Dean’s Blog

Journey to Jakarta

Posted by Joseph Phillips on May 18, 2017 at 9:05 AM PDT

Everything you have heard about the traffic in Jakarta is true – but not at 1:00 AM in the morning when it took only 25 minutes to get from the airport to my hotel.  May 9 to 15 I took a trip to Jakarta to visit with SU alumni.  We have nearly 1000 alumni in Indonesia and most of them graduated from the Albers School, so I accompanied Jim Hembree from University Advancement on this trip to connect with our Jakarta alums.

Jim planned a variety of meetings with the alumni.  Some were one on one, some were small groups, and we had an evening reception where more than 40 alumni attended.  Altogether, we saw about 60 alumni.  They were an enthusiastic group and happy to see SU visiting Jakarta.  They are very appreciative of their SU education and reminisced about some of their favorite Albers faculty, such as Fiona Robertson, Bob Callahan, and Teresa Ling.  Fiona was super tough they said.  Bob Callahan’s business communications class was life changing.  Teresa Ling was their mother figure in Seattle.

Naturally, the Jakarta weather was not like Seattle’s this time of year.  The temperature was in the 90’s during the day and very humid.  Of course, much of our time was spent under air-conditioned conditions, either indoors or in air-conditioned cars.  One evening I decided to walk over to a reception and was told by the locals, “we don’t walk, we will drive you over,” but I decided the 20 minute walk needed to be part of my Jakarta experience!

Sunday mornings they close down Thamrin Road in the center of town to automobile traffic and let people walk, run, and bike.  We do the same thing to Lake Washington Boulevard on Sundays in the summer here in Seattle.  As you can see from the photo below, people take advantage of the opportunity!


There is not much in the way of tourist activity in Jakarta.  For that sort of thing, people suggested going to Bali.  Jakarta’s President sees tourism as a potential economic driver for the nation, so he has initiated a number of new tourism projects, but I am assuming they are all outside Jakarta.

Right now there is political turmoil around the recent sentencing of Jakarta’s governor on blasphemy charges.  There were a number of political demonstrations by his supporters during our visit, but we did not see them up close.  Many people are worried that religion is being used for political purposes and are concerned about the implications for the 2019 presidential election.  They believe their democracy is at risk and the political freedoms that go with it.  Of course, religion has been used for political purposes in the US, so it is not surprising that it happens elsewhere.

We learned that Indonesian students thinking of studying abroad are not overly worried about the immigration drama created by the Trump administration, at least not yet.  Studying in the US is definitely something they are willing to consider, and when they do, Seattle is one of the more desirable locations for them.  Indonesians perceive that Seattle has less crime, is more tolerant, and has a larger Asian presence than most of the US.  Seattle also has a significant Indonesian community which makes it easier to think about locating to Seattle.

Right now we have over 150 Indonesian students studying at SU, with over 100 in the Albers School.  It is important to keep Indonesian students coming to our campus.  If you look at the history of the university, we have had a large presence of Indonesian students since the mid-1990’s, and the alumni that we talked to stretch back to that time.  The vast majority of those alumni graduated from the Albers School, so they are a very important group to us.

This was my first trip to Jakarta, and any time you go somewhere for the first time, it is an interesting trip because you cannot help but learn a lot!  It was also great to reconnect with our Jakarta alumni.  They are doing well professionally and very appreciative of their SU education!

Alaska Air CFO Speaks at Albers

Posted by Joseph Phillips on April 21, 2017 at 5:04 PM PDT

Brandon Pedersen, EVP and CFO of Alaska Airlines, participated in the Albers Executive Speaker Series on April 20th.  The title of his presentation was, “What keeps Alaska Air Going?”

In his capacity as Executive Vice President of Finance and Chief Financial Officer for Alaska Air Group, Pedersen oversees a long list of company activities, including finance, fleet management, accounting/tax, investor relations, financial planning, supply chain, and internal audit. Before assuming his current role in 2010, he served as corporate controller for seven years. Prior to joining Alaska, he was a partner at KPMG.  In 2015, Pedersen was recognized by the Puget Sound Business Journal as its “CFO of the Year” for large public companies.



In his remarks, Pedersen emphasized the importance of long term sustainable growth for Alaska, growth that benefits customers, employees, communities and shareholders (and not just shareholders!).  What keeps the company going is a combination of five factors:

  • Great people – it is a service business, so employees need to be engaged and focused on the customer.
  • Low cost – not the lowest price, but they have lower prices than the major airlines.
  • Fuel efficiency – fuel is a big factor in airline expenses and they focus on minimizing this expense.
  • Conservative capital allocation – they don’t borrow too much and try to grow too fast.
  • Strong network – serve many markets in the US.

When they looked out to see where opportunities for growth were, the 40 million people living in California caught their eye.  Then it was a matter of do you build to serve that customer base or do you buy in to the market?  In the wake of the Virgin America merger, you know they decided to buy!

Virgin made sense because they had a loyal customer base and award winning service, similar to what Alaska can claim.  They had 60+ airplanes and they had gates in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  It would take a long time to grow into what Virgin already offered.

