Ken Colling judges the success of his day by how many times he changes his tie.
The man who runs Seattle Goodwill may start his morning in a blue tie dotted with flags, then switch to one covered in dollar bills for a midmorning budget meeting.
When he gets into his car to drive to a meeting across town, he’ll swap out for another one from his necktie travel case.
“Part of a great day is if it is a three- or four-necktie day,” Colling said, while wearing a navy tie with swirls of every primary color. He had just switched from a hockey tie in honor of the women’s U.S. Olympic Hockey team playing Canada. “Sport jackets and suits are boring, and I’ve had a collection of neckties since the ’80s.”
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For the past 10 years, Colling has been sporting his ties around Seattle as the man behind Seattle Goodwill, a nonprofit organization that helps people with barriers to employment get jobs and become self-supporting.
But November’s Seattle Goodwill Glitter Sale and Glitter Gala, where he wore a green and purple tie to match the color scheme of the event, was his last as the head of the organization. Colling is retiring in June.
“It will be hard to give it up. I still have lots of energy and love Goodwill,” he said. “But I will be 69 in April and I want to retire in good health.”
Colling has already retired once. In 2001, after 28 years at Kaiser Permanente, he stepped down as senior vice president and service-area manager for San Diego. In 2003 he was approached by a headhunter and moved to Seattle to take on the role of president and CEO of Seattle Goodwill.
He learned the nonprofit world of thrift stores quickly, and “even learned to appreciate the rain,” he said.
Under Colling’s leadership, Seattle went from the seventh largest Goodwill affiliate in the U.S. and Canada — out of 165 — to the fifth. He lead the opening of 13 stores and four training and education facilities, allowing Goodwill training centers’ enrollment to increase from 1,200 in 2003 to 8,500 in 2012.
Revenue from sales of donated goods increased steadily through the recession, going from $48 million in 2008 to $86 million in 2012 — an almost 80 percent increase.
Since arriving in Seattle, Colling has developed a reputation as an energetic boss who joins every committee in the community, never takes the elevator and knows everyone’s name. He isn’t afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeves — or to don a fur coat and rap to a room full of businesspeople.
Colling said he is most proud of the program he introduced to prepare anyone — from single mothers to recent immigrants to ex-offenders — to succeed in college, as well as a program to help guide at-risk teens facing gangs, drugs and homelessness, to graduation and life after high school.
“Of the people we serve, 61 percent live below poverty, 16 percent are homeless and 29 percent have less than a high-school education,” he said. “A lot of people don’t see themselves going to college because they don’t have role models or guardians encouraging them.”
Colling said the biggest challenge he faced as the head of Goodwill Seattle was the competitive world of thrift stores.
All consignment stores and nonprofit and for-profit thrift shops are vying for the same donations. Even the free goods posted by people on Craigslist are items that could have been donated to Goodwill and been put toward helping people become employable, he said.
Best advertising ever
But Seattle Goodwill now has something other thrift shops don’t — Seattle-based rap star Macklemore and his Grammy Award-winning song “Thrift Shop.” The music video was filmed in Goodwill’s Seattle Outlet Store during the summer of 2012. Colling said it has been the best advertising the organization could have.
Macklemore’s people had asked Goodwill about filming his video at the Seattle Outlet and Colling gave the approval. The nonprofit allowed Macklemore to use the space at no cost, and even let him walk across sofas and jump in bins of clothes.
Colling didn’t watch the production or get to meet Macklemore.
“If I had only known what would happen, I’m sure I would have gone down,” he said. “I just didn’t happen to know that was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
The experience did inspire him to do his own rap song, though.
Colling last year was on the Seattle Rotary Foundation’s board of trustees, and rather than give a typical speech about donating during the annual giving campaign, he walked into the meeting in a leopard-spotted tan fur coat and a young woman from Rat City Rollergirls
on each arm and rapped to the tune of “Thrift Shop.”
“I am not a rap guy and don’t follow rap at all, but (Colling) put on all these funky looking clothes and this huge fur coat,” said Tim Bendokas, a longtime Rotary member who met Colling the day he joined about a decade ago. “Someone from the foundation board of directors will give a report every year to remind people to give and all that, but this was just so Ken … it was so fun.”
Bendokas also vouches for Colling’s “astounding” tie collection.
“I don’t know how many hundreds of ties he has, but you could name any sort of occasion and he will have a tie for it. He is Mr. Tie.”
Colling said his focus on community involvement sets Seattle Goodwill apart from the rest of the nation. In every town with a Goodwill store presence or training center from SeaTac to the Canadian border, the employees are involved in their local Chamber or Rotary, or are collaborating with other nonprofits in the area, he said.
His goal: The more that people are aware of Seattle Goodwill and its mission, and see the organization contributing to the community, the bigger the possibility that people will donate, Colling said.
And that, in the end, is the goal of Goodwill. The organization cannot survive without donations — that is where the money for the training centers is generated and what gets people into the workforce, he said.
It was that focus that allowed Seattle Goodwill to push through the recent recession while continuing to open more stores.
Going into the recession, Colling said, he and his team worried that because people around the country were spending less, they would also stop donating.
Instead, donations stayed constant and more people were shopping at thrift stores.
“What I focused on was converting those new thrifters to Goodwillers,” he said. “They were new to going to thrift stores, so we wanted them to shop at Goodwill. We have great service and it is organized and clean, so once they came to us once, they had no reason to go to any other thrift store.”
The 13 stores Colling has opened since starting at Seattle Goodwill were all strategic, he said. Investing in stores is important to continued donation growth, but he said it took years of research and planning to pick sites with a community he knew would shop there.
“We didn’t grow just to grow,” he said. “We had to be good stewards of what was donated to us.”
The one thing Colling wishes he could have accomplished before retiring was replacing the Seattle store off South Dearborn Street near the International District.
“We’ve always made sure we were prudent on what makes sense financially, and it just wasn’t in the cards yet,” he said.
Instead of replacing the store, Colling and the board decided to replace the Seattle training center right next door.
It was just completed, and now holds more students and is a better working environment for the administrative staff of Seattle Goodwill, Colling said.
“I just hope they’ll invite me to the grand opening of the new store someday,” he said. “Or maybe I’ll just crash the party.”
Coral Garnick: 206-464-2422 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @coralgarnick