Volume 34 • Issue 3 • March
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Business Person Awards
proclaims “My life has been a wonderful journey.
Sid Baron proclaims life of many
Whatcom businessman founded Exxel Pacific, KLYN and
By Elisa Claassen
longtime Whatcom County businessman noted for his numerous successes
in and out of the county enjoys watching reruns of “The Andy
For, like the
television show’s buoyant namesake, this year’s lifetime achiever is
a positive thinker. It isn’t his cup that is half full, it is his
pitcher that is overflowing.
Attired in a well-tailored suit
with a vivid red shirt and tie, Sidney “Sid” Baron looks comfortable
in the office space on Lakeway Drive. Yet, it isn’t Baron’s regular
office. His office for Exxel Pacific General Contractors is being
restored after recent floods in Whatcom County and throughout
Western Washington. Baron credits his staff with not only efficiency
but great loyalty for working around the clock to move equipment and
supplies from their location adjacent to I-5 across town with
virtually no down time.
Likewise, Baron himself hasn’t let
life’s roadblocks discourage or detour him from achieving a series
of almost unrelated business ventures throughout his 70-plus years –
being an immigrant from Holland who knew little English; operating a
dairy farm and a Lynden-based business at the same time; then
several businesses simultaneously in the same office space;
supporting a family of six children; or even the diagnosis of MS
when he was only 40 years of age.
Why focus on the tough things
when there are so many other things to think about?
born in 1930 in Opende, Holland. At age 18 he had arrived in the
United States and met his future wife, Margart Tjoelker. The
following year they were married, farming 16 cows near Custer and
raising their family: Jim Baron, now 58, the manager of the
Northwest Washington Fair; Gerald Baron, 57, Baron Communications
and PIER Systems; Ron Baron, 54, of Yakima; Alan Baron, 52, manager
of Comfort Inn in Bellingham; Dr. Kay Baron, 48, clinical
psychiatrist and professor in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Julie
(Baron) Bedient, 45, administrative assistant at Meadow Greens
Retirement Community in Lynden.
Baron’s first business venture,
Baron’s Music and Electronics, opened in Lynden at 525 Front St.,
which today is a health food store. The retail shop offered
televisions, other electronics and musical instruments. Before he
sold it in 1986, Baron built KLYN FM radio station – a sound booth
in the back of the store. The station was sold to CHRISTA Ministries
of Seattle in 1980 and now bears the Praise 106.5 designation.
Although airing for less than 24 hours initially, Baron had
“music for every member of the family” – with the exception of rock
music – and several interview shows he hosted: “Dialogue” weekly and
“Another Point of View” daily. A number of the broadcasters were
then high schoolers who he mentored, including current businessmen
Herm Laninga, now in advertising sales; Phil Bratt, Baron
Telecommunications; and Tony Larson, publisher of Northwest Business
“It is most gratifying to talk with them now and see
where they are at,” Baron said.
The front of the shop
transformed into a third business, Lynden Travel Agency, with
Baron’s friend Rook Van Halm as manager and later as part owner.
(This business closed approximately four years ago due to changes in
the travel industry.)
“We were just trying to break even – times
were tough – and there was no travel agency in Lynden so we started
one. … Rook had some background in the travel business when he was
in Holland near Amsterdam. (After all) I had started a radio station
not knowing anything about it, but you learn fast and you read a lot
about what you need to do.”
Moving into real estate and
Mike Hollander was Baron’s first real estate partner before they
created their own companies – “We’re still very good friends,” he
Baron then teamed up with Kevin DeVries in the formation
of Exxel Pacific in 1986. “He’s amazing,” says Baron of DeVries.
“He’s able to wear so many hats. He was nominated ‘Businessman of
the Year’ last year. I made his nomination speech. He’s a great
Exxel started by building an apartment complex and now
handles projects primarily in Seattle as well as other states
including Montana, Nevada and Missouri, with a staff of around 80
full-time employees in the office and the field, he said. They have
at least 15 current projects in the works.
As DeVries serves as
Exxel’s president, Baron is the chairman of the board. He also
serves on the investment committee board for Lynden Christian High
School and the Swank MS Foundation in Beaverton, Ore. (and helped
establish the Swank MS Clinic). He also has ownership interest in a
few hotels and investments.
Living with MS
you can’t tell by looking at me … but I know each day that I have
The diagnosis came almost 38 years ago. It was then that
Baron met a multiple sclerosis expert who was then adjunct faculty
with the University of Oregon, neurologist Dr. Royce Swank. Swank
died at age 99 in November 2008.
Although Swank told him
point-blank at the time “I can’t do anything for you. There are no
magic pills,” he did put Baron on a path toward enjoying a better
quality of life.
Baron sits up and moves forward toward the front
of the desk for effect.
“I’ve had almost every imaginable
symptom you can get with MS, but diet is an important part of it and
I take no medication. No medication whatsoever. A lot of Vitamin C.
“It has a lot to do with your outlook. If you are a pessimistic
person whose glass is always half empty, you’re not as likely to
fare well with MS or other diseases than if your glass is always
He leans back again.
He also made a drastic step
in his business approach – at that time he read “How to Delegate”
and switched from his “doer” emphasis to delegation. He points out
that when the Exxel building flooded this January, his staff – not
him – moved to the Lakeway location within 48 hours. “They love the
company and are willing to work 48 hours without sleep. I can’t say
enough to express my appreciation.”
Baron wants to share what
he has learned with others, carrying on his storytelling tradition
from his life on air with KLYN. Although not a fast typist by his
own account, self-published author (under his own Exxel Publishing,
www.exxelpublishing.com) Baron is now working on his fourth book
“one letter at a time.”
“I’m a one-finger artist and I think
slow, too!” he chuckles. The working title of his next work is
“Slices: Extraordinary Events in the Lives of Ordinary People.”
wisdom for business leaders
has Baron noticed in Whatcom County’s business sector after being in
several different industries for more than 40 years?
is short: “Constant change … some good. I love computers. Constant
change is ongoing. Nothing stays the same.”
“It is more difficult
to get personal service today,” he notes, citing examples of calling
companies and being directed around by a computerized voice. “When I
was in retail business it was the personal service that brought in
the business because they could ask me a question about the
operation of this or that and they would get an honest answer. Now
you just walk through a big store and you can hardly find anyone to
ask any questions. That’s the negative and I don’t want to dwell on
the negative necessarily. My life has been a wonderful journey.
“The businesses I started were all bootstrap. I didn’t have any
credit at the bank. I simply worked really hard at two or three
businesses at the same time. I didn’t even have any credit to start
the radio station business, so one secret to anyone who wants to
start a business: If you can’t save money, you can’t start a
business. That will hit a lot of people.”
People who turn to
venture capitalists or family for financing their dream ventures may
not have enough initiative to succeed, Baron believes. He thinks
that having one’s own money at stake is a stronger driver toward
owning and operating a successful business.