Of course, a successful merger is not easy, with the most difficult issue being blending Virgin America employees into the Alaska culture.  When asked how they have attempted to do that, Pedersen mentioned they held a “Values Jam” and emerged with five new values for the combined organization.  (Quizzed later on what the five were, despite having little time to memorize them, he managed to call them out – “Do the right thing,” “Own safety,” Be kindhearted,” “Be remarkable,” and “Deliver results!”)  They also held 20 “Momentum Sessions,” which brought together employees from both organizations to learn more about each other.

In the Q&A, Pedersen was asked what does Alaska need to be really good at doing?  His answer was, “customer service.”  They are trying to provide value at a good price, or as he put it, to provide a “Costco feeling” to the customer.  They are not trying to be the low price provider, but looking for the right combination of price and quality experience.

When asked about Alaska’s relationship with Boeing, he noted that when you are a smaller organization (6% market share), partnerships are extremely important to you, and the three most important partnerships for them are with Bank of America, General Electric, and Boeing, with Boeing being the most important.  They make a great airplane (the 737) and they have great people to work with.

Another question was about Delta’s big move into Sea-Tac, and how was Alaska responding to that challenge?  He said that when Delta first decided to replicate the Alaska network, the initial reaction was panic, but then they realized that competition was good and would make them a better organization providing a better customer experience, and that is what has happened!

He was also asked, “What is the hardest decision you have had to make as CFO?”  Without hesitation, he said, “That is an easy question!”  It is always how much to invest in technology.  How do you know what is really needed and how do you know what is “super cool” and nice to have?  The IT group will never think you are investing enough in technology!

Back to the merger, he was asked about the challenges of having a mixed Boeing/Airbus fleet that results from the Virgin America merger.  Pedersen reminded that there are advantages and disadvantages to each, and there was no need to rush into a decision about returning to one fleet or retaining a mix.  The Airbus planes are leased and come off lease in the 2021 to 2024 time period.  He also explained their move to the Embraer 175 for regional flights to smaller markets.   They have found it to be a fabulous plane offering a much better flight experience to the customer.   Regional flights used to be offered under the Horizon brand, but they decided to phase that out and go to market with one brand as they expanded into California.  The Alaska brand is not so well known there and two brands would be too confusing to consumers.

Several times throughout the presentation, Pedersen stressed the importance of not overinvesting in equipment (airplanes), and particularly not getting carried away during periods of profitability.  The industry has a history of getting carried away during the good times, and the last few years have been good years for air carriers.  Listening to him, you are convinced that Alaska is not in the process of repeating that mistake!

Brandon Pedersen gave a lively and informative presentation to our students!  You could tell that Alaska is highly respected by the audience and it is great to have them as our home town airline!


Weyerhaeuser CEO Links Vision and Culture

Posted by Joseph M. Phillips on March 2, 2017 at 10:03 AM PST



Weyerhaeuser President and CEO, Doyle Simons, participated in the Albers Executive Speaker Series on February 28th.  Weyerhaeuser recently moved its headquarters to Pioneer Square, thus becoming neighbors with Seattle University.  In its 117th year, Weyerhaeuser only lags SU by a few years, since we are celebrating our 125th anniversary this year!

Weyerhaeuser is now one of the world’s largest timber, land, and forest products companies, and Simons took over as CEO in 2013.  Prior to that he was CEO of Temple-Inland, an Austin, TX based packaging and building products manufacturer, where he presided over the sale of the company to International Paper in 2012.  He joined Temple-Inland in 1992 and before that practiced real estate and banking law.

Titling his talk, “Creating a Winning Company Vision and Culture,” Simons stressed the importance of vision for organizational success.  The single most important thing for success, he said, is a clear, compelling vision.

He recalled that when he took over at Weyerhaeuser, he spent the first 50 days touring many company locations to listen to employee ideas on what the company did well and what could be improved.  Based on those discussions, the vision for Weyerhaeuser became, “Working together to be the world’s premier timber, land, and forest products company.”  Don’t underestimate the first four words – “working together” will be critical for success and “to be” means they don’t think they are there yet, but that will keep the company focused!

Simons has also set about changing the Weyerhaeuser culture.  Urgency, accountability, courage (as in taking risk), keeping it simple, and innovation are the key behaviors he is trying to instill in the organization.  Previously the company was known for moving slowly and being risk averse.  At the same time, they want to retain the key values of Weyerhaeuser around safety, integrity, citizenship (supporting the communities they operate in), and sustainability (essential for a company in this space!).

To succeed in pushing the company vision, he said there are four keys to leadership”

  • Listen to employees – they know what needs to be done differently
  • Be action oriented – people look to see if you do what you say
  • Keep it simple – so it is easy for people to understand
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate – make sure people know what is going on and why

Weyerhaeuser recently completed a merger with fellow REIT, Plum Creek, and Simons noted that mergers frequently are unsuccessful because the leadership fails to successfully merge the company cultures.  He recalled how he met with Plum Creek CEO, Rick Holley, to review the existing cultures and sort out the right culture for the new organization.  He also noted the importance of communicating the vision for the merged organization and the importance of the new management team living the values and desired behaviors of Weyerhaeuser.

