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Alaska Airlines begins wooing process for Virgin America fans

Alaska Airlines’ goal of winning friends and influencing people in the Bay Area, whose hometown airline is about to be absorbed by the Seattle-based carrier, began in earnest Tuesday night in San Francisco as Alaska executives and board members hosted a gathering for local leaders.

Some 250 business, political and community leaders were on hand at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco for an event whose theme was “Flying Better Together.” The goal of the gathering of Bay Area who’s who was for them to meet and begin to get to know the leadership of the airline that is buying Virgin America, the Richard Branson-founded carrier that began service as San Francisco’s hometown low-cost airline nine years ago this month.

During that nearly a decade of service, Virgin built what many in the Bay Area have described as “almost a cult following,”with many regular flyers enthusing that they “love Virgin.”

Aware of that challenge, Alaska CEO Brad Tilden and his executive team have sought to express sensitivity to the cultural issues and the initial backlash from Virgin fans. That awareness was pointed up a few weeks ago when Tilden told the Wings Club, a group of aviation professionals in New York, that he was thinking of running the Alaska and Virgin as separate airlines within Alaska Air Group.

Such an outcome may or may not still be a possibility, but when I asked Joseph Sprague, Alaska senior vice president, after the Tuesday event, about Virgin continuing to function as a third carrier, he said: “ Initially it will be a third airline but by 2018 it will be merged into Alaska.”

But Alaska leadership is playing up a cultural fit they see existing between Alaska and Virgin, rather than addressing the different styles.

Sprague said “a lot of the integration pre-planning work has revealed an encouraging number of similarities from which we can build.” 

He noted that Tilden, in his comments to the group Tuesday, pointed out three such similarities: “both have an obsessive focus on the customer, we both want companies that are employee-driven and we both have a strong leaning towards innovation around the customer experience.”

Alaska’s San Francisco community gathering came exactly s week after shareholders of Virgin America approved the acquisition by Alaska Air Group, with Virgin’s chairman announcing the voting results at a brief shareholders meeting on July 26.

That Virgin shareholder approval was the next-to-last major hurdle for the takeover, with the remaining step being U.S. Justice Department approval. Closing by October is expected for the $4 billion deal ($2.6 billion in cash and the rest in assumed debt and other costs) that Alaska had to put together to beat out Jet Blue.

It’s quite possible that the shadow of Delta Airlines’ seeming predator pursuit of Alaska that left key Alaska supporters concerned Delta was seeking to force a takeover played a role in Alaska’s decision to acquire Virgin America for a very large premium.

But in addition to likely ending concern about Delta coveting a takeover, Alaska also gets Virgin’s lucrative California routes as well as keeping Jet Blue, the losing suitor in the Virgin bidding contest, from acquiring the routes.

In fact, it’s perhaps amusing to consider the community response if Delta, after a hostile takeover of Alaska, held a reach-out event with the theme “get to know us.” They’d have faced a ferociously hostile audience in Seattle.

But obviously Alaska, which has been successfully serving the Bay Area from three airport for years, isn’t perceived as a bad guy, more just a carrier that locals don’t know a lot about other than it has an excellent record in all the areas airlines get rated.

In fact, as Phyllis Campbell, Alaska board member and Pacific Northwest chairman of JP Morgan Chase, put it after the event: ‘I think it is emblematic of Alaska Airlines to reach out to the community in a spirit of collaboration and collegiality. Having dinners like this send the message that we want to be the best airline going forward for the Region and also the best citizen in terms of community partnership.”

In fact, the event was apparently successful enough from Alaska’s perspective that Sprague said “we will likely do additional events, both of our own and sponsoring others.”

Still there are Virgin supporters whose love affair with the airline was partly due to the fact it was the Bay Area’s hometown airline. And the takeover will mean not just the end of Virgin’s “hometown” ties, but also that California will no longer have an airline based in a state that has served as home to a variety of important carriers over the years.

As Mary Huss, publisher of Puget Sound Business Times, summed up when I asked her about it: “I think people were very proud that Virgin chose to locate and start up here when it did.”

But while Jet Blue lost the bidding to Alaska, it is seeking to woo Virgin fans away before Alaska can convert them by looking for ways to exploit what it senses as uncertainty of flyers about the transition. It has been touting giveaway deals to potential frequent users of Jet Blue’s longhaul service from New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles, including its tongue-in-cheek wooing of Jet Blue “virgins,” those who haven’t previously tried Jet Blue.

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Six-continent survey of board members says women help boards make better decisions

A study involving more than 100 male and female directors on boards around the globe, aimed at determining the relationship between board effectiveness and the contribution of women directors, has concluded that boards make better decisions when a healthy number of women sit at the table.