And he enjoys having
his own business: He never worked for a salary in his life.
continues: “I had little mouths to feed. I had responsibilities to a
family. I couldn’t afford to fail. Nowadays people want to raise all
the money in the world in order to start a business. There are still
opportunities. What attracted me to America was the slogan I read in
the newspaper in Holland: ‘America, the land of unlimited
opportunities.’ I was 17.”
He doesn’t know what he would have
done had he stayed in Holland.
Baron only knew a few words of
English when he came to America and there were other things
unfamiliar to him. “I didn’t know how long a mile was. I was used to
meters. I didn’t know anything about Fahrenheit, but only Celsius.
All of a sudden you realize that instead of being as wise as an owl,
you’ve as dumb as a cow. Life is a wonderful journey.”
cites “God’s blessings” in his life: working on his books; going
with his wife, children and their spouses on a cruise February 2009;
and enjoying an annual family Christmas get together each year at a
hotel in Everett; and having a good secretary Susan Powell who has
been with him for nearly 15 years.
“Ask what my most precious
possession is?” he prompts. “It is my reputation. It takes a
lifetime to build and a day to destroy it.” He equated how someone
could have what they thought was a solid marriage and how even one
affair could destroy it and how one fraudulent check could likewise
damage financial footing.
“That’s what Kevin and I have built
Exxel on – reputation.”
The late Jim Cress, president/CEO of Nordic
Tugs and founder of Skipper Cress, was “passionate about boats, race
cars, motorcycles,” says his wife Stephanie.
Jim Cress: Selling boats and
Late CEO of Nordic Tugs is the Skagit Lifetime
Achievement award recipient
Uncommonly affable, highly engaging and a true friend
to scores of business owners and marine employees in Skagit County,
Jim Cress, who guided Nordic Tugs from near bankruptcy to prosperity
in the ’90s, is this year’s recipient of a Lifetime Achievement
Cress served 12 years
as president and chief executive officer of Nordic Tugs and was the
proud owner of Skipper Cress Yacht Sales in Anacortes. He was the
consummate salesman, a passionate believer in his product, and the
kind of CEO who could turn dross into gold. It was his almost
single-handed involvement in steering Nordic Tugs to profit, despite
the odds, that made the Port of Skagit-based manufacturer the
international builder of popular tug-shaped pleasure craft that it
We honor Cress posthumously, for he was tragically
killed in a motorcycle accident Oct. 18, 2008, at age 62. His award
will be presented at this year’s Business Person of the Year
Banquet, sponsored by Northwest Business Monthly.
people, and he loved boat shows,” Stephanie Cress says of her late
husband. “He loved anything mechanical and was passionate about
boats, race cars, motorcycles – using his toys all at one
He even raced sprint cars and often shopped at a parts
store in Burlington owned by nationally known dirt-cup driver Steve
Beitler. When Beitler heard Skagit Speedway near Alger was for sale,
he approached his friend for financial help and Cress put up the
money for him. Beitler, who repaid his “business angel” in full in
2003, says Cress helped him fulfill his dream of owning the
“I called Jim and told him I needed $25,000 more to
put the deal together,” Beitler told this writer in 2006. “He wrote
a check and said, ‘Here you go.’ He left me alone to run the track
as I saw fit. ‘This is your dream and I want to help you out,’ he
told me. Jim just wanted me to fulfill my dream.” Cress also
“pushed” Beitler to fix up the track and added capital to improve
the infrastructure. “I was so very, very lucky to get a partner like
Jim Cress,” Beitler said.
“Crazy guy who loved boats”
A risk taker, who once boated through a hurricane and
twice drove his Harley-Davidson over rough roads to and from Alaska,
took a gamble in the mid-’80s when he joined a struggling boat
manufacturer in Woodinville called Nordic Tugs. The owner-founder,
Jerry Husted, recalls what happened:
“He was one of those crazy
guys who just loves boats,” he says of Cress. “He was selling BMWs
and wanted to make a change, take the plunge.”
Cress had seen a
small ad for a salesperson in a local newspaper and asked Husted for
the job. “We were going through tough times and told him the pay was
poor, but he said commission was all right. We made him national
“It was a risk,” Stephanie Cress insists, “and I
wasn’t for it at first. But it was a good fit.” The Cresses had a
24-foot Sea Ray then moored in La Conner and often attended boat
shows, so Jim wasn’t new to the marine industry.
selling the cute-but-rugged, diesel-powered pleasure boats,
distinguished by their high bows and low sterns reminiscent of small
tugs that Husted and his two partners had built based on plans by
naval architect Lynn Senour. Soon Cress was made “a reluctant
president” of the company and engineered a move to the Skagit Port
facility west of Burlington. He started there with 13 employees and
no finished boats to show to prospective buyers, just photos and
drawings, but lots of hope and dreams.
Charm tug’s big selling
Meanwhile, he felt he needed
a sales outlet closer to water, and with the help of father-in-law
Tom Burke, he founded Skipper Cress at Cap Sante Marina in
“Things were getting very bleak,” Cress told this
writer in a 1999 interview for Skagit Business Monthly. “We
struggled real hard. The boat was beautiful and the company, to be
candid, survived on its charm.”
Then came a “divine intervention”
of sorts. A customer named Wayne G. Bessler, a well-to-do glass
manufacturer from Tennessee who berthed his 32-foot Nordic Tug at La
Conner, liked the product so much he agreed to help out by infusing
enough capital of his own into the firm so that Cress could produce
prototype boats to show and sell, grow and maintain a thriving
workforce and ultimately keep the company afloat.
“Wayne is an
‘angel,’” Cress once said, referring to the financial term for an
outsider who steps in to make a business prosper. “We went from a
loss of $1 million to a $7,000 profit for fiscal 1997. The number
isn’t significant, but the color of the ink is.”
through thick and thin, has never looked back.
So it isn’t so
remarkable, having been bailed out himself by an “angel,” that Jim
Cress would go out of his way to help others in business, such as
It took more than Bessler’s financial assistance to make
Nordic what it is today, however.
“Jim was a true entrepreneur,”
recalls David Goehring, who replaced Cress as Nordic Tugs president.
“He didn’t rely on others to make business decisions for him. He was
very much a risk taker. He really had a clear vision of what he
wanted to do and what he wanted to accomplish. He made a lot out of
a shoestring operation. He was very outgoing and gregarious and made
customers feel good about themselves.”
From rags to
As business grew, so did
the manufacturing footprint of Nordic Tugs. Early on, it moved to a
larger facility across the street and over time added two large
plants up the block in the old Pacific Circuits and JanSport
facilities, the latter becoming home to a new 33,000-square-foot
lamination shop in 2001. At its height, the company employed more
than 170 workers earning family wages and good benefits.
Cress’s death, Goehring has become president and Gary Miller was
appointed board chair. In 2007, the boat builder made an estimated
$18 million in revenues, although that figure is down considerably
because of the current recession.
