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Confederates' "dixie" transplant in Brazil is lost chapter in the saga of the Civil War

The least-known yet most compelling chapter of the Civil War saga may well be the story of the thousands of Confederates who refused to come back into the Union after 1865, opting instead to create a new "Dixie" in Brazil.

 

That portion of American history and the stories of the "Confederadoes" who carved out new colonies in Brazil "are lost in a linguistic tomb because Portuguese is a barrier to entry for those seeking to explore history," explains Gary Neeleman.

 

He and his wife, Rose, have completed the most thorough history of that story and turned it over to a Brazilian publisher. His hope is that "Stars and Bars Under the Southern Cross: Confederate Migration to Brazil" will soon be published in English as well and be available for U.S. distribution.

 

I write about Neeleman, 78, and his book because, as a 40-year friend and a colleague at United Press International for half of those years, I've been struck by his perpetual zeal to evangelize on what he describes as "the spiritual link between the United States and Brazil, the two giants of the Western Hemisphere."

 

"It's even called the United States of Brazil and the whole constitutional structure of the nation is intentionally patterned after the U.S.," says Neeleman of his love affair with two countries. "And the Brazilian people have always viewed themselves as friends of America."

 

It's a spiritual cause, second only to his Mormon faith, that began when he was UPI's manager in Brazil, a country where three of his seven children were born and where one of those Brazilian born, David, has started his third airline, Azul, the fastest-growing carrier in Brazil.

 

The fact he had learned Portuguese as a youthful Mormon missionary prompted UPI to pluck Neeleman from Salt Lake City in the early '60s and send him to Brazil. It was there, almost 50 years ago, that he met a blond-haired blue-eyed young Brazilian woman with a soft southern accent. She was on an LDS mission at the time.

 

"I was sure she was probably from Georgia, but asked her where in the South she was from," Neeleman recalls. "The southern accent came through even in Portuguese and when she told me she had never been to the South, I was blown away."

 

Through her he learned about the Confederates in Brazil, including the Fraternity of Confederate Descendants, whose annual picnic at Campo Cemetery, between the Confederate-established towns of Americano and Santa Barbara, draws up to 1,500 people. The cemetery, which has about 1,000 Confederates graves, has a 25-foot granite obelisk, emblazoned with a Confederate flag, that lists names from Ayees to Yancee. And Americana's city crest incorporates the Confederate battle flag.

 

Neeleman, whose consulting clients include media companies in Brazil, Sweden and Japan, as well as the Washington Post, will be attending next month's gathering of the Confederate descendants at the cemetery.

 

When he's not traveling with Rose on personal oir client business, he's doing Brazil' business as honorary counsel in Salt Lake City, as with his current effort helping the Utah Governor's office with a trade mission to Brazil.

 

After years of gathering historical data and personal recollections, Neeleman wrote his first book in 1985, a fictional account of the Brazilian Confederates titled "Farewell my South." 

 

"But more than 25 years since then, having more accumulated data than any living person, I realized that if something happened to me, all my research would go with me, so Rose and I said to each other: 'let's get it done,'" Neeleman said.

 

The book about the Confederates is one of three he has written about Brazil and its ties to the U.S. A soon-to-be-published one deals with the ties that allowed the U.S. and its allies to tap the Amazon rubber trees as the only rubber not controlled by Japan.

 

"If it hadn't been for Brazilian rubber in World War II, we would not have been able to wage the war and would have lost," Neeleman said.

 

He recalls the year he was asked to help arrange for former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, as well as aide Jody Powell to attend the Confederate picnic and how "they sat at the cemetery, sang Dixie and all three had tears streaming down their faces."

 

Neeleman explained to me, "Brazil's Emperor Dom Pedro II set out to convince the Confederates to move to his country in the hope they would help establish a cotton industry in Brazil, which the Southerners proceeded to do."

 

Dom Pedro had offered subsidized passage and land with rich, red soil like Georgia's for 22 cents an acre. He was intent on making Brazil a major player in world agriculture, and his investment paid off.

 

The Confederates employed their technology and established the cotton industry, but also brought a focus on education, with the major law school and the hospital where the Neelemans' children were born established by a grandson of one of the Confederates.

 

"Although Brazil was a Catholic country, and Dom Pedro was Catholic, he was also a Mason and the Confederates set up Masonic lodges under his direction," Neeleman noted. "They thus legitimized the Masonic movement in Brazil."

 

As Neeleman wrote in the prologue to his book, "The young emperor correctly reasoned that these talented, but shattered people could rise again in a new land - his land - and while doing so, provide Brazil with much-needed technology and cultural development."

 

"The results of his efforts produced the only reverse migration in American history, and established a spiritual link between the two young hemispheric giants that only a very few today know exists."

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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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For futurist Christopher Kent, the future isn't tomorrow, but maybe decades out

Although he grew up in a household in which his newspaper-editor father kept the focus on current and past events, Christopher Kent has built a career looking ahead at events that could happen. He's a futurist, meaning he peers sometimes decades into tomorrow to advise clients on things that might occur and how they could possibly affect the outcome of those events. Kent, 42, who was born in Olympia and spent some of his early years in Yakima where his father was the editor of the daily newspaper for a time, is one of a group of seven friends who formed the Washington, DC based Foresight Alliance in 2009 after being downsized at about the same time a year earlier. They are among an estimated 100 or so professional futurists around the Beltway and about 2,000 to 4,000 around the world. Because when people find out he is a futurist they usually want to ask about a specific event or outcome, like who'll win the presidential election in November or what the market will do next week, Kent is quick to make it clear that he doesn't predict the future. "While we don't predict the future," says Kent, a graduate of Marquette University who did graduate studies in Toronto. "We help clients understand the range of futures they face and what they can do to achieve the most beneficial and successful future." But sometimes clients may not want to look into the future, as when he had a client in the housing business near the beginning of the economic crisis. "We said we need to talk about the housing bubble and they told us they didn't want to have that in any discussion or planning." "Some clients are just superstitious that if they talk about something, it might happen, so they don't want to discuss it," Kent says. "So if we know there's something the client doesn't want to deal with, we try to find ways to circle back to the topic." "For too many people, the future is the next quarter," says Kent, "but we try to force our clients to look out five to 10 years and present them with four or five alternative scenarios. That forces you to look past the trees to the forest." Kent says that when people learn he is a futurist, they usually want to know the outcome of something specific, like an election. Adding "that's not what the future is; there is no single outcome to foresee." An example of how far ahead Kent and his cohorts can be called upon to explore the possible futures was the Food 2040 in-depth look at the future of agriculture, food and consumers in East Asia, using Japan's emerging economy as an indicator for emerging economies. He sent me an e-mail a few weeks ago to see if I was interested in that recent Foresight Alliance project, which stirred my curiosity because of possible implications for the agriculture industry and economy of this country. Food 2040 was described as "an in-depth look at the future of agriculture, food, and consumers in East Asia, using Japan's mature economy as an indicator for the emerging economies of East Asia, especially China." Results of Foresight Alliance's year-long study under the sponsorship of the U.S. Grains Council were presented to the Japan Business Foundation, offering what Kent emphasized were insights "not meant as predictions, but rather as plausible futures. They were designed to help stakeholders uncover new opportunities for food and agriculture." Although the findings related to and were presented in Japan, they offered some interesting information of potential value to agricultural interests and consumer businesses in this country. Two I found particularly interesting. One, under the heading "Whatever China Wants," suggested that by 2040, Chinese preferences will heavily shape the global food and agriculture market. The other, headlined "Asia Without Kitchens," could well have relevance to this country as well. The report suggested that in 2040 "more than 70 percent of food expenditures in Japan could be for food prepared outside the home." "Consumers will rely on trusted brands, stores, and food-service outlets for most of their food, a majority of which will be processed or pre-prepared," the report noted. "This trend will spread across other parts of urban East Asia as well, especially the cities in China, Taiwan, and South Korea." Kent, who presented key parts of the report, emphasized the trend will be toward pre-prepared foods, not fast food. "It will be fast on convenience, not fast preparation." I was also interested in whether their look at the food future took into account the apparently growing global backlash on genetic alteration of food, but Kent said their research shows that, in a number of countries, the concern is diminishing. "Our research is showing that the case is starting to be made that none of the doom and gloom collapse of genetically modified (GM) foods has come about, and the next generation of GM crops is starting to have traits that are beneficial to consumers." As a one-time political writer and ever-since political watcher, I couldn't help but go back to politics and possibly spur him to predict the outcome of this year's elections. "Who might win the White House in November is not our thing," he replied. "But the political feeling and will of the country reflected in a election are our thing in looking at the future because who controls the country is important long term."
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A business organization focused on 'public policy that transcends partisan politics'