Cate Goethals, a University of Washington academic leader who conceived and co-authored the Better Boards Project, says there's a growing sense that the financial crisis of 2008 was in part the result of a sort of "group think" of public-company boards, which are inevitably composed mostly of men.

Goethals, who has created three programs at University of Washington's Foster School of Business to connect women leaders and global business, says that this emerging line of thinking has led to a growing focus on the composition of public-company boards, including legislative involvement in board makeup in some countries.

Goethals, who co-authored the Better Boards Project with Susan Bloch, a management consultant and author of books on management, noted as an example that Europe has seen requirements for quotas of female board members, including France where 40 percent of the directors of boards of certain types of public companies must be female.

"Even in countries like the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Canada where there are no legal requirements, more women are being appointed to boards than ever before," said Goethals.

The study sought to answer a series of questions, including do women contribute differently in the board room, how do they contribute to board effectiveness and why are the numbers of women on boards so low.  

Supporters of greater representation for women on boards of public companies do see improvement and cite several reasons for that.  

For instance, a number of interviewees noted that the presence of female directors has come to be increasingly viewed as a marker of a progressive, forward-looking board. What company wouldn't want that image?

And the report noted that generational shifts and the call for different types of experience are also changing the landscape. An example was the need for a more youthful perspective and savvy with social media and new technology becoming a particularly acute need.

What clearly was a knock on the prevalence of all-male boards was the basic agreement among interviewees that "women provide a much-needed safeguard against group think and rubber-stamping of policy, which continue to hinder board effectiveness."

But noting that women are still joining boards at a slow pace, the report suggested the way boards look at themselves is a key factor in that, including the practice of identifying potential new board members on the basis of "who do we know." Men generally know other male prospects.

Neil McReynolds, who has been in board leadership roles and consulted with CEOs and boards and also been involved in helping boards recruit new board members, says he thinks "a combination of factors" will be necessary to make a difference to bring more diversity to boards.

McReynolds says that he frankly finds it surprising the increase in the number of women on corporate boards has come as slowly as it has, "especially for those companies in consumer products and services where women make a large percentage of purchasing decisions.

"It's going to take investor pressure, outspoken CEO's, active support by executives and board members, and improving the pipeline by making it easy to identify qualified women directors," McReynolds said.

When asked about the ways their boards are seeking to improve, most directors said their boards were doing very little and cited "ineffectual board assessment practices and, to our surprise, an almost complete absence of reviews of the performance of individual directors," the report said.

In an area like Seattle where women business leaders and entrepreneurs have been a prominent part of the business community leadership and non-profit board landscape for years, men, and even some emerging women leaders, might find it difficult to accept that women have faced an uphill battle in getting board slots at public companies.

After all, we have Phyllis Campbell, regional head of JPMorgan Chase and former Washington president of U.S. Bank, currently a member of the board of Alaska Airlines who has served on three other major boards. And Judith Runstad and Deanna Oppenheimer come quickly to mind.  

Runstad is former co-managing partner of Seattle law firm Foster Pepper, a member of several public company boards and prominent in business locally since before Rotary permitted women members. And Oppenheimer, who left Seattle to become head of Barclay's operations in England and now back in Seattle. is a member of several boards nationally.

But Cate says it would be an indication of complacency for those in this area, particularly men, to assume we are somehow ahead of the game in terms of board opportunities for women.

"Washington state is pretty good, with about 20 percent of public company board positions being filled by women," she said. "but the technology industry is almost the reverse, with most boards composed entirely of men. Most are boys clubs, because venture capital firms like dealing with men."

And business prominence apparently doesn't necessarily convert to the kind of business networking that leads to being sought out for public-company board roles when mostly male boards sit around and ponder who should join them.

One who is seeking to change the networking challenge is Janis Machala, an entrepreneur, involved early in the formation of the Seattle's women's angel group called the Seraphs, and in recent years in academic efforts relating to entrepreneurism.

She is setting up a women's CEO roundtable in the Seattle area to boost networking opportunities for female top executives. Presumably, one of the goal is to help each other become more generally visible in the business community.

As Machala puts it, "they need to learn to be the external face for the company."

Susan Preston, a Seattle attorney who actually launched the Seraphs as the first female angel group in the country back in 1999 and has been a entrepreneur in residence for the entrepreneur focused Kauffman Foundation, is in the process of creating an angel fund, which would provide women investors networking opportunity with angel peers.

Machala and others have been circulating the Better Boards report, hoping it will start what she calls "more conscious decisions about board composition" adding, "what's needed is advocacy or women and other diverse populations and not just referrals or board member talks about this."

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

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

 

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

 

Phyllis Campbell
Phyllis Campbell

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

 

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

 

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

Michael Verchot
Michael Verchot

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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