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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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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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