David Giuliani, the Seattle-area entrepreneur who launched two companies that became new-innovation success stories, has co-founded a statewide business organization named Washington Business Alliance that he hopes can help bring a new innovation to the way government makes decisions. It might be said that Giuliani, who launched and built Optiva and Clarisonic into hugely successful companies that revolutionized teeth cleaning and skin cleansing, has set his sights on building a business organization that would cleanse government of the need for ideology in its decision-making. Basically, his Washington Business Alliance is focused on bringing "a reasoned, collaborative approach to public policy that transcends partisan politics." Optiva, of course, was the maker of SoniCare, the first electronic toothbrush. After Giuliani guided Optiva into the hands of Philips Electronics, he created Pacific Bioscience Laboratories and produced the first electronic skin-cleansing device, Clarisonic, and sold it last fall to cosmetics giant L'Oréal USA. Giuliani stayed on as Clarisonic CEO, though he made clear in an interview that he will be stepping down from that role this fall to devote full-time attention to the task of chairing Washington Business Alliance, which he co-founded last year with Howard Behar. Behar's credentials are about as impressive as Giuliani's. He spent the last 21 years with Starbucks, which included serving as President of North America and as founding president of Starbucks International. Giuliani says the organization, which is seeking business members rather than individuals and has a dues structure ranging from $500 to $15,000 per year, is "committed to developing effective solutions that are not constrained by political expediency or ideology, with an emphasis on data-based solutions for long-term results." That phrase, "not constrained by political expediency or ideology," is a stop-and-reread phrase because what has struck me about the organization, and the leadership composed of successful entrepreneurs, is that it is truly seeking to look past the political to arrive at solutions in a process beyond the ideological spectrum. It seems to me that for business people who wish to depart from the process of having to first vet ideas by placing them on the ideological spectrum before we can discuss them, that focus alone merits a conversation and moves the organization's goal from the Quixotic to the possible. And Giuliani and Behar have attracted other business leaders to their leadership ranks, including Norm Levy, who has served as corporate strategy counsel for almost three decades to companies like Starbucks, Boeing and John Fluke Manufacturing, and long-time Boeing executive Debbie Gavin. With a background as financial vice president of several Boeing units, Gavin will be the association's treasurer. "The idea isn't for business to disengage from government, but to engage differently," says Roz Solomon, who was plucked from the legal consulting business with a background that includes having been an administrative law judge for Washington State, to be executive director of the organization. "Our goal is to ferret out those things that government is doing well and reinforce them," Solomon adds. "There are a lot of parts of government that are intractable, but there are also a lot that aren't." Giuliani, 66, who was Ernst & Young's manufacturing Entrepreneur of the Year nationally in 1997, explains "we're focusing on a non-political methodology, seeking to attract business people who realize that solutions to problems don't necessarily happen through political means." I asked Giuliani and Solomon during an interview whether seeking members for a non-political organization at a time of the political intensity of an election year was really a good decision. "It's important to use the political cycle as an opportunity," Giuliani replied. "There are a lot of people who are writing checks for candidates and asking themselves 'should I really be writing this check? Then why is it so dissatisfying?'" "The election process tends to intensify the frustration people feel about politics, causing many to wonder - what can I do to fix it?" Giuliani added. "There are likely to be a lot opportunities for post-election messaging for Washington Business Alliance that will resonate with the voters." And while the focus of the new organization is the state races for now, Giuliani notes that there's what he describes as "a national movement to create this type of organization in other states," which in the future could lead to initiatives relating to influence on decision making at the national level. Giuliani says his group has already had a lot of interaction with the Oregon Business Association, a group, similar in focus that has been in existence for several years. "There are a lot of people dissatisfied with what they view as a dysfunctional, polarized system," Solomon added. "It's people left with those sorts of questions about politics that we want to engage for the future."
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Key expansion steps planned by Social Venture Partners this year

Social Venture Partners (SVP), the Seattle-based organization that describes itself as the world's largest network of engaged philanthropists, approaches its 15th anniversary with a couple of major initiatives about to unfold. One will extend the organization's international footprint and the other will enhance its impact nationally. 

 

First is an expansion into India next fall and second is creation of a "mezzanine fund" that will offer more philanthropic cooperation among member cities, allowing them to function much the way angel investors do in syndicating deals. Beneficiaries of that fund will be philanthropic organizations "with great models" who will be able to expand their reach into multiple cities.

 
 

Paul Shoemaker, who has guided SVP since 1998 when founder Paul Brainard convinced him to leave his position at Microsoft as group manager for worldwide operations to become SVP's first president, says the organization is coming off its best year for new members since its expansion year of 2000.

 

Shoemaker, now referred to on his business card and SVP website simply as Executive Connector, might suggest that the initiatives to be undertaken this year could expand the numbers dramatically.

 

The move into India, which will launch in Bangalore later this year, is driven both by the fact that "there are some basic forms of philanthropy there already" as well as by the large number of citizens from India who are drawn to the high-tech companies located in the Seattle area. Many could be attracted to SVP membership by the India initiative.

