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National squash event in Bellevue drew world's best

National squash event in Bellevue drew world's best

Bellevue's role as a growing center for the sport of squash was enhanced last weekend as the quest of the best players in the world for a share of the most lucrative 16-man squash tournament purse ever had the attention of the squash-world, but with unfortunately little local attention or support.

Frenchman Gregory Gaultier, currently World Number 1 in the sport, won the title and accompanying $25,000, defeating Egyptian Ali Farag in a tournament that added to the image of Shabana Khan as one of the sport's emerging star promoters. Her YSK Events put on the tournament.Shabana Khan

With $150,000 in prize money on the table, the PMI Bellevue Squash Classic was appropriately staged as a sort of coming-out party for the Boys & Girls Club Hidden Valley Field House just north of Downtown Bellevue.

When she put on the Men's World Squash Championship in late 2015, first time ever for the event on U.S. soil, Shabana charted new territory for prize money, which totaled $325,000 for the event that was held at Bellevue's Meydenbauer Center. That amount became the threshold going forward with the U.S. Open in Philadelphia next fall boasting a $350,000 purse.

I was struck by the fact that when you watch the speed, agility and athleticism of the top squash ccompetitor and reflect on the comparative talents needed for other racket sports, it's hard not to ask "why is tennis played everywhere and squash isn't?"

I posed that question to Shabana's older brother, Azam, four times a member of the U.S. Open team, and he said: "Tennis courts are everywhere and available to all while squash courts are in clubs and available only to the elite, but we intend to change that and it's one of Shabana's goals."

In fact, statistics on the sport indicate it is growing faster in this country than anywhere in the world, with the U.K. and Egypt following close behind.

For those on hand for the 2015 Men's World Championships, there was a bit of déjà vu since Gaultier defeated an Egyptian in that year's final to win his first World title after losing the in the final match three previous years.

Only a few in the inner circle of those helping Shabana with the event were aware that had it not been for the assist from Robert Greczanik, whom Asam Khan describes as "specializing in restoring injured athletes to full enhanced function," to help overcome an ankle injury that Gaultier feared would keep him out of the finals.

As an aside, Gaultier had turned to Greczanik, who runs Energetic Sports Lab in Bellevue, prior to the 2015 finals to address the fact he simply felt "all beat up with numerous injuries."

Squash players from around the world who were on hand for both events praised the Boys & Girls Club as far more appealing for players and fans, particularly for the interaction between them, than Meydenbauer, which incidentally had rejected her effort to hold this year's event there, telling her to look elsewhere.

And the community supporters of the Hidden Valley club must have been pleased to see its visibility on the global squash stage with thousands subscribing to the television coverage.

Players from 17 nations were on hand, but Shabana made it 18, using what's called a "wild card" for promoters of squash events, to let a young player from Connecticut compete to make sure the U.S. was represented.

Leading the as-yet small group of believers in what Shabana's squash initiatives are intended to mean for the Bellevue community's image and the opportunity she seeks to bring to the city's and region's young people was Dave Cutler. He is not only universally acclaimed as the key technical brain behind the Microsoft Windows NT and all the subsequent windows versions. A decade ago he was recognized as a National Medal of Technology and Innovation laureate, perhaps the most prestigious honor in the country for developers of new technology.

His support, and the fact that dozens, if not hundreds, of Microsofties who cross the street from the company's Redmond campus to play at the Pro Sports Club where Shabana, Asam and Latasha are instructors helped guide Microsoft into the Presenting sponsorship with Pro Sports as the Official sponsor.

Pacific Market International, a Seattle-based brand and product-marketing company with offices in seven cities around the world, has been a strong supporter of both this five-day event and of the 2015 Men's Championship as title sponsor.

Richard and Jackie Lange, Woodinville residents, stepped up as a family after Shabana created a national tournament for young squash players called the National Gold Tournament that attracted 175 young people from around the country to compete in groups broken down as under 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19. Shabana notes that 20 college coaches looked on for the older players' matches at the event held earlier this spring, also at the Boys & Girls Club.

The Langes, whose daughter, Kristin, played squash at Penn and was a three-time intercollegiate finalist, put up the money for five years of having the youth competition be "The Lange Showcase," sharing Shabana's vision of making squash available to young people of all ages and means.

Khan is the most famous last name in squash. Distant cousins Hasim and his son Sharif, and cousin Jahangir, dominated world squash for decades. 

Yusuf Khan 10-time all-India champion, emigrated to the U.S. in 1968 to teach tennis at the Seattle Tennis Club, bringing with him his family that then included children Asam and Shabana. Khan soon after arrival in Seattle created the Seattle Athletic Club and made it a focal point for squash in Seattle.

