Ellis, John W. (b. 1928)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 5/17/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7302

John Ellis, former head of Bellevue-based Puget Sound Power and Light (now Puget Sound Energy), is best known for leading the effort to keep the Mariners in Seattle and build the team a new baseball stadium. He also played pivotal roles in converting the Bellevue Boys Club to a Boys and Girls Club, a precedent later adopted nationwide; establishing the Seattle-King County Economic Development Council, and creating a city park in downtown Bellevue. Known as a soft touch when it comes to serving on boards, commissions, and councils, Ellis at one time was involved with 16 separate organizations, none of which had anything to do with his primary job as the chief executive of a private power company. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named John Ellis as its First Citizen of 1987.

Ellis often credits his community leadership to the influence of his older brother, James R. Ellis. A retired attorney, James Ellis has an equally impressive resume of civic activities. Ellis is considered the father of Metro (the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle), which oversaw the cleanup of Lake Washington and the creation of the Metro Transit bus system; and of the Mountains to Sound Greenway, a scenic corridor along Interstate-90 from the Seattle waterfront to the grasslands of Central Washington. The two brothers shared the A. K. Guy Award for Community Service, given by the Young Men's Christian Association of Greater Seattle, in 1992. "Both of us were influenced by our parents," John Ellis says, "but if I had an example, it was my brother Jim" (Ellis interview).

Seattle Roots

John W. Ellis was born in Seattle on September 14, 1928, the third son of Floyd and Hazel Ellis. His father, a native of Dayton, Washington, was an entrepreneur; his mother, who grew up in Spokane, was a housewife. The couple lived for a few years in California, where the first of their three sons, James, was born, and then returned to Washington state, settling in the Lakewood neighborhood of Seattle. A middle son, Robert, was born there in 1923. He was killed in 1945, while serving in the military during World War II. His death profoundly affected his surviving brothers, particularly James, who has said he felt as if he needed to do something "extra" to make up for what his brother might have done with his life.

All three sons attended John Muir Elementary School and Franklin High School. John Ellis graduated from Franklin in 1946. He went on to the University of Washington, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1950 and graduating from the School of Law in 1953. After passing the bar exam, he married Doris Stearns, his high school sweetheart.

Music was a part of Ellis's life from a very early age. He gave his first piano recital at age five. He was a member of one band or another throughout his high school and college years and while serving in the military in the early 1950s. He continues to play occasional gigs with a jazz combo, "strictly for fun," he says. "He is a Dave Grusin-like keyboard man, great at jazz and show tunes," says Seattle vocalist Patti Payne, who has performed with Ellis. "He can even change keys. I can attest to that. He sometimes does it, heaven help us, right in the middle of a song" (Puget Sound Business Journal).

Puget Power

After graduating from law school, Ellis joined the Seattle office of Holman, Mickelwait, Marion, Prince & Black (today, Perkins Coie is the largest law firm in the Northwest). He soon became the general counsel for what was then Puget Sound Power and Light Company, one of the firm's major clients. In 1970, he left the firm to become vice president of Puget Power. He was named president and CEO in 1976 and became chairman of the board in 1987.

Ellis held leadership positions in a number of national and regional utility organizations during his tenure with Puget Power. At various times he was chairman of the Edison Electric Institute, the national trade group for private utilities; the Electric Power Research Institute, the industry's research arm; and the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee, the planning body for Northwest electric utilities. He also participated in negotiations leading to the 1964 Columbia River Treaty with Canada, clearing the way for hydroelectric dams on the upper Columbia River.

Ellis also was deeply involved with Puget Power's unsuccessful effort to build a nuclear power plant in the 1970s and 1980s, a failure he still regrets. "We were the fastest growing utility in the U.S. and we had to build a new generation of facilities," he says. "We tried to build a new nuclear plant. We never got it built. The loss of that generating plant -- originally in Skagit, then at Hanford -- it had to be written off. It was heartbreaking" (Ellis interview).

