Dean’s Blog

45th Annual Accounting Awards Banquet

Posted by Joseph Phillips on June 5, 2017 at 4:06 PM PDT



The 45th Annual Accounting Awards Banquet took place on June 2nd.  Twenty-six different scholarships and awards were given to 39 accounting students that evening!  Some of the highlights included the Outstanding Senior Award going to Trey Takara and Daniel Verburg (first time we could not narrow it down to one person!), Gus Orlando winning the Outstanding Master of Professional Accounting degree Award, and Mr. Verburg winning the Beta Alpha Psi Outstanding Leader Award.

I am so impressed that the Department of Accounting has been able to carry on this tradition for 45 years!  That means all the students and some of the faculty were not even born when this event started! :}  Nearly 100 were in attendance this year!

This year the event was facilitated by four generous sponsors – Clark Nuber, Deloitte, EY, and Weyerhaeuser!  Many accounting professionals and mentors in our Accounting Mentor Program were in attendance.

Dennis Applegate, an adjunct instructor in the department and member of the Internal Audit Program Advisory Board, received the Chair’s Award for outstanding service to the department.

Sarah Bee is stepping down as faculty advisor for Beta Alpha Psi, the accounting honor society.   BAP President, Daniel Verburg, gave an excellent tribute to Sarah outlining her success as the advisor to this very active student organization.

Congratulations to the Department of Accounting on their 45th successful awards banquet!

Expeditors International CEO on Culture

Posted by Joseph Phillips on May 25, 2017 at 5:05 PM PDT



Jeff Musser, President and CEO of Expeditors International, was the speaker for the Albers Executive Speaker Series on May 23rd on the SU campus.  Musser was appointed CEO of Expeditors in 2013, after starting with the company as a part-time messenger in 1983.  He worked his way up through the organization, from District Manager, to Regional VP, to CIO before becoming CEO a few years ago.

Musser started off by explaining how the culture of Expeditors consists of nine factors – curiosity, pride, attitude, excellence, resolute, integrity, pride, sense of humor, and appearance.  He did not try to unpack each factor, but did note that “appearance” sometimes get people’s attention.  The company wants to project a professional appearance since they believe that provides a competitive advantage to them.  He noted that younger employees push back on the dress code, which means Expeditors needs to provide an explanation as to why appearance is considered important for success.  It is not something they will compromise.

He reminded the audience that Expeditors business-to-business model is a non-asset model.  They own no planes, ships, or trucks.  They believe there are more than enough of those assets available already.  While freight moving companies may overinvest in assets at certain points, in the long run the firms they partner with will need to get capacity right in order to be profitable.

Musser lamented that in this day and age people are not taking the time to engage and understand others.  Instead of trying to understand the other person’s point of view or why something is done in a particular way, we want to impose our perspective.  Via social media we are surrounding ourselves with people who view things as we do, thus creating our own “echo chamber” as it were.  He encouraged the audience to engage in more open dialogue to understand other points of view, which can be more powerful than simply exercising free speech.

As for leading and managing today’s workforce, Musser had several observations:

  • One challenge is people want to move up in the organization too quickly. They need to understand they will be in the workforce for a long time and everything does not happen in the first six months.  Younger people often need to slow down and show greater patience.
  • Every leader and manager is called upon to deliver “bad news” to employees. Musser said that the biggest mistake made is sitting on that information for too long.  The fear of delivering bad news must be overcome, and in many cases employees are appreciative of receiving the news in a timely fashion.
  • Some of the things they look for in new hires are a strong work ethic, intelligence, and treating others with respect. He said Expeditors hires for attitude – they can teach skills. 
  • He finds periodic check-ins more valuable for employee development than annual evaluation.
  • New employees often enter the organization wanting to disrupt the culture, rather than first taking the time to understand why things are the way they are. This is another example of not stepping back and thinking about the other’s point of view.
  • People tend to self-select into advancement opportunities. They gravitate to what level of responsibility they are comfortable with.  There is not a need to coach that.

When asked about the success of, Musser expressed great admiration for the firm, and noted that unlike most companies who are trying to figure out what to outsource, Amazon seems determined to do everything on its own.  He also noted that whereas most large companies are rewarded for their profitability, right now Amazon is rewarded for growth.  At some point, that will shift and profitability will become the standard the company is measured by.  That shift may force Amazon to do more outsourcing and abandon some of its business lines.

Musser is very excited about what the Internet of Things means for the logistics industry.  With connected devices, the ability to track items second by second should result in significant improvements in customer service.  Periodic updates will be replaced by continuous tracking.  This also provides Expeditors with more data for improving performance and advising customers on logistics strategy.

Throughout the presentation, Musser showed himself to be a down to earth, humble, and earnest leader.  He definitely models the nine values that characterize the Expeditors culture.  He proved to be a first rate speaker for our students to hear from!



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!