Shabana's younger sister, Latasha, was several time national women's champion before losing the title to Shabana, providing me the opportunity to joke in an earlier column, "best in the family is best in the county."

The looming reality for this unique local event is that Shabana and her supporting family have basically given themselves only a couple of months to decide whether it's worth the struggle (the event basically broke even this year) to attract thus-far absent support from either the City of Bellevue or local businesses.

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Microsoft leadership changes stir discussions of competition-collaboration workplace issue

Some are seeing the sea change in the leadership styles of the new CEOs of both Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as evidence that even the region's most competition-driven company might be acknowledging that the collaborative focus of workplace millenials could be superseding the competitive trademark of boomers.

Among those sharing that sense of a possible dramatic shift at Microsoft is John Buller, who has spent his life in sports and retail environments where keeping score and winning were the keys to success. But he admits now, as he observes what he perceives as a major workplace shift, that he was always dogged by the sense that somehow collaboration had a place in the success equation.

Anna Liotta

Buller was a top executive at the old Bon Marche retail chain, as well as successful restaurateur, president of Tully's Coffee, and in his collegiate days in the late '60s a Husky basketball star then an assistant coach.

He sees the ascendance of Satya Nadella to the top role at Microsoft and the hiring of Susan Desmond-Hellman as CEO of the Gates Foundation as significant.

So does Anna Liotta, Seattle author and speaker who counsels businesses on unlocking generational codes to enhance workplace effectiveness.

John Buller

"I think it's fundamental for Microsoft, it if is to have exponential growth again, to shift from combative to collaborative in its workplace environment," Liotta said. "Microsoft employees don't now talk with pride about working at Microsoft, and this newest generation will need attitudes and beliefs they share and need to be proud to be where they work and work together in a collaborative environment in order to want to stay."

As a recent article in Puget Sound Business Journal pointed out, "Nadella is a very different man from (Steve) Ballmer. Where Ballmer is bombastic and over the top, Nadella is understated and thoughtful."

Buller makes the point that a similar shift in thinking could have had a role in the selection of Susan Desmond-Hellman, M.D., plucked from her role as chancellor of the University of California San Francisco to be the first non-Microsoft CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Of course Microsoft isn't the only regional company where must-win attitudes have been the key to success. It's merely the major local company whose recent eye-catching changes in command at the corporate and foundation have sparked the opportunity for conversations about what lies ahead in the workplace culture.

It would be difficult to think of many successful companies in the Seattle area for which competitive juices haven't played a ke y role in their success.

Teri Citterman

Thus the thoughts about boomer competitiveness giving way to millennial collaborations inevitably stir conversations where doubt or disagreement are sometimes as much in evidence as agreement.

Buller, in fact, is an interesting persona to be focusing on the transition, which he is doing to the extent of packaging a seminar and producing a blog to help guide corporate executives.

Buller is intimately familier with culture changes since his role as senior team leader for Federated Stores and its The Bon outlets was to engineer one, guiding a shift from "a clerk culture to a sales culture," as he describes the charge.

It was 20 years ago that his Survival Guide for Bureaucratic Warriors was published, with chapters written on first-class flights as he crisscrossed the country to train employees on changing their culture.

"Warriors work for a passion in their lives while soldiers just take orders," Buller said, summing up the premise for the book, and suggesting that "the way to make millenials more passionate and engaged, becoming warriors, is to let them have ownership."

"It's a fallacy to suggest that competition and collaboration are diametrically opposed," Liotta said. "Millenials do love to win, but within that they love to also know their part in the winning, meaning millenials want a lot of feedback on how they are doing," Liotta said of the generation that numbers 76 million in the workplace. That number, incidentally, compares with 80 million boomers.

"A winning attitude is absolutely in line with an attitude of collaboration," she added. "Millenials just don't accept the bankrupt strategy of win at all costs."

Liotta comes by her generational savvy from birth on since she notes in her book Unlocking Generational Codes that "as number 18 in a family of 19 children, I started to experience generational impacts on life at a very early age."

She is CEO of Resultance Inc., where her consulting services and guidance on generational issues have brought her before business organizations around the country.

Another person who has explored workplace issues, but from the CEO's viewpoint, is Teri Citterman, whose recently publishedFrom the CEO's Perspective is a collection of interviews with CEO's from a range of companies on the challenges of leadership.

"A characteristic of millenials is that they expect their ideas will be heard or appreciated, even though they haven't necessarily earned the right to be heard or appreciated," said Citterman, also a GenXer.

