Robert Craves dies at 72; Costco co-founder started higher ed nonprofit

Robert Craves dies at 72; Costco co-founder started higher ed nonprofit
Costco co-founder Robert Craves, who later helped create the College Success Foundation, is shown in 2007. The foundation provides scholarships and mentoring to low-income youths. (Greg Gilbert / Seattle Times)

Robert Craves, an executive who helped start wholesale giant Costco before launching a philanthropy to help disadvantaged students attend college, died of cancer Nov. 5 in Bellevue, Wash. He was 72.

His death was announced by College Success Foundation, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2000 to provide scholarships and mentoring to low-income youths.


Craves was a marketing executive in Los Angeles for the Builders Emporium home improvement chain when the man who hired him, Jim Sinegal, recruited him to become a founding officer of Costco in 1983. A senior vice president, he spent the next 17 years with the company.

Like the other Costco founders, Craves wore many hats, including working in human resources and membership services.

"He could always find the good thing in every situation," said Sinegal, now retired as Costco CEO. "Most people couldn't."

Craves began working on higher education issues in 1997, when then-Gov. Gary Locke named him chair of Washington state's Higher Education Coordinating Committee.

His work there and on a blue-ribbon commission studying the future of post-secondary education led him to focus on the several thousand students annually who were graduating from high school with the aptitude but not the financial means to go to college.

After retiring from Costco, Craves co-founded the College Success Foundation with Ann Ramsay-Jenkins, who had served with him on the higher education board. They launched the organization with major funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Costco.

With public resources shrinking, private philanthropy "has to step up to the plate to finance our children's education," Craves said in a 2005 interview with the Yakima, Wash., Herald-Republic.

By the end of 2013, the foundation had helped more than 3,800 students earn bachelor's degrees, while supporting an additional 5,000 who are working toward their degrees, according to the foundation.

Craves, who helped start similar philanthropies in Arizona and Washington, D.C., retired as CEO of the foundation a year ago but remained a member of the board.

The oldest of five children, Robert Edward Craves was born in Bay City, Mich., on July 10, 1942. He left home at 13 to attend a seminary, intending to become a Catholic priest before switching his focus to business.

He earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy in 1965 and a master's in international studies in 1967 from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

He is survived by his wife of 42 years, Gerri; their daughter, Stacie, of Seattle; sisters Teri Renz, of Napa, Calif., and Mary Holland, of Des Moines; brother Jim Craves, of Portland, Maine; and two grandchildren.