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Originally published Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 8:10 PM

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Corporate backbone of NW thrives in post-recession world

This year’s Best of the Northwest rankings show an enviable array of public companies for a region often dismissed as an anti-business liberal hothouse. We must be doing something right.


Special to The Seattle Times

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This year’s Best of the Northwest arrives on the fifth anniversary of the end of the Great Recession.

Many people question whether we’ve had a recovery at all. But the region’s major corporations have rebounded smartly. And with only a few exceptions, they came through the worst downturn since the Great Depression with remarkable stability.

Costco Wholesale leads in sales for the most recent year. It was there in 2009 and 2007, too. Other familiar players in the top 10 are Microsoft, Amazon, Nike, Starbucks, Paccar, Weyerhaeuser and Nordstrom.

Big headquarters create large numbers of well-paying jobs. They attract talent, capital and an asteroid belt of suppliers and professional service vendors. Also, they spin off executive talent that starts new companies.

This makes for an unusual advantage. The recession, along with mergers and increasing industry consolidation, have left a relative few winner metros and plenty of losers.

Onetime corporate centers such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Denver — to name a few — are shadows of their former headquarters power.

Boeing moved to Chicago in 2001. Recession-era mergers claimed Safeco and Todd Shipyards. And the financial crisis of 2008 left Washington Mutual as the biggest banking failure in American history.

But the corporate backbone of the Northwest remains largely in place and it’s dynamic.

Take Weyerhaeuser, which slashed 1,000 jobs at its Federal Way headquarters as the recession was gathering in 2008. It was preparing to become a real estate investment trust and a much more modest version of its once sprawling empire.

Even so, the most recent rankings place Weyerhaeuser eighth in profits, 10th in market capitalization and 14th in employees.

The biggest shift of all: Amazon has emerged over the recovery as one of the most consequential companies of the new century — anywhere.

Amazon continues to have the second-largest market capitalization among the Best of the Northwest, second only to Microsoft, and it is third in sales.

Unlike Microsoft, Amazon doesn’t even make the top 10 in profit. It ranked fifth in the 2010 survey. Nor does it have impressive profit margins, where Microsoft ranks fifth.

CEO Jeff Bezos has doubled down on his get-big-fast, be-willing-to-be-misunderstood strategy. Whether investors stick with him is of prime importance to Seattle.

Midsize and smaller companies further bolster the Northwest’s strength and resilience. Among the consistently strong firms are Barrett Business Services, Precision Castparts, Flir Systems, Expeditors International and Blue Nile.

Taken together, the Best of the Northwest shows an enviable array of public companies for a region often dismissed as an anti-business, liberal hothouse. We must be doing something right.

In addition, while technology players make up the flashy part of the Puget Sound region, the Best list shows an impressive diversity, from world-famous retailers to broad-shoulder manufacturers, community banks that survived the panic, and timber and mining firms that reach deep into our history.

A then-and-now look at the corporate Northwest defies any neat narrative about the recession. In 2007, the year before the downturn hit, Hecla Mining of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho ranked No. 1 overall. Seattle’s biotech star Dendreon posted the most sales growth.

For the newest list, Hecla comes in at No. 76. Silver prices have been trending down for several years. Dendreon, beset by disappointments, ranks last.

Neither company’s fortunes were directly tied to the downturn.

On the other hand, one of the stars of the recovery is Alaska Airlines. It smartly managed costs to navigate a recession that led to bankruptcies and mergers that shook its industry. This left it well positioned to maintain its independence during the recovery.

T-Mobile boasts another turnaround, at sixth in sales and seventh in market capitalization, provinces usually reserved for giants. The cautionary note is a potential merger with Sprint, which might mean the loss of the headquarters in Bellevue.

One of the most interesting stories to watch will be Microsoft. It ranks No. 2 on this year’s list, and this is based on its performance during Steve Ballmer’s final year as chief executive. Now, under Satya Nadella, Microsoft is being touted as a comer.

Of course, even this deep dive of public companies can’t capture the Northwest’s entire economy. The Puget Sound region is heavily dependent on Boeing of Chicago. Silicon Valley’s Intel is the biggest component of Portland’s Silicon Forest.

Agriculture, wine, tourism and so many more avenues of commerce all matter. So does the connection of government to business, which, like it or not, is often closer and more vital than the free-market purists would admit.

But locally headquartered companies are defining engines of prosperity, growth, employment and civic stewardship. In a slow-growth national economy, we’re fortunate to have so many.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com



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About Jon Talton

Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest
jtalton@seattletimes.com

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