When asked what impacted Weyerhaeuser’s business the most, it was no surprise that Simons responded that the key driver for them is the US housing market, and to some degree housing markets abroad such as in Japan.  He is also very proud of Weyerhaeuser’s new HQ building.  It matches the company culture and heritage.  “It feels like Weyerhaeuser,” he said, and if you have visited, you would have to agree, which is not something you could say about the previous HQ in recent years.

Doyle Simons gave an energetic and valuable presentation to SU students.  The importance of vision and culture in organizational success, and how they need to work together, is something one must understand to be a successful leader.  It’s happening at Weyerhaeuser under his watch!


REI CEO Builds Brand to Drive Growth

Posted by Joe Phillips on January 24, 2017 at 2:01 PM PST

Jerry Stritzke, CEO of REI, spoke to a crowd of over 350 in the Albers Executive Speakers Series on January 19th.  Stritzke joined REI in 2013 after serving as president and COO of Coach.  Prior to that he was at Limited Brands and had leadership roles overseeing Victoria's Secret and Mast Industries, a Limited subsidiary.



What do Coach and Victoria's Secret have to do with REI, an outdoor specialty co-op retailer??  Lots, if you believe in the power of brands!  Stritzke clearly believes that success in retail requires getting the brand right.   He said the brand must be about what you are for and what you are not for.  REI's "Black Friday" coup in 2015 was about answering both questions.  They are for getting outside.  They are against unrestrained consumerism.  The key to creating a successful brand is to create a community of like-minded people that love what you love.  Those would be REI's customers.

Stritzke noted that retail is in a massive transformation, with many firms not getting it right and going out of business.  He expects that to continue for the foreseeable future.  He said that purpose-driven companies have a competitive advantage, and the retailers that are successful will put themselves at the center of a community.  That is what is guiding the changes at REI since he joined the co-op.

The REI CEO offered that it had taken some time for him to understand what it meant to be a co-op.  A co-op is built upon a common passion, and is not about low prices and saving money.  The co-op structure allows the organization to focus on the long term.  So, for example, you will notice that REI owns more real estate than the typical retailer.   They will also be more focused on selling gear and equipment since those sales will result in a longer-term relationship with the customer.  Stritzke noted that a three-decade plus relationship with the customer is the norm for REI.

Stritzke closed his opening remarks to students with three suggestions.  Be Deliberate about learning, evolving, and transforming yourself.  Do not follow the path of least resistance when thinking about your professional career.  Second, Dream Really Big!  He never felt qualified for any job he had.  He approached the challenge as an opportunity to learn and made sure to surround himself with people who could help him succeed.  Third, Have Courage.  Know what you want, ask for it, and if you do not get it, do something about it!

In the Q&A, he was asked how to get noticed by an employer or supervisor.  His answer was to ask great questions and be a good listener.  He said that when he interviews job applicants, he notices the ones that asked the really good questions.

He was asked about the importance of organizational culture, and he admitted that getting culture right was the biggest challenge for a leader.  And he advised that before joining an organization, make sure you know something about its culture.

Stritzke noted that going forward, REI will be focusing on three strategies:

Be local -- in pushing strategies, remember there are differences based on location.  The great outdoors is different in Arizona than in Alaska!

Experiences -- REI wants to put greater emphasis on its travel business and introducing members to new experiences.  He noted that the best way to engage customers was around experiences, not product.  That makes for a much more loyal customer!

For All -- They want to emphasize that the outdoors are for everyone.  REI wants to make it inclusive and increase the diversity of its member base.

When questioned about REI's advocacy on the public policy front, Stritzke admitted that such initiatives risked alienating some, and it has to be looked at on a case by case basis, but at the end of the day, you have to stand for something, and some issues are just too important to stand on the sidelines for.  Two that he mentioned were taking a stand for LBGT rights and a recent letter penned with other specialty outdoor retailers on maintaining federal ownership of public lands.   He noted the latter was timed to support the nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Congressman Ryan Zinke from Montana, and to keep Zinke on the side of federal ownership.

When asked for an example of what had not gone so well in his relatively short tenure as CEO of REI, it was suggested the Reddit conversation about Black Friday was an example.  Stritzke agreed they had taken a hit, but the experience also disclosed some things they needed to address and got him thinking that he needed a Reddit like forum for his REI colleagues!

Another example that he offered was that his bias to do things fast had resulted in a website redesign that was not well done.  They did not take the time to figure out how they wanted to appeal to the customer.  The result was a new web presence that did not create a different customer experience.

When asked what he wished he knew when he took his first CEO position at the age of 39, Stritzke said he wished he had a better understanding that he did not know everything.  A successful leader needs to know that and listen to others in order to get the information needed to be successful.

These are tough times in retail, but Jerry Stritzke is helping REI swim against the tide and find success by focusing on the REI brand in a new way.  His focus on member experience and tapping into a customer community is serving REI well.   Branding is so hard to get right, and he provided our students with great insights on this important topic!


Cranes in Seattle

Posted by Joseph Phillips on January 5, 2017 at 9:01 AM PST

You often hear about all the construction cranes in Seattle these days.  It is cited as an indicator of the strength of our local economy and we are told there are more cranes in Seattle than in any other city in the US.