“The industry as a whole has
taken more than a dip – more like a plunge,” Goehring concedes.
“We’re down to less than 100 employees right now.”
continues to be Nordic Tugs primary seller in these parts, but one
can also find Nordic Tugs dealers in the United Kingdom, Russia,
Japan and Martinique, as well as in Maine, Maryland, Michigan,
California and Alaska in the United States.
The company has
recently reintroduced an updated version of its first model, a
24-footer, in the hopes of capturing new, perhaps younger devotees.
For around $180,000 retail, the tuglike boat is a bargain, able –
like its larger 26- to 54-foot incarnations – to ply the rougher
waters of Alaska’s Inland Sea, Caribbean and Great Lakes, and it
might be better suited to smaller power-boating lakes around the
country, according to Husted.
Meanwhile, of Jim and Stephanie’s
three sons – Allen, Steven and Jeff – the latter helps his mom run
Skipper Cress, serving as vice president; the others live in
California and Arizona, respectively.
“Jim made a lot of friends
in boating and we have had many good experiences at Skipper Cress,”
the co-founder recalls. “Most people come to us traumatized by other
dealers, but with us there’s no hostile feeling at
STARTUP BUSINESS OF
THE YEAR NOMINEES
By Brita Adkinson
Fresh pasta made with locally grown organic flour and
organic eggs from local farms is now available in Bellingham stores
thanks to business partners Katie Hinton and Anna
business, Bellingham Pasta Co., delivers nearly 300 units of fresh
pasta to five local Haggen stores, Terra Organica at the Public
Market, and the two Community Food Co-op stores. They also deliver
pasta to the Cliff House restaurant on State Street.
ingredients is important to us,” Hinton said. “We buy non-organic
semolina from Pendleton Mills, Oregon, because we cannot find any
semolina locally. However, most of the flour we use is organic and
comes from Fairhaven Mills.”
Customers can enjoy spaghetti,
linguine, fettuccine, fusilli and penne rigate pasta made with
ingredients including semolina, whole wheat, roasted red peppers and
The final push to start the business came when Hinton
and Rankin heard that Nettle Farms on Lummi Island ceased making
fresh pasta. But the story really began in Portland about 20 years
ago when Hinton and Rankin worked together as travel agents, and
enjoyed eating fresh pasta there.
When Hinton settled in
Bellingham several years ago, Rankin came to visit. She liked the
town so much she moved here. In spring 2008, Hinton invited Rankin
to join in the pasta-making venture.
Hinton gained business
experience when she ran her own travel agency for six years. Rankin
has 20 years’ experience managing restaurants, cafés and lodges in
remote parts of Alaska, and cruise ship catering.
The two found
a pasta maker on Craigslist – a bright yellow pasta extruder from
Italy, then formed an S-corporation. Hinton is president, her
husband Steve Hinton is secretary, and Rankin is treasurer. Next,
they mailed out marketing information to local stores, restaurants
and catering companies, and soon they had responses from several
“We work every Sunday and Monday, 2 to 9 p.m. On
Tuesdays we deliver,” Hinton explained. “Our kitchen is located
downtown, so Anna delivers pasta to Terra Organica, the Community
Food Co-op, the Cliff House and Haggen in Fairhaven, because she is
doing it by bike. I deliver to the other businesses, by car.”
Working toward a lighter carbon footprint is an important
philosophy at Bellingham Pasta Co. For example, the pasta is
packaged in 100 percent biodegradable containers.
works part time at Mount Baker Theatre and at Ciao Thyme Catering.
In addition, she volunteers at the food bank, Pickford Cinema and
KUGS radio. Hinton works one day a week at a travel and timeshare
company. She volunteers at the Columbia Neighborhood Association and
in the Parkview Elementary School.
The team plans to introduce
fresh pasta products at the Bellingham Farmers Market when the
season begins in April.
Why did they start this business?
“Because there was no fresh pasta here and we love fresh pasta,”
Hinton said. “And pasta is ‘recession food’ – it is cheap.” She sums
up the business philosophy at Bellingham Pasta Co.: “Affordable.
growing up in Olympia, Wash., Sean Hegstad, began his training as an
architect by building forts in the forests and fields around his
house. Now he is designing sustainable homes in Whatcom
Hegstad co-owns HAVEN
Design Workshop in Fairhaven with his business partner Bryan Ahlers.
They formed the architecture firm after working together for
three-and-a-half years at a local design firm. HAVEN creates
“forward thinking” architectural design and planning for
residential, multi-family, commercial and mixed-use projects.
One of his most recognizable projects is the Fairhaven Gardens
building, in Bellingham, for which Hegstad and building designer
Kathleen Hill did the initial design, height variance and planning
approval. It is a mixed-use building with retail shops and
condominiums, and accentuated with roof gardens. Currently he is
developing designs for the Cooperative Extension Building at
Northwest Indian College and the Fanatik retail and office building
Since Hegstad became a father, he’s thought even
more about sustainability and the long-reaching impact that
buildings have on the community and environment. He’s incorporated
those ideas into his business philosophy. “We aspire to integrate
sustainability, collaborative design, our community and your budget
into every project,” he said.
One of his proudest achievements
last year was recognition by Sustainable Connections, choosing not
one but two of his homes for the organization’s annual home tour.
Hegstad and Ahlers’ commitment to community is further
demonstrated by their pro bono work. They donated a house design for
a family that lost their home to fire and had no insurance. They
have also donated as-built drawings of the Blaine Train Station for
fundraising efforts, as well as cost estimates for moving and
remodeling the building. They are working with a Western Washington
University work/study student to give him practical experience
working in an architecture firm.
The business has been
successful even though it started right before the economic
downturn. They anticipate the 2009 building market will continue to
be flat, but, “we feel blessed that we live and work in an area that
hasn’t been as affected by the reduced pricing in the housing market
as other parts of the country,” said Hegstad.
And the word is
getting out that he is a quality, responsible, affordable architect.
So they expect to be busy enough to hire a full-time technical staff
member during the third quarter of this year.
two HAVEN owners and a silent partner have formed a group to develop
residential property. They purchased their first property and will
remodel one home and will break ground in April to build a
The Bellingham area was already home to Hegstad and
Ahlers’ extended families. After joining them here, Hegstad can’t
see living any other place. “This is a great area to practice
sustainable architecture and planning,” he said. “We’re glad that
Whatcom County homeowners and business owners understand the value
of quality, sustainable and responsible design.”
JUMP AROUND FUN
By Kate Nicols
With the name Jump Around Fun Zone, it’s a good bet
that kids are somehow involved. Sure enough, the two couples who
co-own the business, Matt and Sarah Robison and Cris and Nikki
Wesselman, have seven children under the age of 10 between them.
