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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Female entrepreneurs at Zino event and visiting Irish entrepreneurs in the Seattle area spotlight

(Editor's note: This week's Harp is actually an entrepreneur-focused column dealing with my two favorite types of entrepreneurs - women entrepreneurs and Irish ones. Both are in the spotlight with developments this week and next.)

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Seattle-area women entrepreneurs came into sharp focus Tuesday evening at the Zino Society's first ever investment forum devoted exclusively to women entrepreneurs seeking angel capital. And a band of Irish enterpreneurs takes center stage in the Seattle area next week with an array of visits to local companies and a reception hosted by Seattle's Irish mayor.

 

The audience for the Zino event at the Columbia Tower Club was evidence that female entrepreneurs as well as female investors are no longer a rare breed in this area.

 

But Zino CEO and founder Cathi Hatch noted for the audience of mostly woman that national statistics indicate that companies with at least one woman on their founding team are about 18 percent less likely to attract equity investors than their all-male counterparts.

 

As the number of female entrepreneurs guiding start-up businesses in search of capital grows, the panel of expert judges that Hatch assembled to be on hand made it obvious that entrepreneurial success stories for women is not a totally new phenomenon.

 

Fran Bigelow opened her first European-style chocolate shop in Seattle 32 years ago and has over time become known by her industry organization as "the best overall chocolatier in the United States.

 

Renee Behnke brought her retail and food background together with her husband, Karl's, business background, to launch Sur La Table almost 20 years ago and grew it into a national company that they recently sold.

 

Although since neither Bigelow nor Behnke needed start-up capital, they differed from most of the entrereneur hopefuls in attendance last night. But the successes of both gave evidence that women have all the skills necessary to build hugely successful businesses.

 

The fact there's no shortage of female entrepreneur hopefuls was pointed up by the fact a dozen companies were selected to give elevator pitches to the attendees and eight had the opportunity for five-minute pitches.

 

The winning firm was Byndyl, "a digital media and payment platform delivering payments, ads, coupons and surveys to unattended retail," has already raised money

 

As for the Irish business part of this column, next week will find a delegation of about 100 Irish entrepreneurs visiting Seattle, with the highlight a reception hosted by Seattle's Irish mayor. Ed Murray, with a couple of local Irish bankers, as well as Mick McHugh, proprietor of Seattle's iconic Irish pub among the welcoming audience.

 

All the Irish entrepreneurs visiting Seattle, as well as Vancouver next week, are winners of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year competition in Ireland, including the 2014 crop of 24 entrepreneurs.

 

Frank O'Keeffe, the E-Y Ireland partner who first envisioned the program of annual visits a decade ago, notes that while "joint ventures, new projects and investment have most certainly come out of the retreats," the goal was to boost Irish entrepreneurs to compete better at home with multi-national companies that have located in Ireland.

 

"Through our interaction with the very best Irish entrepreneurs, we began to notice the increasing threat (the multi-nationals) posed to our indigenous businesses to attract the best talent and maintain their market position," O'Keeffe explained.

 

"At the time, there was a need for a greater industry-led support system that could assist Irish entrepreneurs in growing their businesses both at home and in the global marketplace," he added.

 

"We realized that E-Y Entrepreneur of The Year (EOY) could develop beyond the award to become a strategic development programme for Ireland's leading entrepreneurs," O'Keeffe said.  

 

The entrepreneurs on the Seattle trip, which follows one last year to Chicago, Notre Dame and New York, are guiding companies from multi-million dollars in revenue to fast-growth startups.

 

John Keane, the retired Seattle-area businessman who has been the Honorary Irish Consul since 2009, describes the business connections between Washington state and Ireland as "strong and growing."

 

"That's not just because companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Paccar, Expedia have operations in Ireland, but also because there are over a dozen Irish companies that have operations in Washington state, such as Kerry Group, CRH, Sentaca, lotusworks and Sentaca," he added.

 

Most of the reception attendees are being invited by Irish Network Seattle, whose members of work in all the major business fields in the area, mainly high tech, but also in the areas like medical.

 

 "I hope the entrepreneurs will be encouraged by those they meet and what they see and hear to consider Seattle and Washington State they think of locating in America," he said.

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State securities regulators ready rules for crowd-funding opportunity for entrepreneurs

Washington State securities regulators intend to make sure that entrepreneurs anxiously awaiting adoption of the rules that will permit them to begin raising capital under new state crowd-funding law won't face any of the frustrations and disappointments that have followed passage of similar legislation at the federal level.

  

The bill under which entrepreneurs can raise funds up to $1 million a year in small amounts from in-state investors passed the Legislature, was signed by the governor last month and goes into effect June 12. But officials of the State Department of Financial Institutions have until October 1 to put in place the rules and the process under which the fund-raising can get under way.

 

Joe Wallin

In an effort to ensure that everything is done on schedule, Scott Jarvis, director of the Department of Financial Institutions, says even before the legislation goes into effect, his agency has begun the planning process for how the rulemaking will unfold between now and October.

  

Washington is now one of a handful of states where lawmakers have decided the promise of a new source of fundraising for entrepreneurs won't likely come about in any meaningful way at the federal level and thus have decided to act locally.

  

It's becoming increasingly likely that what Congress, with an election-year flourish two years ago, passed as the JOBS Act to open the door for entrepreneurs to fund their start-up businesses by attracting average investors on the internet will remain a promise unfilled.

  

It's now been almost two years since Congress passed the bill and gave the Securities and Exchange Commission 180 days to put together the rules for how entrepreneurs could fund their start-up companies via the internet to allow selling equity to large numbersof average investors.

 

Well, entrepreneurs around the country are still waiting for those rules to emerge from the SEC, which must pass rules to implement the legislation officially titled Jumpstart Our Business Startups.

And there is a growing sense that the details of compliance, once the SEC finally acts, will be so onerous on entrepreneurs that the costs of starting to raise capital on the Internet will deter many if not most would-be entrepreneurs.

 

One of those cost factors imposed under the federal act involves a requirement that entrepreneurs must use what are called "portals" basically a new kind of SEC-regulated website with unique responsibilities to oversee the entrepreneurial fund-raising activities, investor risk and monitor money raised.

 

Under the state legislation, economic development organizations and ports will serve as portals for the entrepreneurs at the outset, with the legislation's second deadline being methods of qualifying other portals by next April 1.

 

But unlike with the federal legislation, Washington state entrepreneurs raising funds won't be required to use a portal.

 

The bill allows eligible businesses to raise up to $1 million during any 12-month period and repeat the process in subsequent 12-month periods with accredited and non-accredited investors allowed to participate, up to the investment caps imposed by the federal legislation.

 

Joe Wallin, the Davis Wright law firm attorney who had the leading-edge role in bringing about the state crowd-funding statute, sees it as "potentially a good avenue for companies to raise capital."

 

Wallin, who wrote the first draft suggestion the legislation and included it in a blog post later testified on its importance in making the state more business friendly.

 

He suggests, as others have, that having a crowd-funding law in place to allow entrepreneurs who are residents of this state to sell small amount of equity to investors who must also be Washington residents could attract entrepreneurs from other states to move to Washington.

 

"States are vying to get businesses to move to their states to bring jobs and entrepreneurs who build businesses through crowd-funding will eventually also create jobs," he adds.

 

Rep. Cyrus Habib, the King County lawmaker who sponsored the bill, said "we're putting our state in a place to attract entrepreneurs, and to capitalize on their energy and brainpower. And ordinary people get to buy a piece of the action."

 

Since the Internet has been viewed as the vehicle of choice by entrepreneurs and crowd-funding advocates to reach large numbers of average investors most effectively, the fact that only Washington residents are eligible to invest in the Washington state-based companies creates an outreach challenge for the startups.

 

Wallin says "companies will have to be very careful" how they conduct their equity offerings, using either portals that only allow investors of a particular state to view offerings, or "work connection to connection in a manner that doesn't involve generalsolicitation to non-residents."

 

Part of the role of portals will be to ensure that a firm's annual fundraising via crowd funding doesn't exceed the legal $1million restriction.

 

If there's any doubt that optimism is the byproduct of entrepreneurism, witness the fact that venture capitalists and other investors are rushing into the creation and development of the companies whose business is serving as portals and helping provide services to those who will be hoping to raise equity under the eventually implemented federal act.

 

The VC's have poured millions of dollars this year into companies like Indigogo, Crowdbit and Teespring and other such crowd-funding support companies.

 

Wallin, the Davis Wright attorney, think portals will attract funding from experienced investors. "They are Potential great investments," he said. 

 

Unlike most rule-making hearings by state agencies, the crowd-funding hearings may draw substantial and boisterous gatherings.

As DFI Director Jarvis put it, "this is a crowd of young and enthusiastic supporters who have little knowledge of the process of rulemaking."

 

Part of the challenge for the agency as the rulemaking moves ahead is that some entrepreneurs may fail to understand that, as Securities Administrator Bill Beatty emphasized, "our mission is a dual mission: to protect investors and promote small business capital formation."

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Stuart Anderson, iconic name in restaurants, marking 50 years since steakhouse launch

More than a quarter century after he left the restaurant business, former western cattle rancher Stuart Anderson's name remains the iconic brand on the concept of affordable steakhouses.

 

And on April 1, Anderson, now 91 and retired with his wife, Helen, to a condo in Rancho Mirage, CA, will mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first Stuart Anderson's Black Angus near the Seattle waterfront.

Stuart Anderson

 

That first restaurant, in 1964, became a chain of 110 steakhouse restaurants across 19 states, each restaurant bearing the Stuart Anderson's Black Angus name and menus with the icon that became known affectionately as "the square cow," a squared cow's head inside a square frame.

 

The image has changed but the Black Angus part of the name, as well as the explanation of Anderson's philosophy in launching his steakhouse concept, are still touted on the menus at the 45 Black Angus restaurants, now owned by Los Altos, CA-based American Restaurant Group in six western states.

Famous "Square cow" logo.

 

I visited a couple of weeks ago with Stuart and Helen, his wife of more than 40 years, at their condo, looking west toward the San Jacinto Mountains. Anderson sported his signature mustache and cowboy hat, anxious to discuss his new book, which won't be out in time to mark the half-century milestone.

 

In fact, neither was certain what kind of a celebration of the special anniversary might be planned by the owners, but both enthused about the opening last month of the latest Black Angus in Brentwood, CA, where the chain brought him to be on hand and introduced.

 

"They still remember me," he laughed. "He was the star of the event," said Helen.

 

He wanted to talk about the book, Corporate Cowboy, the story of how he built the restaurant empire that became a national company with 10,000 employees and annual revenue of $260 million. It's actually a longer official title: "Corporate Cowboy Stuart Anderson: how a maverick entrepreneur built Black Angus, America's #1 restaurant chain of the 1980s."

 

Anderson speaks and moves slowly from the effects of a stroke he suffered five years ago but retains a firm gaze under the brim of his cowboy hat and a sharp mind. Helen refers to the recovery by the man she refers as "my cowboy" as "miraculous."

 

The book unfolds, as did his first one a couple of years ago, by his dictating to Helen or, if she's not there at the time, using a recorder from which she later transcribes.

 

He first tried his hand as an author when he produced "Here's the Beef! My Story of Beef, " a book he described as "fun and informative" that sold thousands of copies in the Black Angus restaurants. The book was meant to be an answer to the highly popular McDonald's commercial in which an elderly lady asks: "Where's the Beef?"

 

Anderson recalls that he was already in the business in Seattle, owning a hotel and a restaurant, but says he much preferred the restaurant part of the business.