What is really impressive is that now you can see a crane from my office window.  My office has a nice view, but it is not a commanding view and most of it is dominated by the large sequoia tree on our campus.  There is not much sky to be seen out my window!  Nevertheless, the level of crane activity is such that now one can be seen from my office!  Check it out:


That you can see a crane from my window -- that tells you something about the vibrancy of our local economy!

Back to China

Posted by Joseph Phillips on January 2, 2017 at 10:01 AM PST

Happy 2017!  We already know it is sure to be an interesting year!

As 2016 drew to a close, I took a trip to Hong Kong and China with Fr. Steve Sundborg, SJ, president of SU, and Jim Hembree from University Advancement.  We arrived in Hong Kong on December 16th, they from the Middle East where they had been visiting SU alumni, and me from Seattle.  The following day we set out for Zhuhai by ferry.  Our arrival was the occasion of Fr. Steve's first visit to main land China!  The event was properly recorded by photo:


In Zhuhai we visited the Ocean Kingdom, the second time for Jim and I.  The five-D cartoon show is now up to six -- in addition to your three D glasses, the seat shakes, water is squirted in your face, evil crabs nip at your heals, and -- the newest addition -- there is the aroma of burning flames and other scents!  The top experience in the park for adults and kids, even the second time around!  We also took in the orca and beluga show as well as the polar bears, penguins, and giant aquarium (holder of five Guinness world records for size).  An added feature for the orca and beluga show is panning the audience on the big screen (an idea borrowed from the NBA apparently).  Fr. Steve was a big hit on the big screen!  It should be noted that since this was not the high tourist season for the park, we appeared to be the only Westerners in the audience!

After the tour of the park concluded, we drove to Guangzhou to meet with alumni and checked in at the Chimelong Theme Park Complex.  The next day we toured the Safari Park where an ostrich got into my personal space (but I survived), then went to the Kuala Bear Exhibit where Fr. Steve took time to call his brother in Fairbanks where it was -26 degrees!!  Jim and I then reconnected with our panda triplets, who we had seen in May when they were only a few weeks old.  Of course, these pandas are much bigger and wiser, and slept through our entire visit.  No way to be treating your uncles!!

In the afternoon we drove to downtown Guangzhou and visited the Canton Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world and taller than anything in the US (but not taller than the Burj Khalifa built by SU alum Mohamed Alabbar in Dubai!).  It was quite a sight from the top, where one can see the tremendous expanse of high-rise buildings in Guangzhou.  On a clear day, you can no doubt see a very long way!  Here is a shot of Fr. Steve looking relaxed at 450 meters:


Here is the view of Guangzhou from the Canton Tower (a bit hazy due to the pollution).  Check out the tower's shadow!

The next day we drove to Shenzhen to meet with SU alumni.  Shenzhen is an amazing place, with modern high rises and landscaped boulevards, all created in the last two or three decades.  It is perhaps the best illustration of how fast China has progressed as an economic power.  It is considered the "Silicon Valley" of China in light of its high-tech focus.  Check out this Shenzhen skyline:


In the afternoon, we returned to Hong Kong, which is just a quick hour by car from Shenzhen.  We spent the next several days meeting with SU alumni who reside in Hong Kong.  Students have been coming to SU from Hong Kong since the 1960's, so the university has many alumni living in the territory.  The highlight of those visits was an alumni reception at the Dynasty Club on December 20th.  Over 30 alumni and friends were able to join us, including three current SU students who were back in town for the holidays.  Finance professor Jot Yau was also able to be there, as he was back in Hong Kong to visit his parents over the Christmas break.

The visits allowed me to thank our alumni for hosting students to company visits in September when Professors David Reid and Quan Le brought them here on a study tour.  I also warned them that another group of students would be back in September, 2017 under the guidance of Professors Ben Kim and Marc Cohen, and to please help out again! :}

One thing that caught my eye on this trip is how the Chinese are trying to weave Christmas into their consumer experience.  Everywhere we went there were secularized Christmas decorations and ornaments, even in the hotel rooms.  Of course, this is a complete commercial play, hoping to leave behind the Christian roots of Christmas, which they most likely will succeed with since even in the West the Christ frequently gets left out of Christmas.  We were told that something similar has been done with Halloween.  When the concept was first introduced in China, the Chinese did not like it because of the focus on frightening costumes.  As they learned costumes did not have to be frightening, they took to the holiday and marketers now consider the holiday to be a commercial success in the Chinese market.

The exploits of the Three SU Musketeers came to and end on December 22nd, as we made our way back to Seattle on schedule despite the Korean Airline pilot strike!  You have to hand it to Fr. Steve, as he is a real trooper, being able to combine the Middle East and China into a two-week trip.  We should all be so lucky to pull that off when we have that level of experience! Of course, Jim Hembree did the trip, too, but not as many miles on those tires!



Elena Donio -- New CEO at Axiom

Posted by Joseph Phillips on November 3, 2016 at 3:11 PM PDT

Elena Donio, recently appointed CEO of Axiom and prior to that serving as President of Concur, joined the Albers Executive Speaker Series on November 2nd, right at the time her new role was being announced.  The title of her presentation was “Creating a Culture that Encourages Employees to be who they really are.”  From her energy, authenticity, and passion, you could tell it was a topic she can speak to from the perspective of either Concur President or Axiom CEO!