"Yes, collaboration is replacing competition as a workplace theme, you can see that everywhere," she said. "competition is a four-letter word."

This discussion is likely to become more pervasive at lunch meetings and cocktail visits, particularly for boomers, or the even older generation tagged Traditionalists, who would have to change the codes of a lifetime to believe companies can win out over competitors without competition being the mantra.

As Buller and I discussed this over coffee for our interview, together we came up with the tagline: "In today's world you will have to learn to collaborate in order to win." 

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Seattle start-up sees underwear sales to big guys as start of large online opportunity

Dave Smith's"aha moment" about the unmet need for big-men's clothing came at a Microsoft shareholders meeting at Safeco Field a few years ago when all attendees were given embroidered shirts to mark the occasion. But there wasn't one that would fit Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's 3X size, Smith recalls, adding "It wasn't pretty."

 

Smith, who at the time worked for a company that provided promotional products for firms, including Microsoft, recalls that "we always had trouble finding 2X and larger products for customers."

 

Thus was born an idea for Smith, but it couldn't come to fruition until he met Doug Hill, who was making a presentation to Smith's boss at Staples Promotion and Smith recalls thinking: "this guy's a born salesman."

 

Conversations soon guided them, about four years ago, to go into the clothing business, where they both had long experience, and discussions led them to agree "big and tall (which they refer to as B and T) was wide open so we just started with it."

 

After a false start with a big-and-tall retail outlet in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood, they launched Bentley BT, a Seattle-based online start-up that promotes its Bentley Performance Underwear with the tagline "we can CYA up to 8X."

 

Bentley BT is an 18-month-old company specializing in the design, production, and distribution of fashion underwear for big and tall consumers, a market they contend is ignored by most retailers who don't want big and talls "jamming into their dressing rooms or crowding up their aisles. So it's a big deal to these guys to be treated as something special."

 

It wasn't on a lark or for a laugh that they decided underwear would be the first product for Bentley BT, according to Hill, but rather on the basis of some market research that showed "underwear is a big problem for the big guy."

 

As for the general clothing market among big and talls, Smith says: "All you have to do is look at the statistics showing that over the past 20 years, people in the U.S. and other countries are getting bigger and taller to understand why we view this niche market as opportunity. And it's one with enormous growth and profit potential."

 

The domestic big-and-tall men's apparel business is estimated to be $16-$18 billion, and growing, with them men's underwear portion of that market estimated at more than $4.5 billion.

 

"Our target is to capture one-half of one percent of that market, which would be $24 million in sales," says Smith.

 

"We really think that we make the world's greatest underwear for our consumer so the next step would be to go right into t-shirts," Smith says. "Once we've developed trust on the part of this audience, we can do all kinds of clothing."

 

Hill started as a clothing salesman, moved to regional sales for a women's sportswear line and eventually joined what was then Seattle-based Brittania Jeans as Midwest region manager. When ex-Britannia execs started Generra Sportswear, he joined them in Los Angeles to start their West Coast Women's Division.

 

Smith and Hill first produced warmups "in very large sizes" for basketball players who were NIKE athletes and when other big-and-tall guys saw the warmups, "we were urged to offer them to a broader market," Smith recalls. "So we decided there was a niche play in providing fashion to that consumer audience."

 

In the short time they've been in business, they have distribution in about 30 specialty stores and their product has been featured on Amazon.com in the big-and-tall category. Plus Smith says they are in initial conversations with major retailers.

 

But they emphasize the importance of web sales by noting that 50 percent of all big-and-tall business is conducted on line and, says Hill, "50 percent of that is women buying for men."

 

Their average online transaction is for about $150, "so we have good margins," says Smith, who adds that "a lot of people who discover our site are afraid we won't be there next time so they order up to a dozen items."

 

And Smith, who has a 34-inch waist and says Hill has a 32 waist, emphasizes that whatever the size, from 32 to 70, "the price for the underwear is the same."

 

At this point Bentley BT is in its start-up phase, although they're already booking orders in the hundreds online.

 

Their underwear is made in China, but Smith says "we have the fabric and the sourcing to do them in Los Angeles."

 

While they'd like to zero in on athletes, they've already begun to target firemen, ," says Smith, recalling they once met a group of firemen in Chicago sitting in the summer heat as a lightning storm was going on and "once we told them we make underwear that could really help them in high heat situations, they were hooked."

"Our next offering will be to the troops," he adds. "My son was a spec ops medic and he knows firsthand what bad underwear can do when you are in the field."

 

As far as exit strategy, Smith says their marketing is aimed at "the disenfranchised customer, retailing's forgotten guy. Some company is going to say 'let's fold these guys into our operation.'"

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