 

So his strategy for his Black Angus concept was simple:

"A one-price steak, with six choices of cut, for $2," he recalls. "We got the meat from Australia, which had to be tamed a bit when it got here. We soon raised the price to $2.95 for a full dinner with a good steak."

 

The second Black Angus was opened in Anderson's hometown of Tacoma and it turned out to be a disaster, what Anderson now describes as a "dumb decision."

 

But the third, in Spokane, proved the validity of the concept and it remained for years the most successful restaurant in the chain.

Expsansion to other states followed, starting with California where San Diego was the launch city.

 

It was in 1987, after five consecutive years of his Stuart Anderson's Black Angus restaurants being named the top steakhouse chain in the nation in a poll by industry publication Restaurants & Institutions, that Anderson retired from the business.

 

By then the chain he had sold to Saga Food Services more than a decade before that had been in turn sold to Marriott Corp., which decided it didn't want the restaurant part of Saga's business and the unbundling made it not fun for Anderson any longer. He said he was working too much and traveling too many hours.

 

So he and Helen retired to his 2,400 ranch sprawled along Interstate 90 west of Ellensburg. He had bought the ranch in 1966 with the intent of raising the black angus cattle that would be served at his restaurants. But it turned out to be too great a challenge, for various reasons, so he continued to raise the cattle until he sold the ranch to Taiwanese interests, though to most travelers going past, it remains the Stuart Anderson ranch.

 

Anderson sought a comeback a couple of years ago, driven not by the desire to get back into the business in his late 80s but rather to try to save the jobs at a Black Angus he had opened in Rancho Mirage in 1980 when the California expansion was in full swing but had closed during the financial downturn

 

It was an effort that didn't last long, with Helen recalling that "after the Black Angus closed, Stuart thought he'd be helping the economy and jobs by re-opening the restaurant."

 

"After negotiating the lease, we opened in late February of 2010.  Stuart decided he was definitely too old to be back in this business," she said. "He jokingly said he forgot more than he knew, so in 2012 we were approached by a group who wanted to buy our lease and we were happy to accommodate them."

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Growing number of businesses filing for legal status to put social purpose ahead of profit

With a growing number of states enacting laws that allow companies to put a social purpose as a higher corporate calling than shareholder benefit, there's an emerging disagreement among proponents of such legislation over whether it should require, or merely permit, companies to have the social purpose dominate in executive decisions.

 

The initiatives to allow a higher purpose than shareholder value was in response to the traditional corporate-law constraints that make it the fiduciary duty of officers and directors to operate with the underlying assumption that their role is to maximize shareholder profits.

 

Washington was one of the first states to provide for-profit companies a legal status for a social focus, under the legal designation Social Purpose Corporations. As of March 1, 89 companies had filed as SPCs under the two-year-old legislation that permits companies' decisions to go beyond maximizing financial results to include positive social or environmental impact.

 

And Oregon's legislature passed a law this session to provide for "B Corps"(benefit corporations) and state Rep. Tobias Read of Beaverton, co-sponsor of the legislation, described it as designed to "legally protect companies that want to strive for more than just profits." The law imposes much tougher requirements on companies to make the social purpose pre-eminent.

 

The two Northwest states point up the different approaches to the goal of allowing otherwise traditional for-profit corporations to have a higher standards of corporate purpose, accountability and transparency.

 

California actually has two social-benefit statutes, one called the "flexible purpose corporation" that emphasizes companies may take a stated social purpose into account in corporate decisions, and the other providing for a Benefit Corporation, imposing a requirement for the role of stated social purpose in decisionmaking.

 

Proponents of the flexible form of legal filing say it seeks to "unleash directors from the risk of liability while permitting them to experiment more broadly with the right mix of doing well and doing good, without concerns of personal or corporate suits."

 

The benefit corporation law, under which virtually all California companies have filed, is based on the model Act created by a 501C3 called B Labs, co-founded in 2006 by Andrew Kassoy, who sought to create a "social hybrid" corporate structure movement.

 

Kassoy, who had a career as a private equity investor and most recently was a partner at MSD Real Estate Capital, part of the investment vehicle for the assets of Michael and Susan Dell, says his goal was to make it easier "for all of us to tell the difference between 'good companies' and just good marketing."

 

All states require, as part of the benefit-corporation filing process, a third-party certification and verification for the chosen social purpose of a company and B Labs plays that role for businesses in 19 states with the Benefit Corporation model, which is a legal status like C Corp, S Corp of LLC.

 

Benefit corporation is often confused with Certified B Corp, which is a certification conferred by third-party organizations like B Lab that a company has achieved appropriate levels of social or environmental performance, accountability and transparency

Every benefit corporation is required to publish publically an annual benefit report that includes "an assessment of [its] overall social and environmental performance against a third party standard."

 

Kassoy is critical of both California's flexible purpose corp. legislation, whose sponsors are now seeking to amend it, and Washington's statute.

 

"I think that both miss the mark because by creating a 'may' instead of 'shall' standard and by failing to require transparency about the overall impact created by the company, investors and other stakeholders don't have something clear to rely on," Kassoy said in telephone interview. "That creates confusion, suspicion of potential 'greenwashing,' (a term used to deride bogus environmentalism or social causes) and therefore impedes market adoption."

 

But Peter Smith, a partner in Seattle-based Apex Law Group, disagrees, while saying he is "a big fan of what B-Labs is saying and doing," but adding "I think Washington got it right by making it about flexibility, making the legislation permissive rather than prescriptive."

 

"What this legislation really is about is providing officers and directors legal cover in the event they make decisions based on the stated social purpose of the company," he added.

 

What the Washington legislation provides is that officers and directors of SBCs shall act in the best interest of the company, but may take into account social purposes.

 

Paul Shoemaker, who founded Social Venture Partners and now carries the title Executive Connector, suggests the emergence of the ability of companies to provide for a social purpose is part of an expanding array of ways "to fund, invest in and sustain social programs in the community."

"The most exciting, potentially impactful thing about all this is it's part of a more diverse, wider range of capital and funding mechanisms coming into play for businesses," he said.

 

Preston Thompson, guided a variety of global-enterprise units or Boeing, ranging from production and supply chain operations to international development, last year founded VentureScale to help with a focus on "accelerating the sustainable growth of ventures."

 

After leaving Boeing, Thompson had already founded a non-profit to create education opportunities in Afghanistan and a business making clean cook stoves for the developing world when Washington's legislation was signed into law.

 

Thompson founded VentureScale as one of the first 50 businesses formed under that legislation with the goal of helping to accelerate the sustainable growth of social ventures.

 

"Gauging the success of a business strictly by evaluating standard bottom-line profit isn't enough," says Thompson. "Maximizing shareholder value and evaluating overall contributions should include social and environmental returns in addition to financial returns."

 

None of the nearly 1,000 social-purpose designated companies in the nation is publicly traded, but advocates of the designation insist that as the trend continues, companies seeking equity capital and focusing on eventual exit strategies will become increasingly appealing to investors.

 

Stephanie Ryan, B Lab's senior associate in the Northwest, sees banks as particularly attractive candidates for Benefit Corp status because of the traditional focus of community banks on serving their local areas. She says she is currently in conversation with an Oregon bank about converting to that legal status, which requires a two-thirds vote of shareholders.

 

Kristopher Lofgren, owner of an Oregon business called Bamboo Sushi, commented after passage of the Oregon law on its importance to the image of business as well as its community value.

"What a lot of people don't realize when they look at the CEOs of companies as despicable people who make these decisions about money, money, money is that the laws are actually written so that's all they can do legally," Lofgren said. "They can be sued and lose their jobs, and the company can go under if they don't. B corp is allowing another voice to come into that fray."

Continue reading

Legal status that puts social purpose ahead of profit

With a growing number of states enacting laws that allow companies to put a social purpose as a higher corporate calling than shareholder benefit, there's an emerging disagreement among proponents of such legislation over whether it should require, or merely permit, companies to have the social purpose dominate in executive decisions.

 

The initiatives to allow a higher purpose than shareholder value was in response to the traditional corporate-law constraints that make it the fiduciary duty of officers and directors to operate with the underlying assumption that their role is to maximize shareholder profits.

 

Washington was one of the first states to provide for-profit companies a legal status for a social focus, under the legal designation Social Purpose Corporations. As of March 1, 89 companies had filed as SPCs under the two-year-old legislation that permits companies' decisions to go beyond maximizing financial results to include positive social or environmental impact.

 

And Oregon's legislature passed a law this session to provide for "B Corps"(benefit corporations) and state Rep. Tobias Read of Beaverton, co-sponsor of the legislation, described it as designed to "legally protect companies that want to strive for more than just profits." The law imposes much tougher requirements on companies to make the social purpose pre-eminent.

 

The two Northwest states point up the different approaches to the goal of allowing otherwise traditional for-profit corporations to have a higher standards of corporate purpose, accountability and transparency.

 

California actually has two social-benefit statutes, one called the "flexible purpose corporation" that emphasizes companies may take a stated social purpose into account in corporate decisions, and the other providing for a Benefit Corporation, imposing a requirement for the role of stated social purpose in decisionmaking.

 

Proponents of the flexible form of legal filing say it seeks to "unleash directors from the risk of liability while permitting them to experiment more broadly with the right mix of doing well and doing good, without concerns of personal or corporate suits."

 

The benefit corporation law, under which virtually all California companies have filed, is based on the model Act created by a 501C3 called B Labs, co-founded in 2006 by Andrew Kassoy, who sought to create a "social hybrid" corporate structure movement.

 

Kassoy, who had a career as a private equity investor and most recently was a partner at MSD Real Estate Capital, part of the investment vehicle for the assets of Michael and Susan Dell, says his goal was to make it easier "for all of us to tell the difference between 'good companies' and just good marketing."

 

All states require, as part of the benefit-corporation filing process, a third-party certification and verification for the chosen social purpose of a company and B Labs plays that role for businesses in 19 states with the Benefit Corporation model, which is a legal status like C Corp, S Corp of LLC.

 

Benefit corporation is often confused with Certified B Corp, which is a certification conferred by third-party organizations like B Lab that a company has achieved appropriate levels of social or environmental performance, accountability and transparency

Every benefit corporation is required to publish publically an annual benefit report that includes "an assessment of [its] overall social and environmental performance against a third party standard."

 

Kassoy is critical of both California's flexible purpose corp. legislation, whose sponsors are now seeking to amend it, and Washington's statute.

 

"I think that both miss the mark because by creating a 'may' instead of 'shall' standard and by failing to require transparency about the overall impact created by the company, investors and other stakeholders don't have something clear to rely on," Kassoy said in telephone interview. "That creates confusion, suspicion of potential 'greenwashing,' (a term used to deride bogus environmentalism or social causes) and therefore impedes market adoption."

 

But Peter Smith, a partner in Seattle-based Apex Law Group, disagrees, while saying he is "a big fan of what B-Labs is saying and doing," but adding "I think Washington got it right by making it about flexibility, making the legislation permissive rather than prescriptive."

 

"What this legislation really is about is providing officers and directors legal cover in the event they make decisions based on the stated social purpose of the company," he added.

 

What the Washington legislation provides is that officers and directors of SBCs shall act in the best interest of the company, but may take into account social purposes.

 

 

Paul Shoemaker, who founded Social Venture Partners and now carries the title Executive Connector, suggests the emergence of the ability of companies to provide for a social purpose is part of an expanding array of ways "to fund, invest in and sustain social programs in the community."

"The most exciting, potentially impactful thing about all this is it's part of a more diverse, wider range of capital and funding mechanisms coming into play for businesses," he said.

