO Dennis Madsen said the two things that struck him about Anderson were his passion for the outdoors and his loyalty to his friends.

"That showed up in the way we set up REI as a cooperative instead of as Anderson Inc.," said Madsen. "The profits were to be shared with the climbing community."

Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mount Everest, was a longtime customer who in 1956 became an REI executive.

Whittaker has called the store "a great meeting place."

"The customers were all climbers," he once said. "We were talking about nothing but the outdoors: Where are you going this weekend, that kind of stuff. At the time the co-op was the only store of its kind in the United States that had real mountaineering gear."

Whittaker is traveling on a sailboat to Hawaii and could not be reached for comment for this article.

Mr. Anderson stepped down from the REI presidency in 1971. But he continued to buy things at the store. He was amused when employees who failed to recognize him exclaimed at his card number.

He and his wife were inducted into the national Cooperative Business Association's Hall of Fame in 1993 for their work in establishing REI.

Mr. Anderson also enjoyed world travel and lawn bowling.

In addition to his wife of 68 years he is survived by his daughter, three grandsons, two great-grandchildren and extended family. Another daughter, Ruth Anderson Roach, died before him.

Donations may go to the Lloyd Anderson-REI Scholarship Fund, c/o the University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195; or to the Nature Conservancy, 217 Pine St., Suite 1100, Seattle, WA 98101.

The family has no immediate plans for a memorial gathering.

Carole Beers' e-mail address is cbeers@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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