Stuart G. Moldaw, founder of Ross Stores Inc., died Saturday after a brief illness. He was 81.

Moldaw established the Pleasanton, Calif.-based discount chain in 1982 with six Ross Dress for Less stores. Ross Stores is now the nation’s second-largest off-price retailer, with more than 900 locations in 27 states.

Moldaw, who had more than 50 years of experience in specialty retailing, served as chairman until 1993, when he became chairman emeritus. He remained actively involved in the firm.

“I have had the privilege of working closely with Stuart for almost 30 years,” Ross Stores chairman Norman Ferber said Tuesday. “He was an unforgettable man — a visionary, entrepreneur, leader and philanthropist.”

Moldaw was also chairman emeritus of Gymboree Corp. and cofounded U.S. Venture Partners, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based venture capital firm.

He “was a very savvy merchant and a dynamic leader,” who, as a venture capitalist, “encouraged many new young companies,” said retail analyst Walter Loeb.

Moldaw was politically active on both the national and state levels. Then-President Bill Clinton appointed him as a public delegate to the U.S. Mission at the United Nations in 1993 and as chairman of the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars in 1996. In 2000, then-Gov. Gray Davis selected Moldaw to chair California’s World Trade Commission.

In addition, he served on the boards of many San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit organizations, including the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and the San Francisco Urban League.

He is survived by his wife, Phyllis, two daughters and four grandchildren. A private funeral service is planned.

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