Ellis retired from Puget Power in 1992. The company later merged with the Washington Energy Company (a Seattle distributor of natural gas) to become Puget Sound Energy. In 2004, the company gave Ellis its Pioneer Award for community leadership. The award was commemorated by a gas-flame lamp installed in the park that Ellis helped create in downtown Bellevue. According to Puget Energy president and CEO Steve Reynolds, Ellis was "a good sport" about being honored with natural gas, after all his years as head of an electric company.

Ellis Up to Bat

In January 1992, Ellis helped organize the Baseball Club of Seattle, with the goal of buying the Seattle Mariners from an out-of-town owner who had threatened to move the team to Tampa, Florida. Ellis used his business and civic connections to bring together a group of 15 investors from the Nintendo Company, Microsoft, and McCaw Cellular. When the sale was completed, that July, Ellis was named chairman and CEO of the Mariners. Although he himself owned less than 1 percent of the team, he became the public spokesman for the owners. He also served as the owners' representative at meetings with Major League Baseball.

Ellis says that his seven-year association with the Mariners, from 1992 until the end of the 1999 season, provided some of the brightest days of his life, as well as some of the darkest. In the early days, people would stop him on the street and thank him for "saving" the Mariners. But he soon became a focal point for hostility, after declaring that the team would not be economically viable in Seattle unless the concrete Kingdome was replaced with a retractable-roof baseball stadium.

On September 19, 1995, King County voters narrowly rejected a measure to finance the proposed stadium with a county sales tax. Ellis held a press conference to announce that the team was on the market. Although critics claimed that the press conference was merely a negotiating ploy, Ellis insists the threat was real.  "The darkest point was when we lost the election to build the stadium by one tenth of one percent," he says. "We were prepared to offer the team for sale out of town. That week was a bad day" (Ellis interview).

It's possible that the outcome of the election might have been different if it had been held just a few weeks later. By late September, the Mariners were vying for a West Division title and Seattle was gripped by baseball fever. Then-Governor Mike Lowry called the Legislature into a special session to find alternative funding for the stadium. On October 14, 1995, the Legislature approved a financing plan, based largely on new taxes in King County.

"Mother of All Blackness"

By the fall of 1996, the estimated costs of the stadium were running far above the original projections. Under pressure from the King County Council Budget Committee, the Mariner owners agreed to pay any costs exceeding the current estimate of $384 million for the ballpark and adjacent parking garage. When several council members continued to express concern about cost overruns, Ellis held another press conference and again threatened to sell the team. "I hope I never had to go through anything remotely similar to that day -- the Mother of All Blackness," he said later. "It was awful. Just awful" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1997).

The project went forward after the intercession of then-U.S. Senator Slade Gorton. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held on March 8, 1997. By then, the budget for the stadium had reached $417 million. On behalf of the owners, Ellis pledged that the Mariners would pay all cost overruns without releasing high-profile players, gouging ticket holders, or seeking a bailout from taxpayers.

In May 1998, Ellis and Safeco both denied rumors about an agreement to sell naming rights to the stadium to Seattle-based Safeco Corporation. One month later, the Mariners announced that Safeco had bought the naming rights for $40 million. When it was completed in 1999, Safeco Field was the most expensive baseball stadium in the country, with a price tag of $517 million.

On June 22, 1999 -- three weeks before the Mariners played their first game in their new home -- Ellis and fellow owner Howard Lincoln, chairman of Nintendo of America, filed a claim against the public agency in charge of building the stadium, saying it was legally obligated to pay for nearly $100 million in cost overruns.

As the team's spokesman, Ellis took the heat for this move. One newspaper columnist called him "a mean-spirited bully" (McGrath, The News Tribune). Another said his "unapologetically confrontational style, coupled with his insincere emotional manipulations, cooked his credibility in this town" (Thiel, Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Yet another described Ellis and Lincoln as "shameless front men for the despicable frauds who own the Mariners" (The Spokesman-Review). Many agreed with the Tacoma editorial writer who said the Mariners' owners had "irretrievably changed their image from civic-spirited saviors of major league baseball in Seattle to chiselers who can't be trusted to keep their word" (The News Tribune).