Donio started at Concur in 1998 and took on a number of leadership roles before being named president in 2014.  Along the way, the company navigated a number of key changes, including moving from licensed software to cloud based services, from desktop to mobile, and from large customers to small and medium size clients.  They also were acquired by SAP in 2014, which gave them considerable independence in operations.


While Concur helps businesses manage business and travel expenses, her new organization, Axiom, is a provider of tech-enabled legal and contract services and she will be leading 1500 employees across multiple locations on three continents.  As became clear in her remarks, Axiom will be a great match for her skill set.


Donio began her talk saying that “work should feel like home,” meaning you should feel supported and comfortable and want to be there every day.  In that environment, people will be much more productive employees.  When they walk in the door they will give it their all.


She told the story of Concur being at a moment of crisis in 1998 (a missed quarterly earnings caused the stock price to plummet), when all of the company’s leaders gathered in a conference room to articulate the firm’s values.  Elements like “collaboration,” “trust,” “transparency,” and “passion” rose to the top.  From that day on they worked to intentionally create a culture built around those values and over time they were able to build a culture that is the envy of many other organizations.


Donio shared a story that illustrates a key element of the Concur culture.  A single male employee decided he wanted to raise children, so through the miracles of modern technology twins were born.  Instead of keeping the day to day details of raising babies to himself when at work, he was out there with all the details, from diapers to ear infections.  She, on the other hand, with her three kids, was taking the opposite approach and just trying to power through it all and keep it to herself.  The revelation to her was that she needed to be more out there about her family, and doing so would be more consistent with the Concur culture. That’s part of integrating work and home life.  They really cannot be separated for engaged employees.


Every organization will have a culture, the key is to understand what culture you want to have and get to work intentionally creating that culture.  It seems that too many leaders don’t get that – they are not intentional about creating a culture that will allow others to thrive, and instead inevitably end up with something less.  I have heard no less a business leader than Alan Mulally say that the most important job of the CEO is to establish the culture.  Lucky Axiom!


In the Q&A, Donio was asked about the culture in the new company, Axiom, and with culture such an important thing for her, was she worried about the culture in Axiom?  She said she had spent considerable effort doing due diligence on this before accepting the position.  The clincher was a series of stories from Axiom employees that could have been written by colleagues at Concur.


Another question came on the scarcity of women tech leaders and her advice on finding a leadership role in a male dominated arena.  She agreed that progress for women in technology had been too slow, and noted that when women like her had that opportunity, they have a responsibility to advocate and be visible, which she is definitely trying to do.  As for advice on how to build a leadership role, she said her suggestions applied to both men and women.  First, become the expert or go-to person on something.  Do not be satisfied being a generalist, but make yourself a critical resource.  Second, say “yes” a lot, especially early in your career.  Don’t be afraid of challenging assignments or roles that require working on the weekends.  The more you know and show you can do, the more essential you become to the organization. 


Her advice specifically for men – help hold other people up, including women.  Second, don’t be alone in the room with your gender making important decisions.  You need to make sure women are also at the table.  Women must be sure to get in there and talk and get themselves heard.


As for her ending up in the tech industry, she attributes that to her mom, who worked as an administrative assistant at Apple and would bring her daughters to work.  As a result, Donio was able to see many interesting things inside Apple and came to be comfortable with all things tech.

When asked about her advice for taking a new job in a new organization, which she is now doing, she said the easy part would be the skill and qualifications piece.  What one really needs to work on is getting to know the organization and its culture, people, and possibilities.


One student wondered if the public criticism of Yahoo CEO Melissa Meyer, and the Yahoo company culture as described in the press, made it harder for Donio to get her message across.  She responded that it is very difficult to be a CEO of a publicly traded company and that she did not know all the details about Yahoo, but it struck her as a very difficult ship to turn around for any leader. 


Another question focused on the SAP acquisition of Concur and why it seemed to be working.  Donio indicated that Concur was not planning to be acquired, in fact, the intent was to be independent.  The first six to 12 months of the acquisition were difficult, as there was much to do to get aligned with SAP.  But in the end, it worked because SAP gave Concur significant freedom to move forward and gave Concur greater access to resources to pursue key initiatives. 


Donio was then asked how someone on the job market could learn about company culture. She advised to look around and see if there are empty desks and if people really want to be there?  Interact with people at all levels and pay attention to how people greet you and treat each other.  Be ready with your questions for them, including how have the organization’s values been tested.


At Concur on Monday, joining Axiom on Tuesday, and at Seattle U on Wednesday!  A busy week for Elena Donio and we are so glad she was able to be on campus and share her wisdom with our students!  She is an amazing leader and a great role model for our students to learn from!

Kurt Dammeier and Sugar Mountain

Posted by Joseph Phillips on October 21, 2016 at 11:10 AM PDT

Kurt Dammeier is the founder of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, which has become the Seattle cheese icon.  Dammeier spoke at the Albers Executive Speaker Series on October 18th, under the theme of artisan brand marketing.  Dammeier focused on his passion for good and wholesome food, which includes Beecher’s cheese, but also other enterprises such as Pasta & Co., Maximus/Minimus, and Liam’s.