 

Preston Thompson, guided a variety of global-enterprise units or Boeing, ranging from production and supply chain operations to international development, last year founded VentureScale to help with a focus on "accelerating the sustainable growth of ventures."

 

After leaving Boeing, Thompson had already founded a non-profit to create education opportunities in Afghanistan and a business making clean cook stoves for the developing world when Washington's legislation was signed into law.

 

Thompson founded VentureScale as one of the first 50 businesses formed under that legislation with the goal of helping to accelerate the sustainable growth of social ventures.

 

"Gauging the success of a business strictly by evaluating standard bottom-line profit isn't enough," says Thompson. "Maximizing shareholder value and evaluating overall contributions should include social and environmental returns in addition to financial returns."

 

None of the nearly 1,000 social-purpose designated companies in the nation is publicly traded, but advocates of the designation insist that as the trend continues, companies seeking equity capital and focusing on eventual exit strategies will become increasingly appealing to investors.

 

Stephanie Ryan, B Lab's senior associate in the Northwest, sees banks as particularly attractive candidates for Benefit Corp status because of the traditional focus of community banks on serving their local areas. She says she is currently in conversation with an Oregon bank about converting to that legal status, which requires a two-thirds vote of shareholders.

 

Kristopher Lofgren, owner of an Oregon business called Bamboo Sushi, commented after passage of the Oregon law on its importance to the image of business as well as its community value.

"What a lot of people don't realize when they look at the CEOs of companies as despicable people who make these decisions about money, money, money is that the laws are actually written so that's all they can do legally," Lofgren said. "They can be sued and lose their jobs, and the company can go under if they don't. B corp is allowing another voice to come into that fray."

 

  
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Roots and relationships aided Brunell's 28 years steering AWB business-advocacy ship

Don Brunell's Montana upbringing in a small town near Butte, in a household where his father was both mayor and a union official and his family owned a small business, provided him a unique preparation to guide Washington's largest business advocacy organization.

 

He early came to understood business, politics and labor from the inside, allowing him to put himself in the shoes of those on the other side of issues. His first job, as a journalist, helped him develop the abilities to observe and communicate, and a stint in the early '70s as press aide to a Montana congressman added to his understanding of the inner workings of politics.

Don Brunell

 

His belief in roots and relationships comes naturally for a man who grew up in a house on the same block where his great grandparents and grandparents lived and where he and his brother went door to door collecting 75-cent monthly payments from customers of the family's Walkerville Garbage Service.

 

And the roots and the early job background were important assets for success in his role with the Association of Washington Business, helping chart the strategy for business in a state where Democrats always occupied the governor's mansion and usually controlled the legislature during his years at the helm.

 

I visited over coffee with Brunell to get his reflections on his 28-year career with AWB, which he joined as a vice president and head lobbyist in 1985 at a time when the organization was in disarray politically and at a low point in terms of support from businesses themselves. He was named president two years later.

 

He will move out of his office on December 20, the day after AWB closes for the Christmas holidays, he said, explaining "It would break me up to move out while all of those in the office, half of whom have been with me for more than 10 years, were looking on." And he learned this week that the board has decided to name the AWB building in his honor.

 

But he's been staying away from the office as much as possible in recent weeks to allow his successor, Kris Johnson, who joined AWB three years ago as vice president of operations after 15 years of leadership roles at various chambers of commerce, to settle into his new role, which was announced in early October.

 

As a member of his board from soon after he took the helm of AWB in 1987 through the 1990s, I watched him from the inside deal successfully with the often conflicting political pressures within the organization, composed mostly of small businesses but ultimately guided by the largest companies.

 

But he handled those struggles within the business community with the same deftness with which he dealt with politicians. His philosophy on conflicts? "I try not to second guess or comment on motives; rather just deal with the issues, realizing there are differences."

 

And as the most visible face of business in a usually Democrat-controlled political environment, Brunell frequently found himself in the cross hairs when one of the governors was riled over the business stance on a particular issue.

 

"Most of the times, the calls from the governors came at night after I was home," he recalled. "One night, Booth (Gardner) was furious and I can't remember what the issue was. Our youngest son was about 6 at the time and answered the phone.  Booth introduced himself and asked Dan if he could talk to me. Dan put the phone on the table and yelled:  'Dad, some guy names BOOF wants to talk to ya!'  By the time I got the phone, Booth was laughing so hard that he asked me to stop by in the morning to talk about whatever the issue was."  

 

Brunell had special praise for Gardner's successor, Mike Lowry, with whom he had a close relationship despite the fact that many in the business community, especially small business people, viewed Lowry as the hated enemy.

 

"Lowry would call me at home madder than a wet hen about something, particularly during the 1993 session, and some nights and I just held the phone out at the end of my arm until he had finished yelling at me." Brunell recalled with a chuckle.

 

"So after he blew off steam, I'd go up to his office and we'd look at one another and then we'd figure out what to do," he said, adding"Lowry could blow his stack at you one day and be smiling the next. He never personalized anything, and if he said something, you could bank on it, and if he changed his mind, he'd tell you he had changed his mind."

 

"All of the governors are different, but they wouldcall and we always had the ability to work through things," he said. "Sometimes we'd agree to disagree and move on.  We were always able to avoid personalizing differences."   

 

Brunell, intended to be a teacher but after graduating from the University of Montana, he joined the Army Special Forces, then wound up in journalism as a reporter, first for the Montana Standard in Butte then the Daily Missoulian.

 

Thus he never made it into teaching ranks himself, but is proud that five of his six children are teachers, "and their spouses are teachers."

 

And education has remained a key involvement for Brunell. In addition to spending a week each summer as a teacher at BusinessWeek, AWB's signature summer business-education program for high school students, Brunell was instrumental in bringing the program to Poland three years ago. And each year he has personally been involved with the high school students there.

 

And with he and his wife, Jeri, who also grew up in Montana's legendary mining country, having 14 grandchildren, he's kept kids as an important focus, in addition to education.

 

He brought AWB together with unions, trial attorneys, doctors and defense attorneys in 1995 to organize Kids' Chance, a scholarship program for spouses and children of workers permanently disable or killed on the job and has served as the organization's treasurer since its founding, with a $220,000 seed grant from Walmart.

 

And 25 years ago, AWB launched the Holiday Kids' Tree Project, with a massive tree placed in the Capitol Rotunda each Christmas season where donations are taken to help needy families in rural Washington through firefighters and emergency responders "who have the best knowledge of those in need in their areas."

 

I asked Brunell for his thoughts on the political scene he leaves behind. He's optimistic about the future at the state level, suggesting he sees more movement toward the political center, "which is where you have to govern from."

 

"But Washington, DC, is real troubling for me," he added. "I was a congressional aide during Watergate, but still things got done and the parties could work together on important issues. They knew each other and spent time together."

 

"Today, everything back there is centered on fundraising. It never stops.  It is way too partisan and there is way too much money spent by wealthy groups stumping for causes," he added. "If you run for office today, count on being dragged through the mud and disgraced.  Politics has always been a contact sport, but there has to be a set of rules of civility.  

 

"Also the American people are tired of being manipulated and lied to," he concluded. 

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Eliassen, epitome of "entrepreneurial encore," and 'last of a breed," leaves Red Lion Hotels

Jon E. Eliassen, who has epitomized the phrase "entrepreneurial encore" since his first "retirement" a decade ago, may actually be moving closer to real retirement, at the age of 66, as he steps down from the role of president and CEO of Red Lion Hotels Corp.

  

In one respect, his retirement from the helm of the Spokane-based hotel company ends a dual role that made him the last of a vanishing CEO breed, those who chair the board of one publicly traded company while serving as CEO of another.

Jon Eliassen
Jon Eliassen

 

Thus while Eliassen is leaving the top-executive post at Red Lion, which he has held since January, 2010, he will remain as chair of the board of Itron Inc., the $2.2 billion global energy-management and technology company based in Liberty Lake, east of Spokane.

  

Eliassen's retirement, announced last week, took effect Monday and he will leave the Red Lion board at the end of September.

 

His focus on a strategy of converting Red Lion from a hotel company that owned buildings into one that relied on franchising properties has been largely successful as half of the company's 52 hotels in 10 western states and British Columbia are now franchises and lesser owned hotels have been sold.

 

But the past year has been a difficult one for Eliassen and his board as efforts to find a suitor for the company proved unsuccessful and criticisms from two investor groups, who together own about 33 percent of the company created and long controlled by the Barbieri family, mounted. Donald Barbieri, CEO of Red Lion during its growth and expansion years before he turned over the reins in 2006 while remaining as board chair, retired from the board last December.

 

Four new board members were added last year, including James P. Evans, former head of Best Western International, who will serve as interim president and CEO while the board searches for a permanent new leader.

 

But if the role at Red Lion brought its likely frustrations, the board-chair post at Itron, which he helped birth as a start-up subsidiary of the old Washington Water Power Co., now Avista Corp., in the later half of the 1980s, has brought offsetting satisfactions.

 

In a column I did on Eliassen when he assumed his role at Red Lion, he made clear that he didn't want to be credited with being responsible for Itron's successful growth from its early days as a remote meter-reading business. Others, however, would say he clearly played a dramatic role in Itron's growth as the CFO at WWP-Avista for 16 years.

 

But he conceded he's had fun watching what he referred to as "a great run" for Itron into its role as a world leader in providing electricity, heat, water and gas metering devices.

 

Eliassen's first "retirement" came in 2003 when he departed his role as CFO and senior vice president at Avista, capping a 33-year career with the investor-owned utility. But he quickly­ was coaxed into taking over the Spokane Area Economic Development Council as its CEO.

 

He remained as CEO of the Spokane EDC until 2007 when he helped put together a merger of the EDC with the Spokane Chamber of Commerce to create Greater Spokane Inc.

 

That retirement lasted for a couple of years until 2010 when the Red Lion board, on which he had served since his retirement from Avista, picked him to be president and CEO at a time of transition and challenge for the hotel company.

 

When I asked him this week what lies ahead, he said "I'm not planning to do anything beyond being involved as a director or in an advisory role."

 

But the board work extends beyond Itron, since he is a board member of ITLifeline, a privately held business continuity anddisaster-recovery company down the road from Itron in Libetry Lake. And he is the principal of Terrapin Capital Group, LLC.

And while he says he remains "engaged with trends and the continued evolution of energy and water."

And because of what Spokane venture capitalist Tom Simpson has described as "an unselfish desire to fuel economic growth in Spokane," none would surprised if Eliassen were to find a future

summons too interesting to pass up.

 

As to the dual role in which he was the last of what I described as "a vanishing CEO breed," until a year ago he had shared that unique role with Bill Ayer, president and CEO of Alaska Air Group as well as being board chairman at Puget Sound Energy. But Ayer retired from Alaska in early 2012.

 

The reason he's likely the last of a breed is because of the growing aversion of boards to having their CEOs involved in a significant way with the business of another company, with those schooled in board activity noting that directors are increasingly saying, basically, "we want our CEO to be focused on our company."

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Pettit unveils strategy for future of family owned Merrill Gardens as senior-living industry leader

William (Bill) Pettit, president and COO of Merrill Gardens since he helped launch the company 20 years ago, has kept the family owned business at the leading edge of growth and change in the senior-living industry. Now he has put together a deal that he figures will position the company for growth under new leadership for the next 20 years.

 

Pettit, once a rising young star in banking before forsaking that industry to help the R.D. Merrill Co. strategize diversifying from its timber-industry roots, last week announced the deal by which Merrill Gardens will sell more than half of its properties for $183 million to provide for major investments in the future.

