After 20 years, Seattle area remains enviable engine of enterprise
The Pacific Northwest and the Seattle area remain enviable engines of enterprise. Most of the corporate losses on the list were because of industry concentration, the natural creative destruction of the marketplace and the ruinous power of recessions.
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Three downturns. A long bull market. Dot-com boom and bust. Battle in Seattle. Nisqually earthquake. 9/11. Great Recession. Such are some of the markers for 20 editions of The Seattle Times' Best of the Northwest report.
When the first Northwest 100 was published, in June 1992, most of the nation was still coming out of the mild 1991 recession. Yet that downturn held warning signs: A financial meltdown — in this case the savings and loan scandal — abetted by regulators under political pressure to look the other way. Then, a jobless recovery, the first time the phrase was used.
At the time, I was at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, which did its own Colorado top 100 — a sign of a time when regions had many more substantial local companies than in our age of consolidation and concentration. The next year, I made my first visit to Seattle and toured Boeing's industrial cathedral in Everett.
The top companies in that first edition tell a story.
• Microsoft, at No. 1, was still a gazelle; it had been a public company for only six years.
• Portland's Rentrak, at No. 2, distributed rental videos to retailers. Now it calls itself a "media measurement and research company," and is far down the latest list.
• Only one in the top five still turns in consistently superior performance: the freight-forwarder Expeditors International.
• Boeing was headquartered here but ranked 47th in overall performance. Weyerhaeuser was one of the world's largest integrated paper companies, a thick rope that tied the region to its past of natural-resources extraction and a pillar of local power; it ranked 93. Both had been hurt by the recession, yet they still led the list in sales.
• Kroger had not yet gobbled up Fred Meyer, No. 24.
• A midsize but venerable thrift came in at No. 16, having survived the S&L disaster, thanks to its conservative management. Its name was Washington Mutual.
• Future gazelle Flir Systems didn't hold an initial public offering until 1993. Not until 1999 did F5 Networks, another strong performer in recent surveys, join the Nasdaq. Starbucks, which opened a first store in Denver around that time, went public about two weeks after the publication of the first Northwest 100.
You just never know.
This year I was more involved in reporting on the Best of the Northwest than in years past. And although the region no longer has 100 companies that make the grade for inclusion, I couldn't help one conclusion. For all our hippy-dippy-lefty, "bad-place-to-do-business" reputation, this is a great place for business.
While wrongheaded regulation is, well, wrong, and regions must be more aware of their costs and burdens on business than ever, the Pacific Northwest and the Seattle area remain enviable engines of enterprise. Most of the corporate losses on the list were because of industry concentration, the natural creative destruction of the marketplace and the ruinous power of recessions.
The loss of Boeing's headquarters, Weyerhaeuser's drastic remake and the collapse of Washington Mutual would have devastated most other regions for years. We rebound, rebuild, reinvent.
Accounting for this resilience and power is inevitably subjective. There's luck: Bill Boeing and Bill Gates located companies here. Good bones as an international trading center, with a cluster of historic big companies and good universities. The "cool factor," high quality of life, diversity and tolerance help attract global talent.
The next 20 years will be far tougher. But I'll still bet on the Northwest.
You may reach Jon Talton at email@example.com
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