Ellis built a small Oakland brokerage into a powerhouse whose circular yellow and black signs dot thousands of stores, offices, factories and other commercial properties for sale or lease across the country.
He lost control of Grubb & Ellis, now headquartered in Santa Ana, in 1992 but went on to found two more real estate companies. At his death he was the chairman of Ellis Partners, a San Francisco investment and development firm working on a $400-million expansion of Jack London Square in Oakland that will add a hotel, stores and restaurants to the historic waterfront site
He was also chairman and chief executive of CataList Homes Inc., a Hermosa Beach-based residential real estate brokerage he helped launch in 2001. The company challenged traditional brokers by putting local housing price data online that had previously been for brokers only and charged lower commission fees.
"Hal has always been thinking of the next big thing," said Michael Davin, president of CataList. "He wanted to use technology to advance an old-school business."
Ellis was born in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 4, 1931, the youngest of Harold and Bertha Ellis' four children. The family moved to Oakland two years later.
Ellis went on to attend UC Berkeley, playing football under coach Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf in 1951 and 1952. He served as president of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and went on to earn a graduate degree in business from Stanford University.
After completing school he served two years in the Air Force as an intelligence officer stationed in Morocco.
While in college, Ellis had sold homes part time for his friend John Grubb and in 1958 the pair formed Grubb & Ellis in Oakland along with Grubb's brother, Don. It was a small residential brokerage that Ellis wanted to grow much larger. The Grubbs preferred to stay local and both left the firm in the 1960s to start their own businesses.
Ellis aggressively expanded the company into many other states, often by buying out successful firms. By the late 1970s he and many analysts were convinced that large firms would eventually rule the industry. Among those competing with Ellis was Jim Didion, the former chief executive of brokerage CB Richard Ellis Inc., who became a friend.
"Both firms were expanding all over the United States, and when Hal got somewhere ahead of me I enjoyed chiding him about it," Didion said. "The business was very collegial in those days."
Grubb & Ellis grew into what was once the largest independently owned, publicly traded real estate firm in the United States, but it had borrowed heavily to expand and had trouble turning a profit when the real estate industry crashed in the early 1990s. Ellis left under pressure from the board of directors and started Ellis Investments with his daughter, Melinda Ellis Evers, and son James.
Ellis enjoyed spending off hours with his family, visiting Mendocino on holidays or cruising together on Lake Tahoe in his favorite old boat, L'Aperitif. He helped form the Melanoma Therapeutics Foundation in hopes of expediting the discovery of a cure for the disease.
Survivors include his wife, Marian; children Stephen Ellis, James Ellis and Melinda Ellis Evers; and stepchildren Chantal Lamberto and Jackie Lamberto. His first wife, Virginia, died in 1984. He is also survived by a sister, Jackie Ellis Leisz.
A memorial will be held at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Claremont Country Club in Oakland. Contributions may be made in his memory to the Melanoma Therapeutics Foundation, 111 Sutter St., Suite 800, San Francisco, CA 94104, or www.melanomatherapeutics.org.