Those little folks helped to launch their parents’ business
While Cris and Matt
worked at T-Mobile they started a business with two inflatable
“bounce houses” to rent for parties. This was their first foray into
entrepreneurship. Then they realized there was a gap in places to
take their children in Bellingham when the weather was bad. People
were driving to Mount Vernon for indoor activities. When they saw
the opportunity in the market, they decided to open a facility.
“We just felt like it was the right time for Whatcom County to
support an indoor play center,” Robison said. Last year the two
couples went from the concept to opening the doors of the facility
off the Guide Meridian, in just four hectic months.
children are still the inspiration for their business to provide
good, safe fun and exercise. The center features inflatable slides,
houses and an obstacle course for children to romp in. The parent
owners are conscientious about safety and ask that children sanitize
their hands and wear clean socks before using the equipment. They
also have a concession stand with healthy snacks as well as
time-tested favorites. They have included the waiting parents in
their plans and have provided them with a lounge area with
comfortable couches, free Wi-Fi and magazines.
their three lines of business. The first is the walk-ins to their
facility. The inflatable games are for ages 11 and under, sorry no
adults. Or they can deliver bounce houses for corporate, home and
neighborhood events. Their third line is the different party
packages for children at the facility. During their first nine
months of business they have already hosted 350 birthday parties and
delivered more than 80 bounce houses to businesses and homes.
This year they hope to get the bigger boost in their business by
offering more specials and programs to try to get more customers to
use their inflatables during the early part of the week – Monday
“The best part of being in business is that we
get to do it in our own backyard,” said Robison. Being a part of the
community and giving back to it is important to them. To date
they’ve donated several thousands of dollars ‘worth of services to
local schools, charities and churches. They are also partnered with
the Ray of Hope Camp for children with emotional, behavioral and/or
economic problems to provide a free outlet to their camp last year.
They are currently working with ARC to have evenings at the facility
dedicated to kids with special needs.
financial times, it is nice to be part of a community that is so
supportive of local businesses,” added Robison. “We are proud to be
part of this community and love being able to give back to those who
have made us successful.”
By Tara Nelson
age of 21, Bellingham resident Derek Johnson couldn’t wait to get
hands-on experience in the business world.
After attending the University of Washington and
the University of Houston where he spent a year in their business
entrepreneurship program, he and a friend – former business partner
Matt Pelo – formed NetworkText, now known as Tatango, setting up
shop in the basement of his parent’s Bellingham home in October
The business offers free and easy-to-use group text and
voice messaging services to groups, businesses and
The idea started when Johnson was having lunch
with a friend in a sorority who was having trouble communicating
with the girls in her chapter.
In May 2008, less than six months
later, the startup gained serious traction. After receiving a round
of funding from the Bellingham Angel Group, Johnson was able to
relocate to a modest office space on State Street downtown.
then, they have hired four new full-time employees, most of whom are
recent graduates from Western Washington University, and sent nearly
50 million text messages to users.
Also, in October 2008, Tatango
launched their free voice messaging service, in which users can
record and send a voice message to all the mobile users within their
The voice system was developed as an on-demand system that
allows the group member to retrieve a voice call on their own time
through a simple text message. The user can retrieve the voice call
by replying to the text message with the word “CALL.” Further,
message senders have the option of allowing recipients to respond to
messages directly to their cell phone or by e-mail.
Tatango’s group text and voicemail messaging is completely free to
users and supported by ad revenue. A seven-second interactive
advertisement is placed at the beginning of each voice message.
Also, callers’ information is kept strictly confidential and is
never distributed to third parties.
Johnson said he expects to
reach nearly 1 million users by the end of 2009.
one of the best things about doing business in Bellingham is the
tight network of business people within the community that a young
startup can rely on for advice, feedback and guidance. Another
benefit was the proximity to Western Washington University. Not only
could Tatango hire students from WWU and help support local business
by hiring graduates, but their services could be used by Western
clubs/organizations to help improve communication across
Tatango has presented multiple speeches and presentations
to organizations and clubs on Western Washington University’s campus
on how to own and run a business. Soon-to-graduate students are able
to hear advice and successes within Tatango and apply it to their
They have also teamed up with the Boys &
Girls Club of Bellingham to take monthly all-staff trips and give
their time to the organization.
STARTUP BUSINESS OF THE YEAR
By Dan Aznoff
Publisher David Linsey must have felt like a very
small fish in a very big pond last year when he launched the Action
Pages in Skagit and Whatcom counties.
After all, he was going toe-to-toe with three of
the largest media corporations in America for a share of the limited
advertising budgets local businesses have to spend to reach
The results have been impressive. The first edition
of the new directory included more than twice the number of display
ads than combined total of the comparable books from Verizon and the
Yellow Pages. The effort earned the Action Pages a place among the
finalists for the Startup Business of the Year award presented
annually by Northwest Business Monthly.
“Our interests are
inseparably connected to the local business community,” explained
Linsey “If we can help enough local small businesses get what they
want, we will surely gain what we want (as well).”
In addition to
his business accomplishments, Linsey is especially proud of the fact
his enterprise is the source of employment for more than two dozen
local residents. Sales so far this year are on a pace to exceed the
first book by 65 percent. In addition to the company’s first book in
Skagit County, additional directories have been published to serve
Whatcom County as well as the northern portions of Snohomish
Linsey returned to Western Washington in July 2007 after
three years managing advertising sales in Yakima for a directory
company based in Boise, Idaho. His decision to select the Skagit
County market came after his two-year nationwide search of possible
markets and the discovery that display ads in Skagit and Whatcom
counties were priced among the highest in the nation.
thrilled to find the best potential in his own backyard.
Action Pages were spawned in the parking lot of Sportsman’s
Warehouse in June of 2007 when Linsey met with John Hein of
MacGregor Publishing to sketch out the business model for a locally
owned business directory that could give business owners an
effective and affordable alternative for directory
Besides its effort to conform to current budgets,
local editions of the Action Pages are published in a more practical
size, according to Linsey, eliminating the need to lay the phone
book flat on a table while searching for an ad. The smaller size is
designed for consumers who are on their cell phone or calling from
The neighborhood directory has quickly become an
active participant in the community, providing Christmas gifts for
senior citizens through the Meals on Wheels program in Skagit County
and partnering with Heston Hauling in Whatcom County to send care
packages to troops on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
fortunate to have this opportunity, not only to do business (in
Skagit and Whatcom counties), but to reside in such a vibrant and
growing area,” said Linsey.
business plan for Farm Power Northwest started out as a graduation
requirement for Kevin Maas, then an MBA student at Bainbridge
Graduate Institute. But to him it was more than just a hurdle to
The ink barely dry on
his MBA, he recruited the help of his brother, Daryl Maas, who had
just returned home after serving as an officer in the U.S. Air
Although the initial idea was Kevin’s, he would be the
first to admit that it’s not all about him. In fact, the beauty (and
the challenge) of the business is that it brings together a diverse
group of people on a project to benefit the Skagit community at
The idea was a community-based methane digester;
and it is hard to imagine two individuals better suited to make such
a plan into a reality. The Maas brothers grew up in Skagit County
where they attended Mount Vernon Christian with many of the local
farming families. Aware of the difficulties that dairy farmers
faced, the Maas’ hoped to create a business that could help them
stay on their land.