 

"There are so many connections between India and Seattle," Shoemaker observed. "And we're confident we've found the leaders there to make us confident of success, even if SVP will look different than it does here.

 

"It will undoubtedly be a different monetary level for members," he said, "and the social system in India is different but we'll bring the same core principles."

 

With respect to SVP's creation of its mezzanine fund, it will operate somewhat like syndication so that SVP cities into which a non-profit would expand will participate in the financial and personal support for that non-profit.

 

"What we are creating is a fund from cities across the system evaluating the strongest local grantees that have the interest and the best opportunity to expand into multiple cities," says Shoemaker. He explained it as "helping nonprofits with great models replicate and reach next level funding opportunities."

 

"They might now be operating in one or two cities and want to grow into three or five cities," he said.

 

The applicants for support from the mezzanine fund are currently being evaluated and those selected as grantees for the new program will be announced in the next month or so, Shoemaker said.

 

Shoemaker, who was named last August as one of the "Top 50 Most Influential People in the Non-Profit Sector" by The NonProfit Times, recalls that expansion into other cities helped spur the initial growth to what is now about 2,100 members around the country, plus Canada and Japan.

 

It was in 2000 that SVP, then only beginning to expand beyond Seattle, had its first surge of young partners. Many of them were successful techies, answering Brainard's and Shoemaker's call to get involved in a new model for philanthropic focus on creating a better non-profit sector.

 

Each agreed to donate $5,000 a year to SVP and become personally involved with one or more non-profits. The amount is now $6,000 a year.

 

The first cities into which SVP expanded were Phoenix, Vancouver and Dallas. Since then, the organization has expanded only into cities that sought to become SVP locations, but that is another thing that's changing this year.

 

"Up to this point we've been reactive, waiting until someone from a community contacted us to express interest in forming a group," Shoemaker said. "Now we're actively pursuing cities where we should be represented and most likely locations this year, in addition to Bangalore, are Austin and Raleigh/Durham."

 

There are currently 25 venture-partner cities in which SVP operates in the U.S., Canada and Japan. As of last January, the SVP network had contributed nearly $41 million in grant investments to 500 nonprofit organizations and provided tens of thousands of volunteer hours in service and counsel.

 

One of the more interesting developments in the evolution of SVP is the number of partners forsaking the private sector and stepping into leadership roles in the social and public sectors. In a large sense they are following the model established by founder and desktop publishing creator Paul Brainard and Shoemaker himself.

 

They include:

 

-- Lisa Chin, a former Amazon executive who stepped out of the private sector to become the first executive director of Year Up Seattle - helping urban young adults reach their full professional potential.

 

--Tim Schottman, who two years ago left behind a 17-year career guiding Starbucks international development to become chief global officer at Sightlife, building a network of eye banks to support corneal transplants with the lofty goal of eliminating blindness for 10 million people in the developing world.

 

--Peter Bladin, formerly of Microsoft, who headed up Grameen Foundation's technology Center for 10 years.

 

Shoemaker says "this is definitely a trend we are fostering, hopefully leading it, because it is significant for bringing people with key organization-building skills from the private sector into the non-profit world."

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Demise of redevelopment agencies looms in the state of big challenges

There's nothing that could make residents of places like Washington, Oregon or Montana feel better about how their states are being run than to be plunked down for a few weeks in California and get an amusing and bemusing look at the dysfunctional workings of the nation's most populous state.

  

Everything about California is big, and that includes the massive budget deficit that has been the focus of governor-again Jerry Brown since he was sworn in a year ago as the literal political-comeback kid.

  

Now comes what may be the biggest challenge ever faced by local governments and economic-development entities in California. More than 400 redevelopment organizations around the Golden State are scheduled to go out of existence on Feb. 1 and some of their financial obligations will be absorbed into the general funds of local governments in those areas where the EDAs now exist.

  

Part of the predicted fallout will be that states like the aforementioned Northwest ones will be cranking up their California recruitment efforts looking to woo businesses away from a place where they don't seem to be wanted.

  

That would be an unfortunate misimpression about California because local communities and economic-development organizations across the state strive mightily to create jobs in their areas with innovative ideas and initiatives, despite the image the state policies have fostered.

  

Four of the largest redevelopment agencies in California are all in the job-hungry Coachella Valley. Those are La Quinta, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert - communities well known to Northwesterners who trek south to the desert each winter in search of sun.

  

Redevelopment agencies provide funding for road, sewer, lighting and affordable-housing projects across the state under a 65-year-old law that allowed a city or county to create a redevelopment area to address urban blight. RDAs receive related property-tax revenue increases, known as tax increments.

  

All this chaos came about because a legislature-approved plan conceived and proposed by Brown sought to coerce the RDAs to give up $1.7 billion in increased property-tax funds if they wanted to continue to exist. It was branded the "pay-ransom-or-die redevelopment system" by the California Redevelopment Association.

  

Part of the reason that the governor and legislature viewed the RDAs as a good place from which to divert revenue is that for all the good works done by the RDAs in creating opportunities for developers to invest in communities and transform downtrodden areas, examples of excess and abuse occurred.

  

To be sure, there have been blatant instances of excess on the part of some RDAs as eminent domain was sometimes used to seize private property that was then transferred to developers along with cash subsidies.

  

But even if sometimes developers seemed to get deals that smacked of favoritism,

many local officials and economic-development leaders would contend that the RDAs usually fulfilled their promise of revitalizing decaying communities and creating jobs.

  

Billions were invested over the decades to dramatically rebuild dilapidated downtowns, creating millions of jobs for Californians and hundreds of thousands of low-income housing units for growing numbers of homeless families.

  

Defenders of the value of redevelopment might logically suggest that killing RDAs is a little like saying examples of Medicare excess or fraud mean that Medicare should be abandoned.

 

During his first stint as California chief executive, Brown's mantra involved a focus on creating lower expectations for his state's citizens. In this new era of spending realities, he's being forced to impose lowered expectations rather than just urge their acceptance.

 

Part of his implementing lower expectations by fiat was to have local development entities settle for less and divert their funds to education, roads and fire departments as he sought to balance priorities while dealing with the $20 billion deficit.

 

The California Supreme Court, in a two-part decision, ruled late last year that the state had the right to kill the agencies. But it didn't have the constitutional right to condition their continued existence on their agreement to pay the state an annual fee based on their portion of property tax revenues.

 

So, unless there's an unlikely 11th-hour reprieve by the legislature, which even the governor's allies say he doesn't seem interested in achieving since it was the RDA organization that took him to court, the RDAs close up next week.

 

So what happens then? The real estate assets of the RDAs need to be sold off. But some obligations of longer-term nature that must be satisfied will become the obligation of city general funds.

 

That's likely to be the start of an extended period of financial uncertainty for cities and counties, as well as for the real estate market that will be flooded with several thousand commercial properties that will need to be sold at fire-sale prices.