Bill Pettit
Bill Pettit

 

Seattle-based Merrill Gardens is selling its equity stake in 38 senior-living projects for $173 million to Health Care REIT, with which Merrill Gardens had put together an $817 million partnership three years ago that Pettit described, at the time, as "the leading edge of a trend" for senior-living companies. Proof of the accuracy of his prediction came as other senior-living companies soon followed the model of te REIT-relationship.

 

In essence, the Akron-based Health Care REIT is now buying out the 20 percent of the partnership that Merrill Gardens retained in the 2010 deal and is inking an agreement with Ermitus Senior Living, also Seattle based, to manage the portfolio.

 

Merrill Gardens will receive an additional $10 million from Emeritus as a management termination fee and will retain 26 communities and proceed with what's described by Tana Gall, whom Pettit lured to Merrill Gardens recently from LeisureCare, still another Seattle-based regional retirement-living company, as "big reinvestment plans."

 

Of those 26, the REIT will continue a relationship with 10, and another 10 are slated to come on line as new communities that will benefit from the "reinvestment" plans.

 

Part of the lure for Gall was assuming Pettit's title as Merrill Gardens' president, although the 64-year-old Pettit retains the title of president of R.D. Merrill Co.

 

Pettit went to work for the Merrill Family in 1992 after a series of banking successes that included becoming head of strategic planning for Seafirst Bank at age 31 in 1980 and becoming chief financial officer in 1985 at the age of 36 before joining problem-plagued E. F. Hutton in New York, only to see the 1987 crash "seal its fate."

 

So he returned to the Puget Sound area as president of Pacific First Financial and two years later helped guide its takeover.

 

He was invited to join the R.D. Merrill Co. to help what he deferentially refers to as "the family" as the third generation of the business founded in the 1890s by Richard Dwight Merrill as an environmentally friendly timber operation determine its future.

 

In the end, the Merrill family decided to have fourth-generation Charles Wright III, chairman since then, take over and chart the future.

 

Pettit recalls that Wright felt the timber heritage was important, but not the direction he wished to take with the company so, with Pettit's assistance, moved to diversify. In 1993, the company acquired its first independent and assisted living facility in Seattle and Pettit became president and COO of both the company and its senior-living business.

 

Over the following 17 years, leading up to the 2010 deal with Health Care REIT, Merrill Gardens grew to become one of the largest and most respected senior living companies in the country, operating 56 senior housing communities in 10 western and southern states. It won Family Business of the Year honors in Washington State four times.

 

"The performance of senior housing has provided one of the best real estate investments of the past decade," Pettit says, but adds that "in reality we never made much money on operations, pretty much a breakeven business model there."

 

But with last week's deal, he expects Merrill Gardens to have the opportunity, over the next 24 months, "to re-engineer and add new-technology tools to the process'' in a manner that will enhance efficiency and thus bring more bottomline profits, including for the new communities coming on line, and thus growth opportunities.

 

Pettit says he has no plans to retire soon, adding "I expect to be working for the family for another five or six years."

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Unusual partnerships behind national conference on academic efforts to aid at-risk small businesses

A first-ever national gathering of representatives from business schools around the country that have programs to help businesses in "under-served communities" gain a better chance to succeed and create jobs will take place in Seattle next month, the result of an unusual collaboration of a prominent business school and a global financial firm.

 

The July 10-12 Conference on Business Development in Under-Served Communities, which will draw leaders from 20 universities that have programs aimed at engaging students with businesses in low- and moderate-income communities, is the culmination of a 13-year vision of Michael Verchot, the man responsible for the event.

 

Phyllis Campbell
Phyllis Campbell

Verchot, director of the Business and Economic Development Center (BEDC) since its 1995 founding at University of Washington's Foster School of Business, hopes the conference will serve to dramatically expand the number of schools supporting programs for businesses in under-served communities.

 

In the two years since he first met with Phyllis Campbell, the respected Seattle-area banking leader who is vice chairman of the Northwest region for JPMorgan Chase, she and other executives of Chase have not only come to share the vision, but have enhanced, with time, counsel, and dollars, the opportunity for the vision to become reality.

 

Next month's gathering will also serve as the springboard for a fund-raising initiative, also supported by Campbell and Chase, to create an endowment for the BEDC to become a national center to guide collaboration and information sharing on "best practices" among business schools with such programs. 

Michael Verchot
Michael Verchot

 

While "under-served communities" might be assumed as synonymous with minority businesses, Verchot says that's not necessarily accurate, adding that urban under-served communities might usually be minority communities, but that non-urban areas might merely be economically challenged. He uses the example of some communities, like Forks, that have been impacted by timber-industry changes.

 

"By under-served we mean two things: communities where the median household income is 80 percent or less of the regional median household income, and racial,ethnic, gender communities where businesses under perform the national average," Verchot said.

Verchot, one of the earliest architects of academic emphasis on minority business programs, including an annual Minority Business Awards banquet that remains the only such statewide event in the nation, says that he has wanted, since 2000, to build such a national network to aid businesses in under-served communities.

 

The BEDC will soon to be renamed the Center for Consulting and Business Development and a $10 million fund-raising effort launched to advance Verchot's vision, a goal for which $2 million has already been raised.

 

The fact that it took a helping hand from some key players to bring about the conference and set the stage for the next step in Verchot's vision may be appropriate counterpoint for the assistance he hopes his center will help bring about for challenged businesses.

 

The first meeting with Campbell two years ago was arranged by Neil McReynolds, longtime Seattle business leader and a UW alum and founding co-chair of the BEDC, whom Verchot credits with "being instrumental in every stage of our development since our founding."

 

And Campbell, CEO of the Seattle Foundation and prior to that Washington president of U.S. Bank when she was tapped by JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon to guide the bank's Northwest business, credits Cree Zischke, Chase executive for Global Philanthropy, whose region includes both Washington and Arizona, with being "instrumental in understanding the national scalability of the model."

 

Verchot and McReynolds wanted advice from Campbell on how to fashion an endowment to build upon the BEDC's work in Washington State.

 

"But we didn't have the horsepower, in terms of staff, nationwide relationships, vision for what this conference could lead to and funding, until we began working with Chase," Verchot said.

 

The funding Verchot refers to is a $600,000 grant to BEDC to put on the conference, through which Verchot and Chase hope to establish around the country academic centers that will work with small businesses in under-served communities. Support from Zischke and the bank has already helped launch centers on the BEDC model at Washington State University and at Arizona State University and University of Arizona.

 

"The endowment he was talking about raising for the center wasn't very much so Cree and I told him to raise the bar and think bigger," recalls Campbell, who explained that the $600,000 for the conference is a multiple-year commitment, part of $1.2 million that the Chase Foundation has put behind bringing about Verchot's vision of a national center.

 

 "Our philosophy is always aligned toward philanthropic pillars and one is how do we work with very small businesses, especially minority businesses, that we want to help ensure get a leg up," added Campbell.

 

Bill Bradford, who is a former dean of the school of business at UW, will provide a report at the conference on a study he was commissioned by the Kauffman Foundation to produce on what research has been done on minority business over the past decade.

 

"The goal was to find out what we know about programs that may have beneficially impacted minority owned business and determine whether we still have the same issues facing minority business that we did in the last century, or have we improved over the past 13 years," Bradford said.

 

Other unusual initiatives by BEDC are also making their way into programs of other schools, including the innovative Business Assistance Program that links student teams with Rotary Business Mentors and alumni advisors to work with local businesses, a program McReynolds spearheaded with Seattle Rotary as past president of the organization.

 

McReynolds, who also teaches at the business school, calls it "a win-win situation" that not only gives needed help to small businesses but "gives students fresh from the classroom great practical experience" helping small businesses deal with the callenges they face.

 

The BEDC has now involved other Rotary Clubs, with Bellevue Rotary working with students at Bellevue College and the Vancouver Rotary with WSU-Vancouver students.

 

Of the Minority Business Awards program, Verchot notes it's "a way of highlighting success and creating role models for other entrepreneurs and our students of color. These companies don't necessarily need help from us so we use them as examples for others to follow."

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Jim Weber has guided Brooks Sports from role of also ran to near the top of running-shoes world

Brooks Sports is about to enter its second century on the crest of a growth wave that CEO Jim Weber has guided by turning the company from "an also-ran, price-point brand" to a leading performance premium brand in what he refers to as a unique "class to mass to class" repositioning.

 

Weber, who was brought in as CEO in 2001 to turn around a troubled athletic-shoe company, took Brooks from a $60 million company to a running-shoes-only business that did $400 million last year and is now positioned, as number one among shoes sold by specialty running shops. And it's typically in the top three shoes worn by runners in major races across the U.S. and Europe.

 

Jim Weber
Jim Weber

The 53-year-old Weber, whose pre-Brooks background includes 12 years in consumer products with Pillsbury, Coleman and Sims Sports and a couple of years in investment banking, is now a finalist in

 

When Brooks moves late this year to a new Seattle headquarters in the funky Fremont District across the street from runners-dominated Burke-Gilman Trail, the 80,000-square-foot facility will house Brooks first-ever retail concept store.

 

Brooks has been a shoe company from its founding in Philadelphia in 1914, first as a maker of bathing shoes but soon moving into athletic shoes that were worn by football and baseball players in the '20s and '30s.

 

It continued as a mostly off-the-radar family-owned athletic shoe company for decades, before sinking into bankruptcy in the late 1970s and being bought by a series of owners who moved its home office first to Grand Rapids, MI, then to Bothell, northeast of Seattle.

 

The company experienced a business uptick in the '90s when Norwegian entrepreneurs Kjell Rokke and Bjorn Gilstein owned the company and brought in local CEO Helen Rockey. But the company got into financial trouble after Rokke and Gilstein sold Brooks to an investment-banking firm and Weber, who had been on the board for two years, was coaxed into taking the Brooks reins.

 

Russell Corp, acquired Brooks in 2004 and two years later, Berkshire Hathaway acquired Russell, down in the bowels of whose holdings was Brooks, which has since acquired a higher visibility in the Warren Buffet business empire.

 

"In running, we've taken an inclusive celebrate-running image, a 'run happy umbrella' that really creates a focus for us as a fitness company," Weber said. "In 12 years we've gone from 1 percent of the running-shoes market to third place."

 

"And we've done by what I think is a unique class-to-mass-to-class transition," he noted. "Brooks was a class running shoe that then was positioned to be a price-point brand and now is repositioned as basically the highest-priced premium running shoe."

 

As evidence of that, he points, in a Nordstrom-like explanation, to the average prices of the three tops running shoes as of early this year. Brooks' average price was $100.30, Asics' $91.20 and Nike $70.50

 

According to Leisure Trends, Brooks is Number One in the specialty running shoe channel in this country, with a market share of 29 percent, and number three overall. Weber notes, "the company is usually number two behind Asics in terms of which shoes runners are wearing at the 20 races we perform around the world."

 

"Shoes matter for competitive runners and we're one of the two top shoes in races, behind Asics," he added.

 

Weber says that while the focus on running "makes us a niche player, it's a niche we think can bring us to a $1.5 billion company. We're on track to reach half a billion this year."

 

I asked Weber if it seems a bit unusual for the head of a $400 million, century-old company, even having grown the business by 700 percent over the past decade, to be considered an entrepreneur. He replied:"What is an entrepreneur? Someone who brings unique solutions to problems that no one else has solved for a company."