“Our philosophy is that the technology exists
for win-win agricultural renewable energy projects but they need a
better organizational model; by taking on risk from farmers and
tapping new sources of funding, we provide that model,” Kevin
Methane digesters convert the methane from cow manure
into power. Not only is it a green energy source, but it actually
reduces the amount of methane (a greenhouse gas) released into the
atmosphere. The bi-products also benefit dairy farmers: a cleaner
fertilizer and fiber that can be used as bedding for the cows.
The small size of dairy farms in Skagit County was one
limitation that Farm Power had to overcome – typically 1,000 or more
cows are required for efficiency. “[Methane digesters] have been
slow to catch on in Western Washington because we don’t have these
mammoth farms,” Daryl said. “But if you have a group of farmers that
you can get to work together, it really can be done.”
success depended not only on an ability to work with farmers, but
also government agencies, legislators and investors of all types. A
grant from the USDA completed their fundraising of $3.5 million, and
the construction on the Rexville site is in progress – the first of
what they hope will be six to eight projects.
Although Kevin is
clearly proud of their fundraising success, and a business plan that
continues to move forward in the current recession, he said that the
fact that the project has garnered so much support from the
community has been most important to him. Among the 140 attendees at
the groundbreaking were such notables as Congressman Rick Larsen and
Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, but Kevin was equally pleased that
neighbors down the road showed up.
“We are proud of what we are
doing, and we are proud of who we are working with,” Kevin said.
“And as our good governor says, ‘We apologize to no one for
investing in green energy.
By Hilary Parker
planets feel like they are aligning for one Skagit County
Miramac Metals was
recognized as one of Northwest Business Monthly’s “Rising Stars” in
May 2008 and even appeared on the cover of that issue, and now, in
2009, they’ve received the nod as one of NWBM’s Startup Business of
the Year finalists.
Named for co-owners Brigham Mirabelli and
Aaron McDonald, Miramac Metals opened its shop doors in July 2007.
The company manufactures steel roofing panels and trim, taking the
raw sheet metal and running it through a rollformer that bends the
metal into the finished roofing pieces. They also sell the
accessories used in installing the roofing.
While producing a
top-quality product is number one on their list, the pair has also
made it their business to offer quick turnaround, often in 24 hours.
And since they are producing each order individually, sizes can be
customized for any project.
The pair has developed a following
of satisfied repeat customers, many of whom are contractors, which,
says McDonald, is among his proudest business achievements.
should be no less proud of the work it took to for the partners to
get the business up and running. Before opening, Spokane residents
McDonald and Mirabelli spent about two years researching viable
locations, including Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon and California.
The pair saw Burlington as the kind of growing rural community they
were looking for.
“We chose Skagit County because we felt it was
the ideal market for our product, and we liked the area and all it
had to offer from both a business and personal standpoint,” McDonald
said in a 2008 interview.
Once they’d found a place to build,
they did much of the finish work on the facility themselves.
two were accustomed to working together as they both worked for
McDonald’s father in his roofing equipment manufacturing business
learning nearly every aspect of the business between the two of
them. Mirabelli has a background in computer engineering and
electrical automation. McDonald, who started out on the shop floor,
moved into purchasing and then production management.
take long for the men to start getting involved with the community
they decided to call home. The two are members of the Skagit/Island
Counties Builders Association, the Economic Development Association
of Skagit County and the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce. They are
also members to the National Home Builders Association.
the philosophy that a lot of people in Skagit County have of buying
local and staying within the community. We have the same philosophy
and choose to use people within the organizations we are members of
for services we need,” McDonald said.
Looking into the future,
the Miramac Metals partners hope to expand their business into other
states, becoming a trusted name in roofing throughout the West. With
such big goals, it seems Miramac’s star continues to
SMALL BUSINESS OF
THE YEAR NOMINEES
Artisan chocolatier Kevin Buck, who owns Chocolate
Necessities Inc. in Bellingham, probably knows more about chocolate
than anyone else in the region.
He discovered premier chocolate on a visit to
Canada and his life took on a new passion. His mission is to bring
his best chocolate discoveries to the United States. He and his
employees are what he describes as “artisan chocolatiers who create
within the parameters of the extreme top chocolates of the world.”
After extensive taste testing he decided to use French Callebaut
chocolates in his creations. But he continues to try different
chocolate from around the world and offers them to his customers.
Buck adds no additional sugar to his chocolate to ensure the taste
is the richness of the chocolate.
His exquisite chocolates are
all handcrafted. The industry recognized his superior product when
Candy Industry Magazine hosted a national contest and Chocolate
Necessities won both the Grand Prize and second place.
company’s philosophy is to put people first and to treat customers
and employees based on that principle. In keeping with his concern
about humanity, “We donate to smaller nonprofits that need a hand,”
said Buck. “Since we are a manufacturer, we don’t get a tax
deduction for making a donation. So we make donations that benefit
smaller nonprofits that don’t have large funders behind them. We
give chocolates for raffles or make dessert plates to over 40
smaller nonprofits in the community.” The nonprofits that he
supports include Womencare Shelter and auctions for schools.
Last year was notable because Ferndale-based Chuckanut
Cheesecake created a Chocolate Necessities cheesecake using their
choice ingredients. If that idea doesn’t raise your chocolate
desires, other new products include coffee bark using locally
roasted Hammerhead coffee, Balsamic caramels and Spice Hut tea
Buck attributes the success of his company to reacting
quickly to pricing changes and seasonal fluctuations. This year he
is going to focus on offering more sample tastings so people get to
experience “top of the world chocolate” and he can educate them
about chocolate. The tastings will be offered at different locations
around Bellingham and Mount Vernon.
His delectable chocolates
can be bought at two locations, on Horton Road off the Guide
Meridian, which is also the plant location where he creates his
prizewinning chocolates, and a second shop in the Public Market on
Cornwall Avenue where he also sells “the first real Italian Gelato
in Bellingham.” In order to try his one-of-a-kind truffles it is
necessary to go to the shop on the Guide where he makes smaller
batches using exotic ingredients often brought to him from friends’
“Whatcom County is filled with many unique and amazing
businesses,” offered Buck. “We, as consumers, are surrounded by some
of the best products. We have everything from an artisan chocolate
shop to winemakers to coffee roasters and everything in
Construction Inc., a Whatcom County-based general contractor, is
built upon four constant principles: Quality, communication,
integrity and commitment.
never losing sight of these core principles, we are able to ensure
that our clients receive the highest quality service, that their
expectations are exceeded, and that they are satisfied with the
project after completion,” says Credo’s president Todd Lapinsky.