 

George Skelton is a Los Angeles Times' political columnist who joined the newspaper the same year Brown was first elected in 1974 and thus has the unusual perspective of having covered both Jerry Browns.  

   

Skelton was a long-ago political-writing colleague at United Press International before he joined The Times so I emailed him last week to ask if we could visit about "the two Jerry Browns."

 

He followed up by writing a column on the subject following Brown's second State of the State address. Skelton recalled Brown's 1976 State of the State as "best remembered for one depressing, if prophetic, line: 'We are entering an era of limits.'

 

The state's current situation is clearly an immersion in an era of limits.

 

The now-73 year old Brown, during his 1974-82 tenure, was tagged as "Governor Moonbeam" for proposing that the state develop its own communications satellite.

 

Skelton says the old "Gov. Moonbeam" still exists. And Brown certainly proved that's true when, despite the financial travails of his state, he made it clear that reduced expectations don't apply to his unwavering support for a $100 billion bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

 

Brown summed it up with: "government should pursue ambitious ventures even during times of economic strife."

 

Local economic-development leaders might well shake their heads in frustration, agreeing with the premise of a state that needs to be "ambitious" in times like these, but not in pursuit of a bullet train.

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Nickels' likely entry will enliven race for open Secretary of State post

Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' likely decision to seek the Democratic nomination for Washington Secretary of State may represent a sobering reality to the three Democrats already announced and campaigning. But it's also a bit of cold water on the hopes of those who figured he'd seek to regain the city's top elected position next year from "the accidental mayor."

 

While Nickels has given himself until Valentine's Day to make up his mind about a race that he says he didn't really begin to contemplate until "over the Holidays," it was clear during a telephone interview that he's already thinking about what he would seek to accomplish in the office. The chances that he will decide not to run are remote.

 

"I think this office, where all businesses documents have to be filed, can be a place for someone to act as an ombudsman for small businesses all across the state," said Nickels, who would be seeking, along with the other Democrats, to be the first from their party to win the Secretary of State job in this state in 50 years.

 

The other Democrats include Kathleen Drew, a one-time State Senator who now works for Gov. Christine Gregoire and who is the only woman seeking the Democratic nomination. She has already received some important endorsements. Those include former King County executive Ron Sims, who recently returned from a stint in an Obama-Administration post, and King County Assessor Lloyd Hara, who is holding a fund-raiser for her next month.

 

The two Democratic legislators who have filed are Jim Kastama, a state senator from Puyallup who chairs the Economic Development, Trade and Innovation Committee (EDTI), and Rep. Zack Hudgins, a former employee of both Amazon and Microsoft.

 

The lone Republican in the race, and the first of any of the hopefuls to announce, is Kim Wyman, protégé of outgoing Secretary of State Sam Reed for a decade in the Thurston County assessor's office before being elected to replace him eight years ago when Reed decided to seek the state office.

 

Wyman notes that she has "already demonstrated the ability to perform the functions of the Secretary of State's position, like elections supervision and business filings, at the county level." She, of course, has the endorsement from Reed to replace him.

 

If the others of both parties hoping to succeed Reed were taken aback by the prospect of campaigning against Nickels, many Seattleites who were hoping he would seek to reclaim the mayor's job in 2013 were surprised and disappointed.

 

There was a sense on the part of business leaders and others that Nickels, who actually finished third in the 2009 primary, was merely supposed to be getting a signal from many who wished to send him a message about a perceived arrogance, not oust him from the job.

 

For those, who had no interest in having Mike McGinn as mayor but didn't care for businessman Joe Mallahan, it was an interesting lesson in not wasting your vote to send messages. So as McGinn's relations with the City Council, the governor and the business community have soured, many took to referring to him as "the accidental mayor" and were awaiting Nickels' effort to win back the office.

 

Nickels, 56, admitted in our telephone conversation that "in the back of my mind there is a sense of some unfinished business" for the job he held for two terms. "But it's time for me and for the city to move on."

 

Since being rejected by the voters, which Nickels describes as "a very humbling experience that gives you a different perspective on things," he has had a teaching fellowship at Harvard, served as a public delegate to the United Nations and traveled to the Ukraine to advise mayors there.

 

He describes those experiences as "two years of experimenting" to determine what he'd do next. Now, he says, the role of Secretary of State would be "a logical continuation" of his 35-year love affair with public service.

 

Wyman, who says she expects a number of other candidates to emerge before the filing period begins in June, has already visited 15 counties around the state and is "starting to build" a strong campaign team. She has so far raised about $25,000, noting that "as you get into races down the ballot, it's much harder to raise money."

 

Drew became the first Democrat in memory to be elected to her east King County seat in 1992, unseating eventual GOP gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi before losing to him four years later. She has since been involved in higher education at the UW Bothell campus, wrote the state's ethics law, worked closely with tribes and been involved in governmental reforms efforts.

 

Drew offers frankly: "I think I will have a lot of support from women."

 

The two Democratic legislators, Kastama and Hudgins, would have expected to draw from a traditional base of financial support for Democrats in a down-ballot contest that stands to draw less attention than the high-visibility race for the open gubernatorial seat, for president, U.S. Senate and congressional races.

 

Nickels, whose entry will change that fund-raising dynamic, addresses in advance what's likely to be a key political shot others take at him, saying "I'm not looking at this as a stepping stone to any other office."

 

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Pollard predicts "bright future" for Washington Wine industry as she departs top-executive role

As Robin Pollard steps down from her role as the key executive overseeing Washington's fast-growing wine industry, she can reflect on a five-year tenure during which the size and influence of the industry have grown dramatically. And because the growth of wine has come with little of the economic downturn experienced in other markets and other sectors, she describes the future as "very bright."

 

Part of that bright future will be an expanded focus on national and international visibility in 2012 as the Washington Wine Commission marks its 25th anniversary and the Taste Washington event, designed to create a national destination attraction, will become a two-day gathering in Seattle.

 

And the commission figures it will take three or four months to find a replacement for Pollard. 

 

As executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, a state agency whose operations are funded almost entirely by the industry itself, Pollard helped guide the organization to become what she describes as "a significant marketing source" for the $4-billion-plus industry. The marketing has become increasingly important as the number of wineries has grown from about 300 when she arrived in 2004 to more than 750, a number swelled by the emergence of numerous small, boutique wineries.

 

During her time working with the 12-member commission, a large part of the focus was on the nurturing of those boutique wineries. And apparently part of the outgrowth of that close involvement was the igniting of her desire to get back to her agricultural roots.

 

Pollard, an Iowa farm girl who got her master's degree in agriculture from the University of Missouri before beginning a 30-year career in state government with the international marketing division of that state's agriculture department, is focused now on finding some acreage to create her own vineyard.

 

That acreage will most likely be in the Yakima Valley or Wahluke area. And the kinds of grapes that most appeal to her? "I love bordeaux, merlot, cab and cabernet franc."