Dammeier is a Puget Sound native, entrepreneur, and leader on the Seattle food scene. After the Dammeier family's high-tech printing company was sold in 1994, Kurt began investing with the proceeds. In 1998, he founded Sugar Mountain Capital LLC (SMC), managing investments in real estate, private equity, and public equity. In 1999, Kurt joined the food community by forming Sugar Mountain as an operational arm of SMC. Sugar Mountain started with the purchase of Pasta & Co., but has grown to include Beecher’s, Bennett’s Pure Food Bistro, Mishima Reserve, and The Butcher’s Table.

Dammeier framed his talk as really about “Marketing to Millennials,” and noted that normally he was speaking to an older audience, so with students in the audience, it was more like telling Millennials how they think and see if they agree!

The presentation began with the “Brand Tenets” of Sugar Mountain.  They include:

Trust – the most important tenant is that customers develop a sense of trust with the product.

Experiential – it is not just about the product, but the whole experience that goes with use of the product, including the store or restaurant atmosphere.

Intelligent – assume your customer is smart!

Remarkable – make sure your product is remarkable.  That gets you publicity.  He gave the example of producing cheese in a city environment is unusual and helps make Beecher’s remarkable.

Consistently good – high quality needs to be a consistent part of the customer experience.

Full flavored – consumers do not want something they can make at home.

Charity – Sugar Mountain donates 1% of sales to the Pure Food Kids Foundation.  The foundation works to inform fourth graders about healthy food issues.

Dammeier also said you do not want to advertise to millennials – they think that advertising means your product is not good enough to build positive word of mouth opinion!

In the Q&A that followed, Dammeier admitted that he does not do market research as it is commonly understood, but instead relies on a focus group of one, namely if he can get passionate about something he should be able to persuade others to get passionate about it.

He also said that Sugar Mountain is not trying to create a strong connection between all the businesses.  They all are pursuing the same brand tenants, and when one business captures a consumer’s interest, the others should be able to do that, but he wants consumers to discover that for themselves rather than preach that to them.

In response to a question about the great customer service at Sugar Mountain companies, Dammeier noted the importance of empathy in responding to consumer complaints.  The customer may or may not be right, but their perception is their reality.  You cannot tell them they are wrong, but you can be understanding and empathetic, without apologizing.

When asked about which social media platform seemed to be the most impactful for Sugar Mountain, he mentioned Instagram as being especially powerful. 

He also fielded a question about the decision to open Beecher’s and The Cellar in New York City.  He shared that there is so much going on in NYC, that to get anyone’s attention and have a chance at being successful, he had to “go big.”  It was a big risk to sign a 20 year lease on 8500 square feet at 20th and Broadway, but it seems to be working out!

A member of the audience asked what impact the next recession would have on Sugar Mountain, and Dammeier responded that he does not try to predict the business cycle and make plans for it.  He said that weather was a more impactful variable for him, noting that the most recent stormy Seattle weather led to a notable drop in restaurant traffic.  He also noted how tight the labor market was in Seattle, and that it was hard to find good people for all levels of his organization, ranging from server to president!  Unlike many other restaurateurs, he said he was in favor of Seattle’s $15/hour wage law and embracing that agenda.

Finally, he noted that both Seattle and New York are visited by many tourists, and by having locations on Broadway and in Pike’s Place Market, he creates a demand for products such as Beecher’s Cheese all around the world, not just in those two markets.

Kurt Dammeier is passionate about good, healthy food and has created a number of successful businesses around that passion.  It was a great opportunity for our students to hear from a successful entrepreneur who demonstrates how following your passion can create a thriving business organization like Sugar Mountain!



Maasai Mara

Posted by Joseph Phillips on July 24, 2016 at 9:07 AM PDT

July 21 and 22 many participants in the 2016 International Association of Jesuit Business School World Forum took a safari to Maasai Mara in Southwest Kenya along the border with Tanzania.  We left early in the morning to test the Kenyan road system. After a few minutes on a new four lane highway, we quickly slowed down as we followed the narrow two lane road down into the Rift Valley, built by Italian POWs during WWII.  Once we reached the valley, road conditions and traffic improved until we hit the town of Narok.  Soon after leaving Narok, we turned off the highway for a 75 kilometer journey along a heavily potholed and washed out dirt road.  Fortunately, we were driving a tripped out Land Rover, as I would hate to try it any other vehicle.

In fact, I was surprised to see minivans and even school buses inching along the road on their way to the park!  I wondered when was the last time that road had seen a grader??  With tourism given renewed emphasis of late in Kenya, improving that road would be something to think about.  There are many camps and lodges on the fringe of the Maasai Mara with a vested interest in the access roads.  I wonder if a tax could be assessed to pay for road maintenance!?

On the approach to Narok,  we moved in and out of several valleys and it was fascinating to see how the climate conditions changed from valley to valley.  A few valleys were too dry for much in the way of agriculture, but some supported wheat production and others focused on corn production.  It was interesting to climb one valley with corn on both sides of the road, only to go over the crest and see wheat fields stretching in every direction!