The name Credo is from the Latin “I believe” and Bellingham’s
Credo believes in itself and its clients.
Incorporated in the
United States in 2000, Credo had already established its framework
for success in nearby British Columbia. The firm shows its
versatility in a range of projects – design to build, commercial
tenant improvements, commercial office buildings, pre-engineered
steel buildings, manufacturing facilities and warehouses, mixed-use
retail, building envelope repair and restoration, and even custom
Its first $1 million project was the Walton Beverage
Skagit County distribution center near Interstate 5 in Burlington.
In June 2007, the San Juan County legislative building remodel was
Credo’s first contract awarded as prime contractor on a public works
“Our mission is to strive for excellence in every
project – regardless of size – and provide the utmost in quality and
service by listening to our customers and providing continuous
communication,” Lapinsky said.
In addition to listening to
clients, the company has initiated an ongoing comprehensive quality
control program. “We are careful about what we promise and always do
what we say we will do.”
The company fulfilled its promise on
three projects completed before Christmas 2008. Credo completed – on
tight schedules – three commercial tenant improvement projects at
Harbor Station in Oak Harbor: a call center for Waste Management,
Island Oral Surgery and Harbor Station Executive Suites.
nod to changing market conditions, Lapinsky says Credo has paid
attention and considers itself “effectively preparing our company
for the hard times everyone is facing this year.”
The company transferred to new business accounting, estimating and
project management software systems. Wherever possible Credo
standardized operations, eliminating any redundancies. “The result
has been greater productivity at all levels. It is something we will
continue to work on as the market changes – for better or worse.”
Results: Overhead cost reduction by 46 percent since the
beginning of 2008 and increased productivity and efficiency in field
Credo and Lapinsky look beyond the workplace to their
community. From inception, Credo has supported various local
charities financially and as volunteers, including The Opportunity
Council, Habitat for Humanity and the Boys and Girls Club of Whatcom
County. Lapinsky coached peewee football for the Boys and Girls Club
in the past year.
Bottom line: “Our clients deserve to work with
professionals who will share their dreams, protect their investment
and most importantly, exceed their
By Tara Nelson
Sherting had a huge learning curve ahead of her when she went from
homemaker to one of the most successful businesswomen in Whatcom
Sherting started Moka
Joe in the garage of her home in 2001, after she came across a small
one-pound roaster on Samish Island. Today, she roasts nearly 10,000
pounds of coffee a month and has racked up numerous accolades, not
the least of which is winning the Make Mine A Million program in
which women business owners are given free business coaching to help
their businesses top the $1 million mark. More than 1,500 women
applied nationwide and only 15 were selected for the program.
Sherting is the first to admit her business model is somewhat
counterintuitive – in the first few years her accountant would
reprimand her for giving too much product away. Now she feels like
she has achieved a comfortable balance between charity and making
her business successful.
Her philosophy rests on helping people
and creating a sustainable business model. “It’s been a huge, huge
learning curve and not an easy one because I’m not business
oriented. I’m not what I think a business person would be,” she
said. “I run this business with my heart.”
selling coffee to her friends and family, delivering it in baskets
and roasting about 30 pounds a week. Sherting said it wasn’t until
the Community Food Co-op approached her to sell her coffee that
business really picked up. In 2003, she and her husband decided to
purchase a bigger roaster to accommodate the demand. They also
purchased a 3,000-square-foot home on James Street and transformed
it into a light industrial, retail-wholesale building. Today, they
have four full-time and three-part time employees. Their coffee is
distributed locally as well as in Seattle and all of Washington and
Oregon. Sherting said she plans to start distributing as far south
as Northern California soon.
Ask Sherting about her real success
and she’ll most likely tell you about people she met traveling to
Peru to be part of a documentary called Strong Coffee Film. The
movie features stories about a Café Feminino, a program that helps
thousands of women in six countries to purchase land and grow their
She is also a member of Sustainable Connections, the
Toward Zero Waste Initiative, the Whatcom Watershed Business Pledge
and a founding member of B Corporations, a business organization
that sets standards for green business practices across the board.
Moka Joe is also Fair Trade, organic and Kosher certified, and three
of their employees are moving toward Q Certification, a quality
certification for coffee.
What’s more, she will be working with
the Clean Water Foundation of Seattle and World Vision to produce,
package and roast a “Coffee For The Greater Good,” from which all
profits will go directly to those organizations to purchase portable
water filters for coffee-producing communities.
“By doing good,
we will increase our sales and support of causes like Café
Feminino,” she said. “I’m sort of doing business in reverse, and
it’s drawing attention to Moka Joe like you wouldn’t
NET SOLUTIONS NORTH
company that does not have a professional Web site today is not
serious about their business,” declares Patrice Valentine, co-owner
of Bellingham-based Net Solutions North America LLC
And Valentine is
serious about helping those companies as well as those that do have
Web sites but with poor Web presence.
NSNA specializes in
providing affordable, search-engine friendly Web “solutions” for
small and mid-sized businesses and associations that are easily
managed and maintained by the business itself. The Net Solutions
team designs and hosts the sites and provides technical support as
needed, creating a single source that clients can rely on if
The company has two avenues for its sales. The
first is its retail channel – direct sales to customers throughout
the greater Puget Sound area. The second is through wholesale sales
generated by reseller/dealers in the United States, Canada and the
United Kingdom. Valentine says the resellers are typically
non-technical people with a knack for selling this technical product
to other less-techy types.
The business model is working well,
evidenced by the fact that NSNA launched its 1,000th Web site in
2008. And they’re constantly adding new functionality to the sites
they create, such as classified ad and job posting capabilities,
bringing greater options to their clients.
NSNA recently took on
a new venture when it acquired Bellingham Biz-Eview, a local Web
search engine that allows consumers to rate the businesses that are
listed on the site.
Valentine said she sees great potential in
Eview, and the team at NSNA is working to improve the site. “Before
we can promote it, we need to add some functions to it and make sure
that it will be a benefit for the community,” she
Valentine founded NSNA with her parents Bob Reynolds and
Peg Emmons. “As a family owned company, we feel we have a hand in
the happiness of our employees, the growth of our community and the
future of small businesses everywhere,” Valentine said.
they accomplish those goals is through their “Charity of the
Quarter” project. The entire NSNA team votes on the charities to
sponsor; those groups receive a complementary Web site redesign. The
first recipient in 2009 is Blue Skies for Children.
small business, we cannot always make monetary contributions to lend
support to the causes we feel are important,” Valentine notes, but
the simple solution has been to donate their expertise
Being involved in the business community through
numerous association memberships and leadership positions, Valentine
is in the catbird’s seat to make connections with local
organizations and businesses. She finds her networking to be
invaluable to the business.