 

In fact, Weber's comment about entrepreneurs could apply to several of the finalists in this year's Northwest EoY event who either guide large companies or have been around for an extended time. Those include bank CEOs Mark Mason of HomeStreet and Greg Seibly of Sterling, both of whom guided major turnarounds of their institutions, Expedia head Dana Khosrowshaki and four of the directors of Madrona Venture Group, the 18-year-old Seattle-based venture capital firm.

 

: Tom Alberg, Paul Goodrich, Gerald Grinstein and William Ruckelshaus are the Madrona directors up for honoring with Grinstein and Ruckelshaus once having served as the leaders of major national public companies.

 

When I asked Dan smith, managing partner of the Seattle office of Ernst & Young, which is in its 26th year with the EoY event in the Northwest, what defines an entrepreneur, he said "You have to stand back with an open pair of eyes and ask who is really making a difference. Who is taking companies to that next level?"

 

 

"They may not be starting a business, but the turnaround is almost like starting a business and takes the same entrepreneurial skills," he said. 

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Retirement not on Fahey's radar as First Sound Bank turnaround opens growth opportunities

After a frustrating failure to save Frontier Bank, veteran banker Patrick Fahey's relief at his successful turnaround of Seattle-based First Sound Bank has him focused on "having some fun now" running the newly healthy bank rather than retiring for the fourth time.

 

Fahey, whose career running banks began in 1981 when he was named president and chief operating officer of what was then Spokane-based Old National Bank, completed his 15-month-long turnaround effort at First Sound by paying back its TARP debt to the Fed last month.

pat fahey
Pat Fahey

 

Fahey had been a consultant to First Sound, after the Fed fouled up an infusion of capital that would have saved Everett-based Frontier Financial Corp. Then the First Sound board asked him in January 2012 to take over as CEO, the third time a bank board had tapped him to un-retire.

  

When he took over, First Sound was, as he describes it now, "one of the most troubled banks in the state," viewed by the Fed as "significantly undercapitalized." It was under a Fed cloud, required to raise at least $7 million as a condition of paying off its outstanding TARP shares and making a healthy exit from Fed oversight.

 

"It's pretty tough to be in the position we were in," Fahey recalled in an interview looking back to the time he stepped
in, and forward to what comes now. "People seeking loans don't want to anticipate the FDIC as a partner in their loan."

 

But as a result of Fahey's turnaround efforts, including quest for capital, the bank last month closed an offering that raised nearly $8 million, from which it paid the Treasury Department $3.7 million for its $7.4 million in outstanding Tarp shares, a 50 per cent discount. It thus extinguished all its warrants and unpaid dividends.

 

Fahey says the raise and satisfying the Fed with the TARP payback have turned First Sound into "one of the healthier banks in the state" and its funding infusion means its capital ratios will now exceed the regulatory definition of a "well-capitalized" bank.

 

Those who know Fahey and his history of relative retirement as board member of various banks, only to be summonedback to full-time involvement with what inevitably were troubled banks, have assumed successful turnaround would guide him back to retirement.

 

So I asked Fahey the inevitable retirement question, having followed him since he left U.S. Bank in 1987 to launch Pacific Northwest Bank.

 

"Actually the fun begins now," he replied. "We've now literally tripled our legal lending limits so we can make larger loans. This gives us a cushion against shock waves in the economy and decreases the risk for the bank.

 

"Our new business won't necessarily come by upside in the economy, it will come by taking business from the larger banks and we'll do that by being more responsive to small businesses, who need an answer now, even if it's a 'no,'" Fahey said.

 

"But it will still be a great opportunity to participate in the recovery by providing financing to businesses that need to grow," he added.

 

The success with First Sound, although Fahey emphasizes the next step is profitability, is a welcome outcome for Fahey after the frustration of Frontier's seizure by the Fed and sale to Union Bank.

 

A board member at Frontier, he was asked in 2008 to assume the position of CEO at what was, at the time, the largest bank based in Washington (Washington Mutual having already been seized and tossed to Chase). He brought the turnaround effort to the point of a planned private-equity infusion of $430 million that had been committed, pending Federal Reserve approval.

 

But the Fed dithered and the private-equity people decided they could do better elsewhere and rescinded the offer, forcing the closure of Frontier and the acquisition a couple of days later by Union Bank in a regulatory-assisted transaction in 2010.

 

The Frontier experience didn't sit well with Fahey, who had built Pacific Northwest Bank into the largest commercial bank headquartered in the Northwest (that was a few years prior to WAMU's growth spiral up and its death spiral down.

 

He sold PNWB to Intrawest and went on the board of theOak Harbor-based bank, only to be summoned from the relative retirement of board work to take over as CEO and turn Intrawest around, which he did as he put the PNWB name on Intrawest and then guided it into an acquisition by Wells Fargo.

 

Wells Fargo kept Fahey on board to build its business-banking role, which he did as chairman of Washington Regional Banking at Wells, a position from which he retired in 2004 and was soon asked to join the board of Frontier. That was basically retirement again, but not for long, as he called me in 2008 to say "I flunked retirement again."

 

So what's the outlook now for lending, as Fahey sees it?

 

"I still think there is the possibility of a boom and bust cycle in apartment construction," he said. "I would think that banks doing that kind of lending would prudently tighten equity and secondary repayment source requirements. Just drive through Ballard."

 

And he remains a critic of the impact the regulatory environment is having on lending.

 

"The Dodd-Frank legislation and resultant regulation and bureaucracy make it very difficult for a small bank to risk making residential mortgage loans, and ultimately passes the cost of compliance with these regulations on to the consumer," Fahey said.

 

 

" Many of the regulations implementing Dodd-Frank have yet to be written despite thousands of pages that are already out," he added.

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Business use of independent contractors coming under fire in legislative proposal

A legislative proposal that is the outgrowth of state and federal agencies targeting what they perceive as a growing abuse by business of misclassifying workers as independent contractors is stirring the concern of businesses who view the bill as an excessive reaction.

 

In fact, one Seattle-area attorney long involved in independent-contractor legal issues, says an attitude "inhospitable to the independent-contractor business model" has become evident at both the state and federal levels.

 

Employing independent contractors has long been an essential practice in some industries, as with newspapers' use of freelance writers or real estate firms and their independent agents. But the pressures on business during the economic downturn from which some are still just emerging has made the strategy of using independent contractors rather than hiring employees more common, and with that has come some abuse.

 

State and federal agencies, upset by what they view as millions in lost tax revenue, aided by labor leaders' targeting House Bill 1414 as one of their top priorities this legislative session, have tagged misclassification abuses as part of the "underground economy."

 

Calling it part of the "underground economy," which is generally defined as money-making activities, frequently illegal, that aren't reported to the government, is itself viewed by business interests as part of the overreach by proponents. .

 

There are several things about the bill, titled "The Employee Fair Classification Act," that business views as a reach too far by those proponents. The first is that the bill would establish the premise that "an employer-employee relationship is presumed to exist" for anyone who performs service for pay." What follows is a series of exemptions to that blanket assumption.

 

Some besides business may find it a cause for concern that the measure would create a new provision making it a crime to retaliate against those who complain to authorities about a misclassification by the employer, with an assumption of guilt. The measure would make violations of the retaliation provision a gross misdemeanor and, in a Napoleonic-law twist, assume the business is guilty of the crime unless it can prove its innocence.

 

Kris Tefft
Kris Tefft

Kris Tefft, chief legal counsel for the Association of Washington Business, has led the effort to lobby lawmakers and alert businesses about the bill's problems. He says his priority in seeking to raise concerns about the bill "is to convince legislators that this is too much of a regulation step to impose on legitimate businesses."

 

The bill has made it out of one committee and has until Friday to be cleared by the finance committee for an eventual vote in the House, where passage would be likely since this bill is a top labor priority this session and the House is controlled by Democrats. A companion bill filed in the more moderate Senate has languished in committee so business is hoping that means the measure won't clear the Legislature this session.

 

In fact, Tefft's goal is to keep the measure from even reaching a vote in the House.

 

"While it is a top labor priority, it has drawn fire from a broad and deep coalition of various industry groups who are all working on keeping the bill from the House floor," he said. The goal is to "get legislators to go back to the drawing board in terms of addressing identifiable problems with the 'underground economy.'"

 

Nigel
Nigel Aviles

Nigel Avilez, an attorney on Mercer Island who has been involved with the legal issues surrounding independent contractors since before it became a hot issue, suggests government has created "a climate that is intolerant of independent contract misclassifications."

 

Avilez, whose Mercer Law specializes in independent-contractor and worker-classification law, describes the current attitude of both state and federal agencies as "inhospitable to the independent-contractor business model."  

 

The bill, despite its potential major impact on businesses, is only now starting to gain some visibility outside the legislative halls and raising the eyebrows of business owners as they learn of it..

 

None of the opponents of the measure deny that some businesses, particularly many whose fortunes have suffered a serious downturn in the recent financial turmoil, have become scofflaws, basically trying to be creative in worker relations, and thus creating a problem for legitimate businesses.

 

And that, according to Avilez, has created "an inflexibility" on the part of agencies toward working with businesses who have merely made a mistake in classification of independent contractors, rather than being guilty of cheating. "Some agencies feel people are cheating the system so they don't want to cut any slack for any business."

 

Avilez did a public-records request and searched the documents to conclude "there is an apparent coordination between the U.S. Department of Labor and state agencies."

 

"For example, between 2010 and 2012, public records show that the Washington Employment Security Department (ESD) audited close to 140 nail salons, and assessed substantial taxes in many of those," Avilez said. "The quantity of these audits was far and above most other industry audits, clearly suggesting that the nail industry was being targeted by ESD."

 

Five hair salons were found to owe taxes of more than $20,000, not including penalties, with three dozen hit with taxes of $5,000 or more, plus penalties.

 

 

As an indication of the historic role of independent contractors for some industries, Tefft noted that "a lot of industries are coming forward with bills that would exempt them from the provisions of the bill should it become law."

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Business associations joust with Insurance Commissioner over member health plans

Because more small businesses get their insurance coverage through business associations in Washington than perhaps any other state, new eligibility standards for such groups because of the Affordable Care Act could cause major coverage disruptions.

 

At issue is the eventual determination by the U.S. Department of Labor next year on which of the so-called Association Health Plans (AHPs) meet federal requirements or must change, possibly dramatically, to be in compliance with ERISA, which protects the interests of participants in employee benefit plans.

 

The issue looms far larger for small businesses in this state than others because Washington law has recognized associations formed for the purpose of providing insurance, and treated them as "large" groups, providing better healthcare packages for member businesses. State law specifically states that small groups purchasing through associations are not small groups and are exempted from the small group community rating laws, which bring higher insurance costs.

 

 

"There will an incredible amount of disruption in the association market if major changes are imposed on these associations," says Chris Free of Rapport Benefits Group in Tacoma, president of the Washington Association of Health Underwriters.

 

The disruption he warns about would be that since AHPs represent a major portion of Washington's health insurance market, dramatic change could affect the vehicle by which thousands of small businesses obtain insurance coverage for their employees.

 

And because, as with many provisions of the national health care law, there's more uncertainty than certainly about the provisions, associations aren't sure what lies ahead. But they're pretty sure their futures won't be enhanced by the involvement of the State Insurance Commissioner.

 

And it's an issue that has only now begun to gain visibility as business associations like chambers of commerce and the Association of Washington Business, in essence the state's chamber of commerce, grapple with a decision by the Office of Insurance Commissioner (OIC) to get involved.

 

And the visibility ramped up a notch this week when a bill was filed in the State Senate that would basically say "leave the association health plans as they are."