Faced with overwhelming opposition to any additional public financing of the stadium, the owners withdrew the claim. When the season ended that year, Ellis retired as chairman and CEO of the Mariners. He was able to enjoy one more bright moment as a result of his association with the team, however. In 2001, Seattle hosted Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, the result of secret negotiations between Ellis and baseball commissioner Bud Selig in 1995. Selig promised Ellis then that if he could get the stadium built, Seattle could host the game. The event brought an estimated $60 million into Seattle and put to rest much of the controversy surrounding the construction of Safeco Field.

Full Circle

After leaving the Mariners, Ellis returned to Perkins Coie as senior counsel in the firm's Bellevue office. He remained involved with Major League Baseball as a member of the powerful Executive Council, and as chairman of its Finance, Budget and Compensation Committee.

Although his public profile has been shaped largely by his involvement with the Mariners, Ellis has been equally passionate about education and recreation. He has served as chairman of the board of regents for both Washington State University and Seattle University. He also led the effort to acquire and develop what is now the Bellevue Downtown Park, carved from property once owned by the school district. The city had the money to buy the property from the school district but not to develop it. Ellis used his considerable powers of persuasion to raise the private funds needed for the park, now a two-block oasis right in the middle of Bellevue.

Ellis and his wife, Doris, have raised four children: sons Thomas R., John R., and James F. Ellis; and daughter, Barbara Ellis Hopper. They also have eight grandchildren. Ellis's most emotional moment with the Mariners came in 1997, during a press conference when he announced that the team was for sale. Looking into the television cameras, he tearfully said "I'm sorry, Kerry, I tried." He was speaking to one of his granddaughters, a child with Downs Syndrome -- an avid baseball fan.

Ellis has received scores of awards during his long years as a business and community leader, including an Outstanding Community Service Award from the Boy Scouts of America, a Civic Commitment Award from the National Council on Aging, the Franklin High School Hall of Fame Award, a Seattle University Service Award, a History Makers Award from the Museum of History and Industry, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America "Man and Youth" Award.

Ellis has been called "a smallish man with a commanding presence." He is known for his tenacity when taking on an issue. He is also gregarious and outgoing. Friends describe him as someone who is equally at home in a corporate boardroom, at the helm of his sailboat, or at the keyboard of his piano. "What was not included in all the hoo-ha was Ellis' great ability to play and have fun," Patti Payne wrote after Ellis received Puget Sound Energy's Pioneer Award in 2004. "He golfs; reads novels, biographies and histories like a sponge; and has been a top-notch sailor from the time he was a child. You have to wonder when the guy ever sleeps" (Puget Sound Business Journal).


Cassandra Tate interview with John Ellis, February 17, 2005; Cassandra Tate interview with Doris Stearns Ellis, February 16, 2005; Patti Payne, "PSE Honors the Long Civic Life of John Ellis," Puget Sound Business Journal, May 14, 2004; Constantine Angelos, "Jim, John Ellis Are Honored -- Brothers' Civic Service Wins A. K. Guy Award,"The Seattle Times, November, 4, 1992, p. B-4; David Schaefer, "The Elusive Team Behind the Team" Low-Profile Owners Avoid Limelight," The Seattle Times, July 5, 1998, p. D-8; Jim Street, "M's CEO Urges Fight to End: Ellis Reflects on Past Month's Saga," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 15, 1997, p. D-1; Eric Sorensen, "Safeco Field Timeline -- How It Got to Where It is Now," The Seattle Times, June 23, 1999, A-9; John McGrath, "Ellis' Tired Tantrums Getting Old," The News Tribune (Tacoma), July 5, 1999, C-1; John Blanchette, "Money Grabbers," The Spokesman-Review (Spokane), June 30, 1999, p. C-1; Art Thiel, "Accountability at Last with New Mariners CEO," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 28, 1999, E-1; "M's Wild Pitch for Stadium Funds," The News Tribune, June 24, 1999, p. A-6; Angelo Bruscas, "Thank Ellis for All-Star Game -- Former Mariners Chairman Cut Deal with Commissioner," Seattle Post-Intelligencer; July 12, 2001, p. C-1.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You