 

Pollard  brought a nearly 20-year career in various state-government positions, initially related to assisting small business, when she accepted what she described to me then as "my dream job" with the wine commission.

 

In addition to her small-business roles, starting in 1987 with oversight of the then-new Small Business Improvement Council, Pollard served in two positions with major state impact. First she was director of the state Tourism Department.

Then Pollard was assigned by state economic-development director Martha Choe to oversee proper execution of the contract the state entered into with Boeing following passage of a legislative package of tax benefits and workforce and infrastructure elements that sealed final assembly of the 7E7 in Washington state.

 

It's the kind of attention to detail that she had to bring to the Boeing-contract oversight that has Pollard expressing her only note of caution about the boutique wineries' future,

 

The concern relates to the passage of Initiative 1183, by which voters said the state must get out of the liquor business and let larger retailers carry hard-liquor on store shelves.

 

"I honestly don't know the impact, but there's only so much shelf space in retail outlets and the product of the smaller wineries is most likely to be where the risk is as shelf-space is created for hard liquor by trimming the amount of wine on store shelves," she said.

 

The wine-industry publication Wine Spectator touts the keys to success of Washington wines as "high quality and low price." That's a benefit in the global wine competition that Pollard points to in an interview in her final week on the job.

"We've proven that we can grow extremely good grapes and have a huge base of talented wine makers to turn out world class wines and do it at a competition-winning price point," she said. "We have the ability and the acreage to produce large volumes of wine at lower prices than competitors, whether it's producing an $8 bottle or a $150 bottle.

So Pollard sets out now on an entrepreneurial encore, seeking to become, if she can find the right piece of land, part of the fast-growing industry for which she helped provide direction over the past five years.  

 

  

 

 

Revenge wine
'Revenge' in a bottle
'

'Revenge' is sweet when it  

comes in a wine bottle

 

It might be called the occasion when Washington Wine Commission Executive Director Robin Pollard learned that the sweet taste of Revenge is actually fruity, like grapes, or more specifically like cabernet sauvignon grapes.

 

It's a story that began when members of Pollard's Wine Commission staff successfully bid on a ton of cabernet sauvignon grapes from the highly regarded Champoux Vineyards at a charitable auction in 2009.

 

"We thought it would be a fun team project," Pollard explained in an interview a coiple of days before her retirement from the position she had held for the past five years. "While we all had some knowledge about the wine industry, we wanted to understand all the decision points to being a winemaker to give us a fuller appreciation for all the challenges of being in the wine business."

 

"We had crushed the grapes and filled the barrels when we learned that Paul Champoux had been bitten by a mosquito in his vineyard and contracted West Nile Virus," Pollard said. "He was in critical condition for a time and almost died.

 

To celebrate the fact he did survive, Pollard explained, "and to pay homage to the Champoux family, we bottled the wine and created a "Revenge" label, complete with a dead mosquito.".

 

As the label reads: "'Revenge' is an homage to the Champoux family and to Paul's incredible recovery. Special thanks to Chris Camarda of Andrew Will Winery, who served as wine consultant on the project."

 

With only 45 cases produced and distributed among team members, bottles of the special production, complete with the dead mosquito, may prove to be a valuable item at future wine auctions.

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Clean-energy leader Sue Preston dismisses criticisms of loan-guarantee as 'political'

Susan Preston, whose image as a leader in clean-energy investment has grown in her years overseeing the nation's first angel fund for seed and start-up clean energy companies, has reason to look toward 2012 with optimism. And she dismisses the criticism of those who would deter federal efforts to spur such investments as "purely political."

 

Preston, general partner in the nearly four-year-old California Clean Energy Angel Fund (CalCEF), acknowledges the high-profile bankruptcy of solar-power start-up Solyndra may suggest improvements are needed in federal energy-loan guarantee programs..

 
 

"But you don't throw the baby out with the bath water just because some politicians are using the bankruptcy to make political hay," Preston said.

 

"Overall, the government will show a nice profit on the loan-guarantee program," she says, moving on during an interview to things she'd rather talk about, like the successes of CalCEF and the likelihood that she'll focus next year on raising a new clean-energy fund.

 

And she enthuses about the possible resurrection of a tax-break for start-up investors that she conceived and that was gathering support in Congress before the economy went flat.

  

That "political hay" that Preston calls "purely political" has been made over the last couple of months by Congressional Republicans over the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a Fremont, CA, solar-panel maker. It was treated  by the Obama Administration, including a visit by the President himself, as the poster child for investment in renewable energy.

  

Solyndra was the first beneficiary of the federal loan program and, as a company with new technology and support from a group of venture-capital firms, it seemed to be an ideal candidate for visibility.

  

Thus when the company went bankrupt this past September, defaulting on a $528 million federal loan, Republicans seized the opportunity to make it the poster child for what they viewed as excessive Obama enthusiasm for alternative energy.

  

 "The loan guarantee program from which Solyndra received money has a number of other companies in the program, the vast majority of which are involved with project financing of large, utility-scale facilities with 20 to 25 year power purchase agreements," Preston said.    

 

In fact. the U.S. Department of Energy web site indicates the federal agency has made $35 billion in loans and created almost 65,000 jobs as a result.  

  

"If you want to talk about wasted money, let's look at the billions and billions of dollars spent on defense technology which completely fails," she added.

  

Preston, while a partner in a major Seattle law firm, helped guide the launch of the nation's first women's angel group, Seraph Capital, in Seattle in the late '90s. And in a six-year stint as Entrepreneur-in-Residence for the entrepreneur-focused Kauffman Foundation, she became a widely recognized expert on angel financing, including authoring numerous articles, white papers and books on the topic.

  

It was that angel-financing expertise that resulted in her invitation in 2008 to guide the launch of the CalCEF Clean Energy Angel Fund, for which she proceeded to raise $11 million to invest in early-stage clean-energy companies. The angel fund was launched by the California Clean Energy Fund, a non-profit that hired Preston to create the angel fund and then became a limited partner in the for-profit CalCEF.

  

Preston is confident the political flap won't have a negative impact on either the CalCEF angel fund, or in a new fund she expects to begin raising money for early next year.

  

At this point there has been no official announcement on plans for the second fund, which she says will be "much bigger" than the current fund's $11 million, adding that while "we have not come to complete agreement on the name, it will likely be CalCEF Clean Energy Ventures."

   

Despite the financial challenges that have prevailed almost since CalCEF was launched, it has produced a positive return on investment with its four fundings, which averaged about $750,000, Preston said.   

 

Although Preston emphasizes that there are no geographic restrictions on investments by the CalCEF angel fund, "on a practical basis, and because of the strong prevalence of clean energy companies in the Bay Area, we have not made an investment outside this area."

 

But she notes that she and her partners "have been to several other places in California, and elsewhere in the country, to explore possible candidates for investmernt."