“I have found the laws of reciprocity
actively at work in Whatcom County. The more I give, the more I get
SMALL BUSINESS OF THE YEAR
Constructing high-quality buildings is really just the
vehicle April and Jim Axthlem, owners of Axthlem Construction Inc.,
use to connect with the community and reach out to those in
"Surprisingly, while we
have built many beautiful and high-quality buildings this year, our
proudest achievements this past year have been in the area of
community service,” April Axthelm said.
Specifically, this year
the couple got involved with the Burlington Rotary Club’s project to
build a schoolhouse in the mountain village of Provincial,
Guatemala. While in Guatemala they met a young boy who was unable to
attend school and worked shining shoes. They have sponsored an
educational scholarship to allow the 12-year-old to attend school
“We have a special passion for issues involving
education, both at home and abroad. We believe that education is the
key to help bring people out of poverty,” Axthelm said.
notes that if it were not for the clients who choose to do business
with the company, they couple would not have the means to support
the causes that are near to their hearts.
commitment to our company has made it possible for us to give back
to our community through projects and donations in areas that make a
difference, both in the lives of the individual and in communities
as a whole,” she said.
Axthlem Construction serves its many
clients in all phases of commercial, retail, professional office,
agricultural and industrial construction. The company specializes
seeing projects through the entire design-build process, including
interior design and landscaping. They also offer services in tenant
improvements, construction management, green building, value
engineering and modern steel structures. Jim has more than 40 years’
experience in the building industry in both the United States and
“Our mission at Axthelm Construction is to be a building
industry leader by providing unprecedented excellence in service,
product and performance,” Axthelm said.
quality work and central location nets them projects throughout the
northern Puget Sound region. Some of their most recent projects
include a large concrete warehouse addition in Mukilteo at the
Ametek building; an interior remodel on the Army National Guard
Armory Building in Bellingham; and an office and warehouse addition
to All West/Select Sires in Burlington.
The Axthelms are members
of the Skagit/Island Counties Builders Association, the Economic
Development Association of Skagit County and the Burlington Chamber
of Commerce. By staying involved in the local business community,
the Axthelms are able to build their business and strengthen ties
with their neighbors.
“We live, work and play here. We have
chosen the Skagit Valley as our home and enjoy the quality of life
and beauty that abounds here,” says Axthelm. “The people of the
valley are good, hard-working, generous people and their loyalty to
our company is what makes us a success."
By Dan Aznoff
Beamer will quickly admit that she is her own toughest customer. Her
confession came home to roost for the small business owner last year
when she made the commitment to rename and re-focus the image of her
advertising and design company.
After 17 years of assisting clients to establish
their own image in a highly competitive marketplace, Beamer
challenged her staff with the task of blazing a new brand for her
own company that captured the same spirit of dedication that had
brought her exceptional results at the helm of BMR Design +
“For years we were known as the people who asked
lots of questions,” said Beamer. “People in advertising can be
extremely creative. We combined that innovation with a team approach
of sharing ideas and working together to accomplish common goals.
The name BrandQuery LLC was the natural evolution of our philosophy
and it explains exactly what we do and how we do our
Each employee is mandated to follow the practice of
asking enough questions to fully define the client. To celebrate the
name change, Beamer invited her staff, her clients and her vendors
to a party to celebrate. Coincidently, members of her staff, her
vendors and all of her clients also qualified under the category of
“Honestly, I cannot think of one person in all of our
years in business that I do not consider my friend,” she said. “That
explains why I look forward to coming to work every day and how we
have helped each other be successful over the years.”
business philosophy is a simple one: Treat everyone with respect and
devote the same attention to detail to every project regardless its
of size. Beamer firmly believes it is important for everyone in the
office to have balance in their lives. Its no accident that her
proudest accomplishment in business has been the relationship she
has established with clients and co-workers alike.
change did not happen overnight. Developing the concept for a new
identity took time but it couldn’t take away from meeting important
deadlines for clients.
“Our process began in the late fall by
talking with clients, of course. The response was so outstanding we
implemented many of the suggestions proposed by our clients,” said
Beamer. “The plan was the same: Everything begins and ends with the
Before launching her own advertising firm, Beamer fine
tuned her skills in the marketing department at Dri-Eaz Products and
worked for three-and-a-half years with Linda MacGregor during the
early years of the neighborhood MacGregor directories. She has
remained in Skagit County to take advantage of the opportunity to
live in a wonderful community at the same time she has been able to
work with companies that do business locally, across America and on
an international scale.
Beamer is now one of her own happiest
Valley Gardens is a retail garden center located on 25 acres near
Interstate 5 south of Mount Vernon. Since its opening in 1982, the
store has seen many changes, gradually expanding its space and
Owner Gary Lorenz
believes the store stays successful because of the quality of his
staff, and because he and his team are willing to change and
diversify. The business employs eight staff members year round and
12-15 in the peak season March through June. The store’s main focus
remains the same: plants for the garden – trees, shrubs, fruits,
vegetables and flowering plants.
An expansion of the retail
greenhouses in 1998 added 16,000 square feet of undercover shopping
and saw the birth of The Garden Café with a full-service deli.
Lorenz reflected: “I entered into this business with a four-year
degree in horticulture, however, the more I work in this field, the
more I realize how much I don’t know! I am constantly
In 2006 The Root Cellar was established, a department
offering greeting cards, candles, home décor items and collectibles.
Recently, Skagit Valley Gardens also introduced new lines in the
garden department – organic plants and seeds.
Among the store’s
challenges are keeping pace with the competition from big box stores
and grocery chains. “We have a delivery service and a special order
program to ensure we excel in customer service,” Lorenz said.
team at Skagit Valley Gardens has a policy to give back to the
community. This endeavor has prompted Skagit Valley Gardens to
support a number of local community organizations: Mount Vernon
Rotary Auction, Friendship House, Forgotten Children’s Fund,
S.P.O.T, Skagit Land Trust, Leadership Skagit, Skagit Valley Family
YMCA, Oasis Teen Shelter, local school auctions and community
Every year Skagit Valley Gardens sponsors Santa photos
over the course of two weekends. Families get their Christmas
pictures for free and a donation jar is on display inviting people
to donate money to Friendship House, a fund for the homeless. The
jar filled up with around $2,000 the past few years.
Valley Gardens doesn’t only attract community members but attention
from the business community as well. It won the 2006 Mount Vernon
Chamber Small Business of the Year Award, and was a finalist for the
2008 Mount Vernon Chamber “Making a Difference” award.
hopes to persevere in spite of the current economic uncertainties.
“There is no other place in the country I would want to have my
business,” he shared. “Skagit County is a close knit community
enabling our customers to be not just customers; they also become
our friends. We have the opportunity to understand their lifestyle,
know where they live and can relate to their neighborhoods. Skagit
County is a wonderful place to raise a family, establish a business
“I hope that the care that I give to our community
will help it strive and grow."