 

The legislative bill would declare that "association health care plans meeting certain standards should be continued as a means of providing health care as the Affordable Care Act is implemented," with standards spelled out that would basically keep most associations in place.

Trade organizations, such as the Master Builders Association whose members are all involved in the home building industry in some manner, are not composed of so many and varied business types. In fact, the Master Builders recently gained OIC approval, with some changes in the members they admit.

 

 

Business interests have long sensed that Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler is not a fan of the association market, believing it causes harm tothe market as a whole. Thus some legislators may be wishing to send a message that the association plans are largely a positive thing for the insurance market and that OIC shouldn't be meddling by deciding which plans the department thinks are qualified to go forward.

 

Executives of the associations openly sing the praises of the benefits their plans bring to the healthcare costs of small businesses. As with Debra brown, President of Forterra Inc., the benefit services subsidiary of Association of Washington Business (AWB), who notes a recent national survey foundWashington is the second most affordable state in the nation for the very smallest firms, those with fewer than 10 employees.

 

"Washington ranks fifth most affordable in the nation for all small firms," says Brown, who.estimates that about 500,000 employees obtain their insurance coverage through association plans "The plans represent an important and valuable asset to a lot of employees."

 

But the association executives are understandably reluctant to openly attack the OIC involvement in the futures of their plans.

 

But not so others outside association ranks, like Free, or John Conniff, a Tacoma attorney and former deputy Washington state insurance commissioner, who says: "if an organization says 'we think we comply' and they're willing to undergo the ERISA evaluation, why should they have to convince the insurance commissioner?"

 

There is a concern candidly expressed by association representatives that the Office of Insurance Commissioner's (OIC) intent to approve or disapprove plans by July 31 could have a negative impact on final Department of Labor decisions, even though OIC doesn't control final approval. The wish, apparently, is that the insurance commissioner not be

 

involved since the office doesn't have legal authority over the DOL action.

 

 

"We can't not say anything," says Carol Sureau, the OIC's deputy commissioner in charge of legal affairs. "We have to get the system ready for 2014 and we have been meeting with carriers and some associations trying to see whether they can qualify as 'an employer' under ERISA."

 

"While this determination belongs to DOL, we know that all our associations will not be able to obtain that agency's determination until after January 1, 1914, and we must move forward as the filings must be approved or disapproved by July 31," Sureau said.

 

Bill Baldwin, one of the more respected insurance executives in the state and now a principal with The Partners Group in Bellevue who is on operating committee of the Washington Health Benefits Exchange, suggests that "few" of the association plans meet the requirement of being ERISA compliant. "It's hard for an association to get approval because they represent so many kinds of businesses."

 

But he adds that "associations is all that has saved the healthcare market in this state," emphasizing the comment was his personal view and not his view as a member of the exchange board. "They should change the law to accept association plans."

 

 

AWB President Don Brunell admits that while there is still work to be done on affordability "we believe that without association plans, health care costs for employers in Washington state would be significantly higher. It's important that association plans continue to operate as they do today, or significant disruption and destabilization will occur."

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Cable & Howse was major factor in growth of key industries in the Pacific Northwest

Whether it was fate or serendipity that brought Elwood (Woody) Howse and Tom Cable into business together after a decade of crossing paths, the fact is that the firm they finally created became a major factor in the creation and growth of the technology, biotech and medical-device industries in the Pacific Northwest.

 

It was actually at the urging of their wives that Cable and Howse decided, in 1977, to leave the Seattle securities firm Foster & Marshall and launch Cable & Howse Ventures. But it took two years and almost 200 calls on potential investors before they raised the $9 million to fund the first limited partnership to launch the firm.

 

Tom Cable
Tom Cable

The business quickly grew into the largest venture capital firm in the Northwest, eventually raising more than $160 million for five Cable & Howse funds that helped finance more than 100 companies, about two dozen of which they took public. More than half of those 100 were outside the Northwest.

 

Now they've been selected as 2013 laureates of the Puget Sound Business Hall of Fame. They, along with retired Alaska Air chairman and CEO Bill Ayer and Gary Oakland, who built Boeing Employees Credit Union into the nation's fourth largest, will be honored as this year's crop of laureates March 21 at the annual banquet put on by Junior Achievement and Puget Sound Business Journal.

 

Woody
Woody Howse

Cable and Howse first met and became friends at U.S. Navy nuclear submarine school at New London, CN, following which they parted to serve stints as officers aboard nuclear subs. Next they each wound up in graduate school at Stanford, where Howse got his undergraduate degree, although Cable had been gone a year when Howse arrived.

 

Finally, they took different routes to get from the Bay Area, where they both had jobs in the investment industry, to Seattle to join Foster & Marshall.

 

Cable & Howse was a different breed than VC firms of today in that the five partners in the firm acted as a private investment banking firm, working with early stage companies to help them find funding and then immersing themselves in the start-up companies.

 

Howse recalls that "in those days, no one knew how to put together a thorough business plan and business models, so we worked closely with the managements to get the plans pulled together to staff the companies, and to build selling presentations for investors."

 

"A large proportion of our companies were absolutely seed startups when we invested," Howse added. "Today virtually no local VC funds do seed investing. Individual angel investors, family and friends are the provider of that class of capital now."

 

Along the way, they also helped shape the software industry that was starting to emerge in the Northwest in the early '80s, putting up the money to allow the presidents of some small software companies to start the Washington Software Alliance, which became the industry's dominant trade organization.

 

I asked each of them what they viewed as their best investment, as well as their most interesting and most satisfying. Both agreed that Immunex Corp. was the answer to all three but Cable added that the company, one of the Northwest's earliest and most successful biotech companies, was also perhaps the most frustrating.

 

 

 

The frustration was that by then Cable & Howse, guided by a long-languishing share price as Immunex was impacted by a general investor turnoff on biotech through the middle 1990s, distributed all of its Immunex stock before the picture improvd dramatically.

 

The Immunex involvement was one of a number of investments Cable & Howse made in the medical arena where, as Howse put it, "we always felt the products were aimed at the betterment of mankind, which always made us feel like we were doing something of value."

 

Both, in what some might suggest are their "retirement" years, remain closely involved with medical-related companies. Cable's last board position is with Omeros, a Seattle-based clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company.

 

"I think Omeros will emerge, over the next few years, as the dominant biotech company in the Northwest," Cable offered.

 

Howse is still a member of four corporate boards, two of which he describes as "rank startups: Stella Therapeutics, focused on a technology targeting an orphan disease that is the worst of the brain tumors, and BeneSol, focused on an interesting technology concerning Vitamin D."

 

Both Cable and Howse also were in agreement when I asked them if they recalled their worst investment.

 

In what Howse refers to as "the low point of naivete for us as investors" and Cable recalls only as an investment "with no logical reason," they bought Inside Sports from Newsweek Magazine. Since the advertising staff at Inside Sports had sought a share of ownership, which they didn't get, all the ad people quit.

 

"We stopped funding after two months of having to print the magazine with no ad revenues coming in," says Howse. "We originally thought of it as a road to success but instead it was a black hole."

 

In 1996, after they proved unable to convince institutional investors of the viability of the Northwest as a place where sufficient new investment opportunities would emerge, Cable & Howse liquidated the partners with an IPO for Applied Microsystem and its distribution.

 

It's been 17 years since Cable & Howse closed its doors, but to this day the mark that Woody Howse and Tom Cable made on start-ups in the technology, biotech and medical-device industries remain as visible impacts on the region's economy.

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New leadership could bring key changes to entrepreneur icon Kauffman Foundation

As a new year brings new leadership at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the long-rumored internal struggle over whether the focus of the nation's largest and most influential resource for entrepreneurs should be far flung or local may soon play out.

 

Thomas A. McDonnell, longtime Kauffman Foundation board member and chair since 2006, assumed the role of president and CEO as of January 1, filling the position left vacant since exactly a year ago when Carl Schramm was forced out. McDonnell hasn't indicated yet whether or not he will guide a change of focus.

 

But given the pre-eminent role the Kansas City-based foundation has played in fostering entrepreneurism, the issue of whether Kauffman's focus should be more local than broad-based could have implications for angel-investor groups and entrepreneurs in every region of the country.

 

However, there are some longtime entrepreneur supporters and investors who suggest that the emergence of other foundationsinvesting in entrepreneurial activity and of serial entrepreneurs now actively impacting entrepreneurship mean Kauffman could refocus without negative impact.

 

Despite the substantial amount of time since the departure of Schramm, the architect of Kauffman's dramatically expanded presence in entrepreneurial activity, there's been little national visibility or blogger discussions about the struggle over Kauffman direction or of the real story of Schramm's departure. Nor has there been a lot of discussion about what might lie ahead for the $1.8 billion foundation.

 

During his 10 years as president, Schramm turned the foundation's focus dramatically toward national focus, then a global presence, becoming the largest and most influential resource available to foster technology innovation through entrepreneurial startups.

 

Schramm was asked to leave, though the official announcement was that he had decided to resign to return to academia. Both his departure, and the sudden availability of McDonnell for the top role, may yet provide fodder for discussion.

 

McDonnell's sudden decision in September to retire at 2012 year-end as CEO of publicly traded DST Systems, and the fact that the company's board virtually that same day put a new CEO in place, could provide a new batch of rumors surrounding Kauffman leadership.

 

One Kauffman change that's certain to occur is its involvement with venture-capital and private-equity investing, given its own dramatic report last spring that spelled out the sad experience the foundation has had in its 20 years of such investments. The in-depth report, titled "We have met the enemy...and he is us," amounted to an analytical revisitation what it describes as its "large (almost $250 million) and (largely) underperforming VC portfolio" and a promise to make dramatic changes in such investing.

 

Because of the clout Kauffman has with academia, the angel-investment community and others with financial roles in start-up companies and entrepreneurism, there's a perhaps not illogical reluctance on the part of many in the industry to speak out about the Foundation's apparent internal struggle.

 

But the fact Schramm's departure was the outgrowth of the conflict over Kauffman direction is pointed up by a couple of comments in e-mails to me for this piece.

 

As a friend close to Schramm said in an e-mail, "it was always a fight between Carl's vision of becoming a global leader in entrepreneurship and being a mainstay in Kansas City."

 

Added an angel-investment leader who declined to have his name tied to the comment: "I can tell you that the divergence on direction is based on the interpretation of the donor's (Mr. Kauffman's) intent. After all, it was his money. Far be it for us to determine what is the best use of his money."

 

"I do believe Carl went too far afield and walked away from the original donor intent, including spending vast sums of money outside the U.S.," said retired Kansas City business leader Ritchie Slaughter said in a telephone interview.

 

Slaughter had worked for Kauffman, the owner of the Kansas City Royals major league baseball team who created the foundation in the mid-1960s, before his death in 1993. Slaughter left the board in 2003, a year after Schramm's arrival.

 

"He was very willing to have people come here (to Kansas City) from around the world but did not want to spend money outside the United States," Slaughter said. "It is Mr. Kauffman's money and needs be spent the way he wanted."

 

"The new guy is likely to have community pressure to give more focus to and have more board members from Kansas City, but he's been chairman of the board for six years so I'd be surprised if he's backing away from national involvement," Slaughter said. "Kauffman specifically wanted a national footprint in entrepreneurship and a local footprint in youth development."

 

Among those who suggest a Kauffman refocus would likely not be detrimental to entrepreneurial activity at this point is San Diego angel-investor Michael Elconin, a long-time leader in the five-county Southern California Tech Coast Angels.