"Clean energy has seen a bounce back in the last 18 months and at a greater rate than some other technology sectors," Preston said, adding that "within clean energy, certain areas are performing better than others when you look at global indexes.  For instance, wind is down, but smart grid related technologies are performing reasonably well."

  

Asked what kind of energy startups are likely to generate the most interest over the next couple of years, Preston responded: "Energy efficiency, smart grid and storage are my bets."

  

"Grid storage will be an interesting area to watch because the problem with wind power is that the wind blows more at night while most of the needs are during the day," she said. "We are really in need of storage technology."

  

Preston is enthused that a proposal she put together about four years ago for an income tax credit for investors in start-up companies, an idea that drew bi-partisan support in both houses of Congress before the economic chaos shunted it aside, has seen a revival of interest in recent months.

  

The Access to Entrepreneurs Act (ACE) may move forward this coming year, she says, but it will have to be without her assistance because the first priority will be launching the new fund while continuing to oversee administration of the CalCEF fund.

  

"Our goal is to do well while we are doing good." Preston says.  "Our first priority is to make money for our LPs, but because we invest in clean energy, we get to do good at the same time."

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Once-obscure political race in Moses Lake takes on new import for area's economy

The political struggle in Moses Lake over the cost and management of its irrigation district is a microcosm of the conflict going on in cities, towns and taxing districts across the country between supporters of growth and progress, and those who seek to constrain government and contain spending

 

But because major companies have begun to focus attention on the area due to things like transportation access, cheap electric rates and low property costs, economic development opportunities are now on the minds of community leaders. Thus the obscure political contest has taken on new importance for the region's 45,000 residents.

 

The climax of the battle for the political affections of the owners of the 9,000 parcels of property in the Moses Lake Irrigation and Reclamation District has become, for the past couple of years, the ironically timed Christmas-season election for a seat on the district's three-member board.

 

The annual mid-December election had drawn little attention, despite the importance of the district's work in the clean-up of the 6,500-acre lake, until a year ago when two prominent local political types ran against each other to claim an open seat.

 

Ron Covey, 64, Moses Lake city councilman for 14 years, including six as mayor, sought to fill the seat to ensure continuation of the district's dredging and environmental clean-up, and the $1 per $1,000 property tax to fund the irrigation district's $1.5 million annual budget. Covey is also the current president of the Grant County Economic Development Council.

 

Mick Hansen, 71, a former Democratic state representative whose uncle and aunt were both state senators from the region, sought the board seat, arguing that the property-tax could be cut in half and questioned the importance of some of the clean-up projects.

 

The outcome of the race was important to the future of the district because if Covey won, as he did, barely, in a race where the approximately 11,000 votes cast represented a turnout about 10 times the norm, it would ensure a 2-1 majority supportive of current district funding and direction.

 

The election-night results gave Covey a 61-39 percent edge. But that majority had shrunk to 2 percent by the time absentee ballots, assumed to have been largely retirees wintering elsewhere or elderly residents, were counted.

 

A Hansen victory would have created a board majority focused on a hard look at both the board's direction and the operations of its full-time director, hired in 2007, and the staff.

Hansen is running again this year, challenging an incumbent board member.

 

The evidence of no love lost between Covey and Hansen was Columbia Basin Herald business reporter Lynne Lynch's quote of Covey during an appearance in last year's race, when he said he would not "cut the budget and gut the lake." He also suggested Hansen would bring "arrogant, ill-conceived good ole boy ideas."

 

The district's activities focus on the environmental challenges the lake has faced. More than 50,000 cubic yards of sediment accumulation annually have clogged channels on the lake, degraded water quality and led to excess plant growth, which district clean-up and dredging efforts have sought to counteract.

 

Now Moses Lake and surrounding Grant County have begun to attract economic-development attention from after almost half a century of struggling to survive and grow following the early '60s closure of Larson Air Force Base, which had been the justification for the community's existence.

 

And that increased attention has brought considerable focus on the lake itself as part of the appeal of the area to real and prospective new residents and businesses.

 

The new-found attention has included BMW, lured to Moses Lake by low-cost and sustainable power, to create a new plant in a joint venture with SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers where parts for the automaker's new high-tech electric car will be manufactured. Plus nearby Quincy has attracted datacenter developments, including Microsoft's new, fully modular center, as well as other like Yahoo and Sabey Corp.

 

Inexpensive power is a key lure. But former Washington Gov. Mike Lowry, who has both business and non-profit involvements in the Moses Lake area, sees "a lot of positive business factors at work" in the area,

 

"From foreign-trade zone, to all modes of transportation, and low electric rates, relatively low property costs, good workforce and good regulatory climate in the local government, there's real economy-development appeal at work there," Lowry said, adding that the lake itself is a vital aspect of the region's appeal.

 

Pat Jones, new executive director of the Port of Moses Lake, puts it this way: "The lake is an important part of the community at a lot of different levels."

 

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Mike Lowry, who created now-debated tech tax breaks, offers another side to debate

The tax breaks for high-tech companies that are now seen by some as depriving the state of millions of dollars at a time of dire budgetary challenges were a proud accomplishment of his administration, says former Gov. Mike Lowry, noting they were created to lure new business to Washington.

 

 "We were coming out of what was, at that time, the state's worst recession and we needed to attract industries that would produce good-paying jobs," Lowry recalled of the proposal he came up with and pressed through the 1994 Legislature.

 

 
 

The focus of the current criticism, and Lowry's comments during a recent interview, are what the critics refer to as "tax loopholes" and he calls "incentives" that have permitted high-tech companies to avoid paying state sales tax on new facilities, including equipment.

 

"We were absolutely correct to come up with policies to lure companies to the state that would create high-paying jobs that were basically the jobs of the future," Lowry said.

 

"We kept encountering companies that said they had looked at and then rejected this state as a place for new facilities," Lowry recalled. "The incentives allowed us to move into one of the most competitive positions among states."

 

One of the state's key competitors in the hunt for new high-teach companies was neighboring Oregon, which had and has no sales tax, and that put this state at a dramatic disadvantage.

 

Soon after enactment of the sales-tax exemption legislation, Washington State won a major victory when Taiwan Semiconductor announced it would be locating in Clark County rather than in Oregon. "The largest one-time capital investment ever in this state," Lowry said. Other wins were a Sharp Electronics facility and an Intel plant in southern Pierce County

 

A $132 million tax break for Microsoft, due primarily to its construction of data centers in Quincy in Grant Country, has raised some eyebrows among those viewing the state's list of the dollar impact of such tax preferences.

 

While he is convinced about the importance to the state of having created the sales-tax exemptions, he is equally convinced that they need to be reviewed periodically to ensure they are doing what was intended.

 

"Those tax breaks shouldn't just continue automatically," Lowry said. "Each piece of tax-incentive legislation needs to be looked at individually from time to time for possible sunset (termination). Each must be justified on the basis of expansion of jobs."