We arrived at our camp about five and a half hours after leaving Nairobi.  It was a very well appointed facility, as one was not really camping, but glamping!  It featured a well appointed bar and restaurant as well as an infinity pool viewing the plains! After lunch, we set off for a late afternoon tour to catch the animals when they are starting to move about for feeding.  We first spotted some elephants, followed by giraffes, antelopes, wildebeests, gazelle, topi, warthogs, various birds, and finally a hard to find rhino.  It is fascinating to see how the animals mix together, as you will frequently see them in close proximity to each other.  For example, zebras and wildebeests in particular are frequently side by side.  Our guide, always in communication with his colleagues, then tried to find us a lion, but to no avail, and we had to hustle out of the park before dark and closing.

Next morning we set out relatively early and the top priority of our guide was to find us a lion.  In the process, we again saw giraffes, elephants, zebras, impala, wildebeests, buffalo, gazelle, and antelope.  In the course of looking for lions, we came across a solitary wildebeest limping along with a broken leg.  Our guide explained this was the time of the wildebeest migration from South to North and in crossing the Mara River the wildebeests often break a leg or hip.  The lions, of course, pick off these slow moving animals, so the lions eat well at this time of year!

We finally got word of a lion spotting, but by the time we got there the lion was bedded down in the grass and despite being no more than 25 yards away, all we could see was the top of his head.  Nevertheless, we still took pictures because that could have been the last lion we would see!

We continued to move through the park, getting some great views of hippos standing on the river bank.  In our previous hippo spotting at the lake, we only saw their eyes and the tops of their heads except for a distant spotting of one getting out of the water and disappearing in the bush.  It turns out that hippos are responsible for more deaths in Kenya than any other wild animal!  So, it was alarming to see a school bus stop on the other side of the river with all the teachers and students getting out to get a better view of the beasts.  Our guide was very upset at this infraction of the rules!

As we proceeded on, we passed through a huge herd of the wildebeests, no doubt something like the buffalo herds years ago in the western US!  As we were leaving the park, our guide noticed a cluster of vehicles on a parallel road and decided we should check it out to see if there was something of interest.  Sure enough, when we arrived there was a male lion and two females right by the side of the road.  In fact, when we pulled in I did not see them because I was scanning the distance, not imagining they could be so close!  When we finished maneuvering, we had two on one side of the vehicle and one on the other, all within ten yards of the Land Rover and not seeming to care about us!  They just went on lounging in the grass, no doubt having recently dined on wildebeest!  We got some great photos and could therefore delete our previous lion-partials!

We exited the park via a different gate and road.  At the exit, while crossing the Mara River, we saw more hippos as well as alligators for the first time.  This road out was in much better shape than the first one and for large stretches it had been freshly graded.  As a result, the trip back to Nairobi took only four hours!

The safari was a great experience, and if you always wanted to do one, I recommend you keep it on your bucket list.  But, I must confess that 2-3 days would have been about it for me.  The scenery is great but it does start to get repetitive.  I had many people admonish me to stay longer in Kenya, but I had enough safari time and was ready to get back to Seattle!

2016 IAJBS World Forum

Posted by Joseph Phillips on July 24, 2016 at 9:07 AM PDT

I attended the 22nd Annual International Association of Jesuit Business Schools (IAJBS) World Forum  in Nairobi, Kenya July 17-20.  IAJBS represents Jesuit business schools from around the world, including Europe, Latin America, Asia, India, and the US.  Some 120 were in attendance from 34 Jesuit business schools from around the world.

Why the Kenya location?  Although there are currently no Jesuit business schools in Africa, the Jesuits hope to change that. In fact, one project has been approved by the order for Kinshasa and their are groups hoping to get similar approvals for Nairobi, Lagos, and Abidjan.  The Kenya location was meant to demonstrate support for these efforts and that schools from around the world would be willing to assist.

The meeting was supposed to start for me on the morning of the 17th with the board meeting of the IAJBS.  As president-elect, of course I needed to be at the meeting!  (One serves a two year as president-elect before serving as president, so my term as president begins in July, 2017.). It seems that some board members had scheduled themselves for a tour of the nearby Giraffe Center and the Elephant Orphanage, so the board meeting was postponed until the afternoon, and of course I went along for the morning tour.

The Giraffe Center was interesting for its up close view of the giraffes.  The Elephant Orphanage was even more interesting.  It's mission is to nurse orphaned young elephants back to health and integrate them into the wild.  They find elephants less than two years of age and take about five years to complete the integration.  There are currently 24 elephants at various stages of the process.  Visitors see the elephants at their 11 am feeding and it is an interesting process to watch!

At the board meeting that afternoon we mostly discussed the details of the 2016, 2017, and 2018 conferences.  The 2017 conference will be in Namur, Belgium and it was decided the 2018 conference will be in Seattle!  That means a lot of work for SU and Albers but I am sure we are up for it!  The 2018 conference will also be a joint meeting with Colleagues in Jesuit Business Education (CJBE), which is a group that supports faculty at Jesuit business schools.  This will be the 20th anniversary of CJBE and, ironically, the first CJBE meeting took place at SU in 1998, so it is fitting to return to Seattle in 2018!