 

"Kaufmann was instrumental, to say the least, in the formation and growth of the Angel Capital Association (ACA), enabling the dissemination of best practices, and promoting efforts to bridge the gap between university research and startups," said Elconin, past chair of the San Diego TCA chapter. "I would say that in all three of these areas, the institutions and momentum Kaufmann created will, to Kaufmann's credit, allow them to continue without further Kaufmann support."

 

Janis Machala, one of the founders of the Seattle women's angel-investor group Seraph Capital and now dean of continuing education at Bellevue College north campus, agreed.

 

"Kauffman has done so much and was working in entrepreneurship when no one was focusing on that area," she said.

 

"Now there are many foundations investing in entrepreneurship and many successful serial entrepreneurs now actively impacting the fabric of entrepreneurship and all this activity and money means that Kauffman can refocus to their roots and not lose all that was done," Machala added.

 

Susan Preston, also a founder of the Seraph angel group who then became a Kauffman Entrepreneur-in-Residence and most recently has guided California's CalCEF Clean Energy Angel Fund, isn't quite as certain.

 

"We will feel an impact on programs if the Foundation focuses solely on Kansas City," Preston said. "But I have faith and belief that new leadership will recognize Kauffman's instrumental role in advancing entrepreneurship on a national basis, where the programs created and grants made in a number of areas, including for women eptrepreneurs, have helped change the landscape for the good."

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Columbia Hospitality views Salish products as part of corporate brand enhancement

Most of the two dozen properties Seattle's Columbia Hospitality manages across five Western states are destinations well-recognized by hotel and resort guests, but less recognized is the brand of the fast-growing hospitality management and consulting company itself.

Now founder and CEO John Oppenheimer hopes a new retail-products unit that will market food items served at the iconic Salish Lodge will help bring broader exposure not just for the hotels and resorts themselves but also for the Columbia Hospitality brand.

 

John Oppenheimer
John Oppenheimer

A number of food products served at the nearly century-old hotel perched on the bluff above Snoqualmie Falls east of Seattle went on sale last week at a holiday-season kiosk at downtown Seattle's Pacific Place. Columbia Hospitality manages Salish under a 20-year agreement with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, which bought the hotel five years ago for $42 million and 50 acres across the road for another $20 million.

 

"We're the first of our kind as a boutique hotel creating a product arm," said Sasha Nosecchi, whom Oppenheimer brought aboard in July with the title of Retail Innovations Director. The title indicates the extent of creative freedom he has given the former Starbucks and Chateau Ste. Michelle executive.

 

Oppemheimer says the products from Salish, which Columbia Hospitality manages under a 20-year agreement with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, which bought the hotel five years ago, range from biscuit powder to pancake mix, to the on-site-produced honey, to candles and tea.

 

"The products are all well known by those who have been guests at the lodge," says Nosecchi, who adds that another product is a honey ale produced for Salish in partnership with a local brewery.

 

"Everyone who has been there has a story about Salish," he adds. "Everyone has a memory of this place, and that's what the products are meant to take advantage of."

 

"Honey on biscuits, drizzled from on high, has been a tradition so we decided to begin making our own honey, with bees on site, with our own beekeeper," Oppenheimer says.

 

And the way Columbia Hospitality's other properties may be promoted to buyers of Salish food products is through special deals tied to the Salish items, like perhaps a special rate at Friday Harbor House in the San Juan Islands with the purchase.

 

"We think we can create great exposure for the hotels and resorts,"Oppenheimer said. "My hope is that someday people will say they want to stay at a Columbia Hospitality-managed property."

 

In fact, the company's strategy for building its brand includes a brochure in every guest room at Columbia Hospitality's various properties that list the collective properties. And the company has a newsletter that goes out regularly to its mailing list.

 

"Guests tell us they are beginning to visit the properties simply because they are Columbia Hospitality managed, which equates to luxury, incredible service, and distinct destinations," says Oppenheimer. "So yes, we are building a brand."

 

A more readily recognizable brand for the company would be only the latest innovation for the fast-growing hospitality management and consulting company that Oppenheimer founded in 1995 after his consulting company was hired by the Port of Seattle to manage its new Bell Harbor Conference Center.

 

The port had hired Oppenheimer's Columbia Resource Group (CRG), which had done events around the world, to provide consulting services on selecting a management firm for the new facility. But when the original management firm fell short of port expectations, Oppenheimer decided to bid on the management role itself.

 

How he eventually got the management contract for Bell Harbor with no experience managing such a facility was an example of Oppenheimer's bold business approach.

 

"Our bid was based on the premise that while we had no experience operating a conference center, no one understood the customer like we did and we said 'we'll make this the most customer friendly place that exists on the planet.'"

 

Columbia Hospitality was created out of CRG to operate Bell Harbor, which was able to pay its way from year one without the subsidy the port had assumed it would have to provide for a time.

 

A growing number of hotels and resorts, and other conference centers soon came Columbia Hospitality's way, including now two in Montana resort areas, one in Sonoma, CA., and the bulk in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. In addition, the company has a half dozen of what it calls "limited service hotels" that Columbia Hospitality operates, but not under its brand.

 

Oppenheimer explains those hotels come and go because our clients are principally banks who assume the hotel and retain us to manage it until it is sold.

 

Oppenheimer admits that at one point, when Salish Lodge was available, he thought about putting together an ownership group to buy it. But when it became clear the Muckleshoots intended to buy it outright, he opted instead for the long-term management agreement.

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SEC's struggle with rules for start-up fundraising troubles some angel investors

The federal JOBS Act aimed at opening the door for entrepreneurs to reach out to crowds of potential investors on the internet appears, ironically, to be hung up at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on the issue of tighter restrictions on entrepreneurs who seek more sophisticated investors.

 

In fact, angel-investor leaders are concerned that the SEC's deliberations may produce rules that make it harder for entrepreneurs to raise money from those wealthier individuals, referred to as "accredited" investors. 

 

Liz Marchi
Liz Marchi

The reason is that Congress decided that entrepreneurs would have to validate investor accreditation, rather than being able to take the word of investors that they were "accredited," as has been the case until now. But the lawmakers left it to the SEC to figure out how to impose rules for such "validation."

 

"I don't think anyone in Congress was thinking about the actual impact the change would have on accredited-investor rules," said Liz Marchi, whose Frontier Angel Fund, Montana's first angel fund, has become one of the nation's most successful angel-investor groups. "That's why I think you see basically nothing being done at the SEC."

 

The legislation, officially the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, was passed by Congress in April and was designed to be a job creator by making it easier for entrepreneurs to raise capital and thus launch companies and create jobs. The first part of the bill would ease raising start-up capital through "crowdfunding" on the Internet and the second part to eliminate the prohibition against advertising and soliciting traditional "accredited" investors.

 

The SEC was given until yearend to determine the rules that would govern operation of crowd-funding efforts. But the portion dealing with accredited investors called for the SEC to figure out by July 4 how to implement rules to eliminate the prohibition against general solicitation and advertising in securities offerings.

 

The regulatory body missed that deadline but SEC chairman Mary Shapiro told Congress the agency would have the rules in place by end of summer. That target has now become year end, and the betting is that it'll be sometime in the new year before the rules are put forth.

 

The Angel Capital Association and angel investors like Seattle's Dan Rosen, who are closely involved in following the SEC deliberations and seeking to influence them, are hoping to get final SEC rules simple enough that entrepreneurs "don't have to jump through enormous hoops to prove investor accreditation."

 

The phrase angel leaders are using to indicate what's needed for those entrepreneurs seeking accredited investors is "safe harbor," meaning a safeguard for entrepreneurs that they have actually done some due diligence on the investors.

 

Rosen, a leader of Seattle's Alliance of Angels, says "we've been working with the SEC to come up with a compromise that will ensure there is a safe harbor. But if they come out with a rule that is not acceptable, we will go back to Congress and seek changes there."

 

What's causing much of the teeth-gnashing for entrepreneurs and those like ACA and Rosen looking out for their interests is the apparent difficulty the SEC is having figuring out just what are the "reasonable steps," that will be required of entrepreneurs.

 

The irony of, in essence, tightening the screws on entrepreneurs seeking funds from qualified investors is that those entrepreneurs, rather than the ones seeking limited amounts of money from crowds of small investors, are the ones most likely to be job creators.

 

Bill Payne, viewed by many as the dean of angel investors and a member of Marchi's Kalispell-based Frontier Angels, is critical of how Congress packaged the JOBS Act.

 

"The legislation does not appear to have been well thought-out and seems to be our Congress simply finding something upon which they could agree," said Payne, who was Entrepreneur in Residence at the Kauffman Foundation and was named angel investor of the year in both the U.S. and New Zealand.

 

In fact, the JOBS Act brought the best example of bipartisan support evidenced by Congress in the past four years.

 

"Congress was motivated on this legislation because the lawmakers finally figured out that entrepreneurs are at the heart of this country's future and there were few tools by which Congress could feel like it was playing a role in the country's economic future," said Marchi.

 

Marchi's angel fund has been proving recently that angel investing can be profitable for the angels as well as important for jobs and the economy.

 

Two of the fund's investments, Coeur d'Alene-based Pacinian, a maker of wafer-thin keyboards, and Bozeman-based LigoCyte Pharmateuticals Inc., were acquired by major companies in the past few months. Frontier had substantial stakes in both and thus got substantial rewards.

 

Pacinian, which represented 10 percent of Frontier's total fund, was sold to Silicon Valley tech firm Synaptics this summer for an initial $15 million plus a substantial additional amount in the future based on various factors.

 

And a substantial bridge-round investment Frontier made about four years ago in LigoCyte Pharmateuticals Inc. paid off big last month with the announcement that Japan's Takeda Pharmaceuticals' wholly-owned U. S. subsidiary was buying the Montana vaccine maker. The agreement provided for an upfront payment of $60 million and "future contingent considerations" for LigoCyte, whose lead product, a vaccine to prevent norovirus gastroenteritis, is in clinical development.

 

Marchi declined to discuss specifics of Frontier's multiples from the two sales. But she noted that the two exits will have returned the original investment capital to her members, "and perhaps even some profit. So every one of our other 10 investments can produce profits."

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Clean-energy angel leader sees greater challenges ahead for cleantech investing

As the California Clean Energy Angel Fund that she launched five years ago winds down, Susan Preston's analysis of the opportunity to create a second "cleantech" fund has guided her to conclude "the bloom is off the rose of clean-energy investing."

 

"We have done a great deal of analysis into raising a second fund, and unfortunately, market timing is quite bad," said Preston, the former Seattle attorney who formed the first-of-its-kind angel fund for seed and start-up stage clean energy companies in August of 2007 and became its general partner. "The public and private markets are down on clean energy and the venture model itself is being questioned."

sue preston
Susan Preston CalCEF 

Byron McCann, co-chairman of the Northwest Energy Angels, agrees with Preston's assessment to the extent that "there isn't the excitement in the market that there was. All the fervor and bluster have faded to the point where we do deals that make sense on their own."

 

But McCann, whose angel group focuses on young "cleantech" companies in the Pacific Northwest, disagrees to the extent that he says he has seen "a robust deal flow, increased membership and angels interested in the clean-tech space."

Byron McCann
Byron McCann
Energy Angels 

In fact, his angel group, formed in 2006, had its best first half this year, by July investing more than $1 million in six companies, with the investments focused on energy efficiency, green-building technology and biomass power

 

Preston and McCann will be together on a panel Friday in Seattle at the Northwest Energy Angels Leadership Breakfast, where the topic of discussion will be Portland author Ron Pernick's new book, "Clean Tech Nation."