 

In fact, in the intervening period since Lowry's program in 1994, sales tax exemptions, and exemptions from the state's business & occupation tax have proliferated and been extended to logical industries like aerospace manufacturing, biotech and medical-device manufacturers.

 

Other also logical exemptions are for manufacturing in rural counties and manufacturers of timber and wood products, though some of the exemptions may cause more head-scratching, like fruit and vegetable processors, dairy and seafood processors and cold-storage warehouses.

 

The State Department of Revenue's most recent figures on the tax exemptions, for 2009, indicate 278,000 jobs were credited to the tax incentives, which cost the state $236 million, $109 million of which was claimed by high-tech firms while $80 million in reduced state and local tax receipts was for rural manufacturers.

 

Mike Fitzgerald, who was a key member of Lowry's team as director of Community, Trade and Economic Development and who has held held similar positions in three other states and may  be one of the nation's most experienced economic-development experts, reserves special praise for Lowry. Fitzgerald credits Lowry with really understanding the way the game had to be played to bring jobs to the state.

 

"He would bring his entire cabinet together and tell us that we were not to violate any environmental considerations, but otherwise we each had a role to play in working together to go after these companies," Fitzgerald recalled in a visit about a year ago. "Under Lowry, we recruited or were in competition for more big business than maybe under any other governor."

 

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Dineen's vineyards is back to roots, not entrepreneur encore, after banker career

The 80-acre vineyard and winery in the Yakima Valley where Patrick J. (Pat) Dineen focuses an increasing amount of his attention isn't an entrepreneurial encore for the retired bank executive so much as it's a return to his roots on the farm.

 

Dineen, who hasn't totally stepped aside from his 40-year banking career since he chairs the board of Bellevue-based Puget Sound Bank and is one of its original investors, grew up on a dairy farm in the Midwest. "I knew that when I retired I wanted to get back into farming," he says, admitting that the dirt called to him from time to time over the years.

 
 

This is harvest time in Wine Country and thus Dineen is spending many of his days this month at Dineen Vineyards, which sits on a hillside north of  Zillah, amid a cluster of Washington State's well-known wineries, with an impressive view looking west toward the mountains.

 

It's there that Dineen Vineyard's grapes, primarily cabernet, cabernet franc and sirah, are being harvested and winemakers from many of the 23 wineries that are his customers arrive to load up their grapes.

 

Dineen only produces about 300 cases a year for his own use, either under the Dineen Vineyards label or the Kamiakin label, a second label featuring a red blend, that came into being about five years ago. Most of the 190 tons of grapes are bought  by the other wineries.

 

One of those wineries buying his grapes is Sheridan Vineyards, in which Dineen invested in 2000 after being introduced to Sheridan's founder, Scott Greer. He soon ran across a rundown apple orchard nearby that he bought in 2002 and turned into Dineen Vineyards. TheSheridan winery is built on part of Dineen's acreage and is leased back to Greer.

 

The vineyards primarily produce the three major varietals, but a total of eight different varietals are grown, though Dineen is quick to make it clear that "the viticulture is my interest in growing the grapes rather than making the wine."

 

His ongoing process of learning about the grapes includes traveling to Europe each year to visit different grape-growing regions and says with satisfaction that "I get into prestigious wineries that I wouldn't be able to if I didn't have the winery."

 

Like a number of those involved with vineyards or wineries in Washington State, Dineen first looked for land in the Napa Valley in California, but found "it was more pricey than I wanted to get into."

 

Dineen produced his first wine under the Dineen Vineyards label in 2003, primarily for personal consumption, but about four years ago he got his commercial bond to permit him to market and sell his wine.

 

"That was primarily to promote the vineyard," he said. "My plan is not to get any bigger since I'm retired. We could get bigger but chances are we won't."

 

Dineen, discussing his decision to be in the group who put up money to launch Puget Sound Bank in 2005, says "I had a good career in banking, made good money, and wasn't looking to get back into the business. But I figured I could do this with a minimal amount of time and effort. It hasn't turned out that way."

 

Dineen says Puget Sound Bank, a $200 million, single-office bank, "has a strong balance sheet. We didn't get into problems because we avoided real estate and focused on commercial and industrialized loans."

 

Dineen started his banking career with Seafirst Bank after moving West following graduation from Marquette University and five years in the Air Force. He then joined Spokane-based Old National Bank, which was acquired by U.S. Bank, where Dineen eventually served as president for Washington before he retired.

 

Looking ahead at the industry, Dineen said "we're going to see a lot of branch closures in an era when people can do their banking from anywhere. They could care less today if your bank has a branch on the busiest corner in town."

 

He notes "there aren't many healthy banks changing hands these days because banks looking to sell find that their book value is pretty much what they're being offered today."

 

"A few years ago, selling prices for banks would have been twice book value or even better for an attractive bank," he added. "Until we get back there somehow, you're not going to see much movement among healthy banks."

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Crowd funding for start-up companies is an idea that concerns angel investors

A year ago Congress had to be talked out of doubling the amount of wealth required for individuals to invest in start-up companies. Now the lawmakers are considering the idea of removing basically all qualifications so that crowds of small investors might provide capital for entrepreneurial ventures.

 

What has stirred support among lawmakers and others for using the Internet and social media for crowd-fund investing is the challenge faced by many start-up companies to find funding in this struggling economy and the promise of the jobs such companies could create.

 

It was angel-investor groups who convinced Congress of the potential disaster for start-up companies in a provision that, for a time, was included in the so-called Dodd-Frank bill passed last year. The provision would have doubled the assets required for an investor to be "qualified."

 

It wasn't that difficult to make the obvious case to lawmakers to kill that section before a vote on the Dodd-Frank bill, since most lawmakers hadn't even been aware it was in the bill.

 

Now angel-group leaders are raising an alarm about the implications of the crowd-funding idea. But they may face a greater challenge because of the arguments of supporters, which include not just key lawmakers but the Obama Administration as well.

 

The proposal, which has already had a hearing in the House, is to allow exemption from SEC registration requirements for those trying to raise up to $5 million. As with a similar effort to tone down requirements for small public companies, the goal is to find new job-creation engines.

 

A high-visibility proponent of crowd-fund investing is an evangelical entrepreneur named Sherwood Neise of Miami, who told a Congressional subcommittee a couple of weeks ago that crowd funding could bring in as much as $500 million and lead to creation of 1.5 million new jobs over the next five years.

 
 

 

"What we are proposing is a jobs initiative that everyone should like since small businesses and entrepreneurs are the long-term engines of our economy," Neise said. "However, they need capital to grow and that has dried up since the 2008 financial meltdown."

 

Comments like that resonate with many, including the Obama Administration.

 

But not everyone likes his plan, specifically leaders of angel-investor groups, a number of whom I traded e-mails with to seek their thoughts. Angels have traditionally been the sources of capital for entrepreneur and start-up companies that need funding beyond what's called the "friends and family" initial source of money.