The conference kicked off later that afternoon with a celebratory mass, Kenyan style.  The choir gave an amazing achepello performance and there was energetic dancing by a group of children.  The Provincial of the East African Provence, Fr. Joseph Arfulo, celebrated the mass, and 12 other Jesuits concelebrated.  It struck me how the ethnic composition of the priests illustrated the future of the Jesuits -- seven were African, four were Indian, and two were White (and older)!

After mass was the opening dinner.  The featured speaker was the CEO of Equity Bank, James Mwabgu, who has received many awards for his leadership as the bank has become the largest domestic bank in Kenya.  He discussed how the Kenyan economy has progressed since independence and how Jesuit business schools could assist Kenya.  He indicated that beyond skill development, there was a need for ethics and leadership training.  We also heard from a Georgetown educated member of Parliament, who stressed the need to counter the bad rumors abroad about the safely of traveling to Kenya!  I am happy to report that Kenya appeared very safe to us!

July 18th was the start of the conference.  The original plan was to have the President of Kenya greet us, but that was cancelled at the last minute.  Instead, we heard from Senator Beatrice Elachi, a powerful legislator in the Parliament and a member of the ruling party.  She also stressed the need for business education and discussed the difficulties of corruption in the country and the broad impact of that.

The first plenary session featured an update on the four projects mentioned above.   We have heard off and on about Jesuit business education in Africa since 2012 when we met in Barcelona, and this is the first time since when things appear to be solidified and priorities are in place.  Later that afternoon there was a meeting of business school deans and project representatives and we formalized plans on how to connect the projects with business schools that are willing to help them get up and running.

Jim Joseph, dean at LeMoyne College, gave an update on the Jesuit Case Series and the plans to extend that to an electronic platform linking Jesuit schools worldwide in a variety of ways, not just the case series.  Jim has been the primary driver of this project and deserves most of the credit for its progress to date.  Our faculty do not use cases in class or write cases as much as faculty at other schools do, so the case series is not as impactful on us as it might be for others, but it is still something we should support and of course the global platform will benefit us as it will other schools.

At lunch, we heard from Richard Leaky, the son of Louis Leaky the famous paleontologist and a paleontologist himself and Kenyan wildlife advocate.  He gave an overview of some of the challenges facing the preservation of wildlife in Kenya, including the new rail line being constructed by the Chinese from the port city of Mombasa to inland destinations.  It is not accommodating wildlife migration patterns and that will become very problematic.  He also talked about increasing wildlife migration outside of the parks and how putting in the fencing to control that would be very expensive.  His most interesting remarks were about the burning of ivory inventories to reduce price and decrease the incentive for poaching.  It seems the empirical evidence supports his claim that burning, despite the decrease in supply, reduced price by decreasing demand by increasing the stigma of purchasing ivory.  As an economist, I find it a fascinating example of the supply and demand model!

After lunch I moderated a panel discussion on the theme of "How can Africa Help IAJBS? -- How can IAJBS Help Africa?"  The panel featured five panelists with only 60 minutes of airtime, so we had to be sure everyone was very disciplined with their remarks in order to leave time for Q&A!  Needless to say, I did not organize this panel, because it violates one of my Iron Rules of three panelists only!

Tuesday featured more speakers and paper presentations by faculty members.  That evening the group attended a dinner featuring Kenyan dancing and acrobatics.  Did you know that Meena Rishi is an acrobat?  It is true and someone must have a photo of it!  After the dinner, our group started its version of Kenyan dance, which must have been an interesting sight for the Kenyans.  It turns out that Meena is also a good Kenyan dancer, so her Indian dance training translates very well to the Kenyan scene!  Meena and Chips Chipalkatti were at the conference to present their paper on Laudato Si, Pope Francis' recent encyclical on the environment.  Unfortunately, I could not attend their presentation because I had a board related meeting at that time.

Wednesday was mostly a day for local tours organized by the conference.  We decided to take the Lake Naivasha tour, which is a couple of hours northwest of Nairobi.  To get there, you have to drop down into the Great Rift Valley.  It is part of a 9000 kilometer fault line running from Israel to Mozambique and fascinating to see from the top of the rift down toward the immense valley.

The lake was very interesting for its mix of wildlife near the shore and less than a mile fro m the highway.  Within a small area of a few hectares we saw giraffe, zebras, gazelle, hippos and others.  There were also a tremendous variety of birds on the lake.  Our guide said that 1100 of Africa's 1300 bird species can be found at the lake.  Ironically, even though Kenya is facing increasing drought due to global warming, the lake is increasing in size, and scientists are struggling to determine why.  Rivers are drying up well lakes are expanding.

Like many emerging economies, Kenya suffers from a critical lack of infrastructure.  The ride back to Nairobi illustrated that, as we climbed out of the valley on a narrow two lane road built by Italian POWs during WWII and filled with slow moving trucks.  The going was very, very slow, but part of the experience!  The hope is that the new railroad will relieve some of this congestion, but not everyone thinks people will give up on the flexibility of truck delivery.

That was the end of the official conference events.  For the next two days, we took a safari to Maasai Mara facilitated by the conference.  For the news on that you will need to go to my next blog!