 

Pernick indicated his sense that "without a concerted energy policy, pieces of the energy puzzle may be in trouble," but added "states and cities are pushing for" clean-energy initiatives.

 

Pernick, Preston and McCann all agreed, in separate telephone conversations, that the erosion of venture-capital interest in clean-tech investments this year has brought challenges to the angel side of investing in the sector. Statistics indicate that venture funding in the clean-tech sector is off about 30 percent this year.

 

"Venture's turn off means venture funding no longer represents second-round financing for young companies, and IPOs are not likely, so that limits the exits and that limits the interest," Pernick said.

 

"Venture interest is down, but hasn't disappeared," said McCann. "A venture investment usually takes more money than investors anticipated and that's even more of a challenge in clean tech, which takes more money and more time, making it more complicated than what a lot of us are used to."

 

"So it's a challenge for angels, who have to decide what kind of a deal is this? Am I bridging to a venture round or is this an angel deal where we're going to grow the company," McCann said.

 

Preston, in her typically direct fashion, said "a lot of the cleantech companies were walking dead and VC's kept putting money into the walking dead. We all have these walking dead or zombies that we keep piling money into looking for some turnaround and instead the outcome is a turnoff."

 

Early this year, I had Preston keynote a gathering at the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership in Palm Desert and she was bullish about the sector and about the prospects for a new fund.

 

But what she found in the months that followed was the erosion of venture-capital interest and waning interest on the part of major institutional investors.

 

"All the individual investors wanted to do another fund and we had positive feedback from all the limited partners," Preston explained. "But the institutional investors were going to funds focused on later-stage investing and fewer were looking at cleantech."

 

I asked her if there was any cleantech area for which she was still bullish and she said "I see a lot of opportunity in energy efficiency," noting that one company in which her fund invested is Berkeley-based Alphabet Energy, which captures waste heat and turns it into energy.

 

Preston helped form the Seattle women's angel network, Seraph, in the late '90s and was a Kauffman Foundation entrepreneur in residence in Seattle. She was retained by the non-profit California Clean Energy Fund (CalCEF) six years ago to develop the model for a seed-stage clean energy fund.

 

She moved to the Bay Area to manage the $11 million boutique fund, in which the non-profit CalCEF was the key funding source, supported by a group of individual investors.

 

Preston, McCann and Pernick all agreed that the predictability that attracts investors requires a national energy policy.

 

"This country has a choice to make relating to energy and right now clean-energy has been villanized by partisan politics," said Pernick. "All energy industries from oil, coal and nuclear to renewable and clean require government support, both regulatory and financial."

 

McCann scored "the vaguery of energy policies" and Preston suggested that "what would really help is a clean-energy act," noting that "regulation is essential in our industry." But she added, "My hope of federal legislation is very low."

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Seattle's Irish-banker trio reflects on what happened to industry, and risks emerging

They're not a band of brothers because, while the Seattle area's three long-respected senior Irish bankers are friends, they are also competitors. But Dineen, Fahey and Patrick, all first named Patrick, are a breed of bankers who have always gauged success by how they did business, rather than how much business they did. As Scott Jarvis, director of the banking-oversight state Department of Financial Institutions, put it: "If we had more folks in the industry like them, we would have less to talk about when it comes to troubled institutions." Reflecting on what happened in their industry as real-estate lending activities began to unravel five years ago and climaxed with the crash that occurred four years ago next month, they collectively shake their heads. The three recall thinking, as they watched the sub-prime mortgage fiasco heating up from their respective vantage points, that "something was really wrong. All agree that, as the banking industry and the economy recover, they have concern that what Patrick Patrick points to as "the fatal inclination that you have to grow," coupled with greed, could lead to history repeating itself. Pat Fahey and Patrick, both now 70, were in retirement at that time after careers building successful banks and turning around troubled ones while Pat Dineen, 71, was a couple of years into the successful launch of Puget Sound Bank, where he was chairman, following his retirement as U.S. Bank's president for Washington. But those memories of retirement are now fading for both Fahey and Patrick as they are immersed in troubled-bank turnaround efforts, Patrick presiding as president and CEO over the comeback of Seattle Bank, where he has brought a $50 million local-investor capital infusion, and Fahey as CEO of First Sound Bank. Both Patrick and Fahey, called from retirement in 2008 as the crisis hit home, found frustration in their first comeback involvements. Patrick took the president/CEO role at deeply troubled Towne Bank in Mesa, AZ, and sank a lot of his own money into the project, only to find it was too far gone to save. And Fahey, then a board member of Frontier Bank in Everett, was pressed by its board as the bank's bad-loan portfolio swelled to oversee the effort to turn it around. But ineptitude (not his words) on the part of regulators scuttled what would have been a successful private-equity capital infusion. Fahey and Dineen were both key statewide executives of Spokane-based Old National Bank before it was acquired by U.S. Bank in the late 1980s. And after his retirement from U.S. Bank, Dineen was succeeded by still another Irishman, Ken Kirkpatrick, who had spent his entire career with the bank. Fahey and Dineen offered some surprisingly candid observations that the aggressive lending of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and basically pressure from certain members of Congress on the two government-sponsored enterprises whose job it was to own or guarantee mortgage obligations, were key parts of the problem. "I think it's fair to say that political and Congressional pressure certainly 'encouraged' Fannie and Freddie to fuel the flood of unconscionable loans that were securitized and sold into the secondary markets, causing further fueling of the 'housing bubble,'" Fahey said. "I have seen video of President Bush and Senator McCain calling for a reigning-in of Fannie and Freddie, and then-Chairman Barney Frank of the House Committee on Financial Services rejecting that notion, asserting that they were doing a fine job," he added. Dineen's view from afar at the time was that "Fannie and Freddie spent an inordinate amount of time lobbying congress. They were in the big time themselves while common sense lenders like Wells Fargo and others trying to slow the growth of Fannie and Freddie, were thwarted by Congress and by the two financial entities who had no interest in slowing down." Patrick also suggested that the seizure of ill-fated Washington Mutual in September of 2008 and is fire sale to JPMorgan Chase were the result of the FDIC deciding to "make an example of someone." "Needless to say they (WAMU) had more than their share of problems and issues - but scapegoats were needed as the 'face' of the problems," Patrick added. " Unfortunately Lehman and WAMU had their photos taken for the necessary posters." Patrick has been doing turnarounds for almost 30 years, starting with Seattle-based Prudential Savings during the savings & Loan crisis of the early '80s, then Seattle's Metropolitan Savings in 1990. As far as concerns about "could it happen again," Patrick suggests that "not only could it happen again, but it's happening now in spades, with pricing again irrational in terms of institutions making term loans at rates that are inappropriate and too much is being lent against some projects, especially multi-family." "That market is almost out of control, from my perspective," Patrick adds. "One thing is for sure: de ja vu must be exciting for some." Fahey agrees, saying "the raging boom in apartment construction and lending may well be a looming problem." "Added to that is the burden of over-reactive legislation and regulation that will very likely stifle lending that could and should be done, as well as cause increased costs that will be passed on to borrowers and consumers of financial services," Fahey adds. "Aggressive banks are looking for growth opportunities and there is only so much real growth potential out there,"Dineen said. "Growing strictly by taking business from your competitors generally indicates that you are doing something a little more aggressive." "Bankers and lenders have short-term memories," Dineen chuckled.
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Proposed facility in old K2 Vashon Island plant could be national model for towns

Richard Sontgerath is hoping to parlay his years as a developer specializing in older and historic buildings into a sprawling non-profit health and wellness facility on Vashon Island that he thinks could become a national model for smaller communities. But first he needs $40 million. Sontgerath has the background, enthusiasm and the vision to bring about K2COMMONS, which he touts as a multi-faceted community center that would occupy the 160,000-square-foot facility that was once the K2 ski-manufacturing plant. What he needs is "a $1 million baby" to provide the rest of the $2 million necessary to fund the two-year runway he figures will be required to raise the total of $40 million to make the project a reality. The "reality" of Sontgerath's dream would be "a Wellness Center, including many of the activities that increase wellness in a community," in the old facility that the ski manufacturer abandoned five years ago to move its operations off the island. Sontgerath, 62, and his then-partner Truman O'Brien (now a member of the 501C3 board) originally had a purchase-and-sale agreement with the K2 owners when they began putting their K2COMMONS plan together about five years ago as a for-profit entity. But that agreement expired almost four years ago and they've operated in the facility since then without an agreement. Songerath is hopeful he can convince the firm to donate the building and its18-acre site, which K2 has been unable to sell or lease, to what has become a non-profit ownership that will operate in much the manner of a public development authority. Who will want to put money into the project? Sontgerath is convinced that "social investors" will be attracted and suggests "if you look at the list of foundations, as in the PSBJ Book of Lists, there may be only one or two of the top 25 who would not be candidates for a pitch." "K2COMMONS will raise the quality of life for an entire community and the list of foundation descriptions, you see health, wellness, community building, at-risk youth, families, nonprofits, arts and environment over and over," he adds. Two of Sontgerath's board members have put up part of the initial $1 million. At first, the plan drew a mix of support and opposition from residents of Vashon, an island about the size of Manhattan that's reachable only by boat, a 22-minute ferry ride from Seattle. Some of the island's 10,000 residents viewed Sontgerath's dream as a benefit in terms of possible job creation while others feared it would take jobs away from Vashon's business district. But converting the ownership from private to non-profit reduced many of the community concerns, Sontgerath says. Plus K2 had the property rezoned from manufacturing to community business. Sontgerath believes that K2COMMONS can be a national model for community centers in many towns around the country where manufacturing buildings have been left abandoned as jobs and companies disappeared. And because of the considerations about a "model" that could be implemented elsewhere, Sontgerath says the project will utilize state-of-the-art energy and water systems to achieve a 'zero impact' community center. Sontgerath, president of Heritage Group Ltd., a real estate development firm which specializes in older- and historic-property restorations and urban revitalization and affordable housing projects, has the right background for the project. Since 1980, his firm has guided three major Seattle renovation projects in the Pioneer Square area, as well as doing conversion of historic buildings in Omaha, NE, and Des Moines, IA, into affordable housing As Sontgerath leans over the drawings where details of the vision take shape, he points to a possible 20-room boutique hotel (called oHTEL), a k2 museum, a suite of one-person offices, bowling center and café, a winery, business incubator, daycare center staffed by senior volunteers, tennis courts, conference center and a healthcare facility. Opting for the conservative side, he projects that the center would provide "at least 70 good-paying jobs" on the island, for which the loss of K2 and the loss of Seattle's Best Coffee roasting operations, closed after SBC's purchase by Starbucks, have been economic blows in recent years. He figures another 70 jobs would be created over the two years of construction and build-out. Other than the retail businesses in Vashon's town center, the island is home to more than a dozen small family farms, praised in a New York Times article earlier this year as "the kind that in most places were swallowed up by big agribusiness decades ago." The Times article called Vashon "a rural throwback," just fine to the many prominent residents, particularly artists, who make their homes there. But most residents need jobs. Sontgerath says design architect for K2COMMONS will be Bohlin Cywinski Jackson at the direction of Peter Bohlin, 2010 AIA Gold Medalist. He describes it as "a collaboration really of the original Architect, along with Peter Bohlin, and students from the UW School of the Built Environment." The detailed financials that Sontgerath has put together would create a modest enough square-foot cost that he says "we can create a rent-revenue ratio that basically guarantees success for any tenant." Meanwhile, K2COMMONS would provide "between $500,000 to $1,000,000 per year to be reinvested back into the community."
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