 

Bill Payne, viewed by many as the dean of angel investors, says "I find Neise's claims laughable," offering statistics that could cause pause if they reach the same ears as those who heard Neise's pitch.

 

Payne noted that Kauffman Foundation statistics suggest that about $100 billion from all sources, angels and VCs and friends and family, flows into start-up companies and they create 3 million new jobs a year.

 

"That computes to $33,333 per job," Payne said. "Now along comes Mr. Neise claiming that his idea would create jobs for $333 each. Are you kidding me?"

 

 


Payne, who has been an angel investor in a number of startups in the Northwest and elsewhere, added: "It's very simple from where I sit: I am not in favor of any investment vehicle that allows unaccredited investors to fund startup companies.  It is very high risk and the invested dollars are totally illiquid." 

 

Tom Simpson, who guided one of the Northwest's most successful venture-capital firms and now oversees a couple of angel-investor groups in Spokane, said it's important for "faster, cheaper and easier processes to attract investors to both young private and public companies."

 
 

 

But he said "any new regulations or processes to reduce the time and cost of raising money still need to provide prospective investors with sufficient product, market and management information, comprehensive financial data and specific risk factors to make an educated, informed investment decision."

 

Villette Nolon, chair of the Seattle-based women-angel group Seraphs and founder of the internet-based business Homesavvi.com, says that "while the intent of this idea is good, the outcomes would be disastrous."

 

"Legitimate businesses who would try this route would be extremely disappointed in the result, as truly sophisticated investors are highly unlikely to fund companies sight unseen, even at low amounts," she said. "That leaves only speculators who would be attracted by the idea of making a quick buck, and who could get very, very burned."

 

Gary Ritner, founder and heads the Seattle-based Puget Sound Venture Club, says the $10,000 proposed as maximum investment by a crowd-source investor "is too small" and the $5 million proposed maximum for the entrepreneurial startup "is too large, and not necessary."

 

But he added "we have to get capital flowing and, in concept, I like the idea of crowd funding."

 

Perhaps the major concern shared by angel investors and others is that a backlash could occur down the road if Congress hears of abuses and horror stories and decides crowd funding was a bad idea and things need to be made tighter to protect investors.

 

The concern is summed up by one who noted that "when the pendulum swings back, lawmakers always have it swing too far."

 

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Support grows for proposals to create jobs by easing some of investor protections

The mounting pressure on Congress and the Obama Administration to find some job-creating ideas to jumpstart the ailing economy is stirring growing interest in a couple of Congressional proposals that would lessen investor protections for the sake of allowing businesses more growth opportunities.

 

One proposal, already filed as a House bill by Rep. Ben Quayle, R-AZ, with the intent of accelerating the growth of younger companies, would suspend for most newly public companies what many view as a costly and troublesome provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

 

Quayle's proposal would allow a much greater number of public companies to opt out of Sarbanes Oxley Section 404, which requires public companies to disclose the scope and adequacy of their internal-controls structure. The measure would raise the current $75 million market-value threshold for reporting to $1 billion.

 

The other proposal would help entrepreneurial and start-up companies, many currently  hamstrung in their ability to attract growth capital, to reach large numbers of investors for limited amounts of money via the internet in what's being called crowd-fund investing.

 

The proposals have come to center stage only in the last couple of weeks. And each has attracted growing support from those who contend the measures are vital to the goal of job creation. And each is also starting to stir opposition from those who question the idea of setting aside shareholder and investor protections.

 

Each proposal merits an in-depth look and thus in this first of two columns we'll examine the discussions surrounding Quayle's bill, the support being gathered for it and the comments of those expressing concerns.

 

Next week's column will focus on the crowd-funding proposal, including a look at those backing it and the concern it is stirring from many angel-investor leaders, particularly those up and down the West Coast.

 

Quayle's bill would allow public companies with market valuations below $1 billion to opt out of Sarbanes-Oxley Section 404 for the first 10 years after going public. The original Sarbanes-Oxley Act was amended in last year's Dodd-Frank Wall Street Protection and Consumer Protection Act to create the under-$75 million exemption.

 

Quayle and supporters of his measure, including the entrepreneur-focused Kauffman Foundation, contend that the costs for complying with the requirements of this section of Sarbanes-Oxley can exceed $1 million for new companies and can cost them up to $20 million in loss of valuation.

 

Quayle's measure is close to a plan outlined by the Kauffman Foundation a few months ago as "a set of non-partisan ideas to jump-start the ailing U.S. economy and increase job creation by accelerating the growth of startups and young businesses."

 

Kauffman, the nation's largest non-profit foundation focused on entrepreneurs, noted that the role high-growth startups play is vital to assure U.S. economic strength.

 

"Virtually all of the growth in U.S. jobs has been driven by the formation of firms less than five years old, and these new firms have been disproportionately responsible for commercializing the cutting-edge innovations that characterize modern life," the Foundation said.

 

"I believe this bill is an important step as we  try to increase the number of companies that go public in the United States," said Robert Litan, Kauffman's vice president for research and policy. "The ability to raise capital in public markets will be essential as new companies create the jobs required to put Americans back to work."

 

One of the most pervasively visible proponents of both lowering the regulatory barriers for newly public companies and the proposal for crowd-fund investing is a Miami, FL, entrepreneur named Sherwood Neise, who has testified before Congress about both. He was co-founder of a company called Flavorx, which added flavors to medicine, that went public and was later sold.

 

In 2006, he was among those decrying what he called the "unintended consequences of Sarbanes-Oxley on small businesses," saying that meeting 404's requirements "ate up 14 percent of our net income."

 

But among those urging caution is former SEC Chief Accountant Lynn E. Turner, who said in an e-mail that contained the subject line "Short Memories:" "Clearly people have forgotten the hundreds of billions in dollars of losses investors suffered during the corporate financial reporting frauds, and the tens of thousands of jobs lost."

 

Neil McReynolds, a corporate-governance consultant in Seattle, said that while the original Sarbanes-Oxley requirements created some real cost and regulatory problems for smaller public companies, the changes brought about by the Dodd-Frank bill corrected some of those.

 

McReynolds, who has been a member of a number of boards of private companies and consulted with boards of public companies, said that while extending the exemption to $75 million cap companies, as Dodd-Frank did, made sense, "extending the exemption to $1 billion companies may be a bit of a stretch." He added that "there's still value in disclosure and internal controls."

 

Sharon Philpott, managing partner of national accounting firm BDO's Seattle practice, agreed, saying her firm supports the positions of the CFA Institute, Center for Quality Audit and the Council of Institutional Investors, who have all urged caution against further exemptions from Sarbanes-Oxley.

 

In the end, success or failure of expanding the exemption for internal controls may hinge on whether the pressure for jobs trumps the pressure to protect shareholders and investors.

 

 

 

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