By Michael Barrett
say necessity is the mother of invention. In the case of Al
Chandler, a serious outdoorsman and former construction foreman,
building the perfect storage unit in the back of his truck for his
valuable hunting rifles and fishing gear was a
Chandler is CEO of
TruckVault Inc. of Sedro-Woolley, a 14-year-old company dedicated to
manufacturing safe and secure transportable storage products for the
sporting and public-safety communities, as well as commercial
“It’s the epitome of the end-vehicle secure storage system,”
Chandler says. “We started with the sporting market – catering to
hunters of all types – but law enforcement is our number-one
customer for business today.” Others include any business that takes
precious tools and instruments into the field, photographers with
their expensive equipment, as well as recreationists who just want a
safe place to store their valuables.
Chandler didn’t invent the
first system, but he was amazed when he saw one while working as a
superintendent on a construction project and decided he had to have
one. A short time later, he started his fabrication company in
Sedro-Woolley, where it’s been since 1995.
“Growth has been slow
and deliberate with each step carefully considered,” he observes.
“Growth always comes with the consideration of maintaining our high
quality and business integrity.”
Currently, TruckVault has just
less than 50 workers, to whom he pays livable family wages and
offers excellent benefits.
His goal is to “provide high-quality
jobs that attract and keep the kinds of people we wish to have as
our neighbors. We feel every TruckVault employee is treated with
respect, employees are paid fairly and receive health insurance as
part of their employment package.”
It was easy for Chandler to
settle in Skagit County, he says, because “most favorable to our
business is the strong pool of qualified workers we have to draw
from, along with just the right mix of satellite businesses, which
provide us additional components and services.”
The company is a
good neighbor in other ways as well, supporting Boys and Girls
Clubs, the Economic Development Association of Skagit County, as
well as various outdoors organizations such as Ducks Unlimited,
Pheasants Forever and the Mule Deer Foundation.
marketed its products through outdoor magazines, alliances with
other manufactures, strong word of mouth in the law enforcement
sector and more recently on television with its sponsorship of the
TV series “Xtreme Hunts” with host Mark Kayser, a program that has
enjoyed a successful season on cable’s Versus channel and is
involved now in a second season.
The company is currently
working with an Oregon manufacturer to produce a trailer, outfitted
with a hazardous material and emergency response center, to handle
mass-casualty incidents. In addition, it’s working with Smith &
Wesson, the weapons manufacturer, to produce steel handgun safes for
PERSON OF THE YEAR NOMINEES
By Dave Brumbaugh
During one of the most turbulent years in the history
of American financial institutions, Whatcom Educational Credit Union
still managed to achieve growth in 2008 under the leadership of
President/CEO Wayne Langei.
WECU, a not-for-profit cooperative financial
institution, added nearly 4,000 members last year for a total of
56,472. It wasn’t a one-year fluke, either – WECU’s membership has
grown by 55 percent since 2004.
The soaring membership
contributed to a need for new offices. WECU opened new branches last
year in Ferndale, Everson and just off Sunset Drive in Bellingham –
all of them LEED certified, reflecting the credit union’s commitment
to green building practices. WECU’s loan center in Bellingham was
the first LEED-certified building in Bellingham, WECU now has more
than 200 employees and 11 branches in Whatcom County with seven in
Bellingham and others in Lynden, Blaine, Ferndale and
While many financial institutions loosened lending
standards in recent years and now are paying the price during this
recession, WECU is in solid shape with assets of more than $500
million. However, as a not-for-profit cooperative, WECU’s goals
aren’t solely focused on the bottom line, according to Langei. The
credit union constantly offers a variety of informational
“WECU’s mission is to provide the means for our members
to achieve their dreams,” said Langei. “When our members achieve
their dreams, the community becomes a better place. We encourage our
employees to be active community members.”
He also has a view of
customer service that is direct and to the point. “I believe that we
need to interact with our members like a good family interacts with
each other,” Langei said. “We need to be honest, have integrity and
treat everyone with respect.”
One of the challenges for Langei is
communicating the role of a credit union.
“Most people look at a
credit union and believe we should offer deposit rates that are
above average and loan rates that are below average,” he said. “That
is not our real purpose. We want to improve the financial lives of
our members. Often this means helping members who do not have any
significant amount of money to deposit or even have the ability to
When he’s not leading the county’s largest credit union,
Langei is a strong supporter of Sustainable Connections, an active
member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and a member of the
Bellingham Rotary Club.
A WECU employee since 1973, Langei is
quite content to stay in Whatcom County. “Everywhere I go I see
people I know,” he said. “People in stores, restaurants and service
organizations are part of my extended
NANCY STEIGER, PEACEHEALTH
would think that responsibility for a regional hospital would be
plenty for one person. But Nancy Steiger has seen much more heaped
on her plate recently and done well in leading Whatcom County’s
largest healthcare provider through this transitional
In 2007 Steiger became
CEO and chief mission officer for the PeaceHealth Whatcom Region,
which includes St. Joseph Hospital and PeaceHealth Medical Group,
both based in Bellingham. She also oversees Northwest Regional
Laboratory, St. Joseph Hospital Foundation, Whatcom Hospice
Foundation and Ketchikan General Hospital in southwest Alaska.
PeaceHealth employs more than 2,600 people, the most in Whatcom
“We are here to provide safe, evidence-based,
compassionate healthcare to the residents of our community,” Steiger
said. “This drives everything we do.”
Steiger’s entire career has
been in healthcare, starting as a nurse. “As an oncology nurse, I
learned early in my career that every day is a gift and an
opportunity to make a difference in small and in great ways,” she
said. “This sense of purpose has helped shape my career. I am
passionate about my work and strive to inspire that in those I am
Her most visible challenge in 2008 was blending
Madrona Medical Group and St. Joseph Medical Group into PeaceHealth
Medical Group, comprising approximately 100 doctors plus support
staff. While the acquisition raised concerns among some about a
monopoly of medical services, Steiger said it was driven by a desire
to provide a higher quality of healthcare.
“We took this step
because both medical groups believed that by working together, we
could better achieve our vision for health for this community,”
But PeaceHealth has been busy in other areas as
well the last 18 months. A renewed commitment to the national
patient safety goals led to a three-year accreditation for St.
Joseph Hospital from The Joint Commission of Accreditation, and a
three-year accreditation of its cancer program with commendation.
Through a joint venture with Northwest Radiology, Mount Baker
Imaging established an Innovation Fund through the Whatcom Community
Foundation. The hospital also launched the Critical Junctures
Institute for healthcare advancement and community research with
Western Washington University.
“Our goal is to improve the
health of the community – and we can only do that by being involved
in the community, understanding its needs, and partnering with other
organizations and professionals in the community to meet those
needs,” Steiger said. “Often hospitals try to solve community
problems. It’s best when the community understands its challenges
and works together to come to sustainable
JEFF VOLTZ, COMMUNITY FOOD
always was willing to take risks and interesting paths,” Jeff Voltz
Voltz was talking about
his career of 30 years in the grocery industry, but he could easily
have been referring to his time since June 2007 as general manager
of the Community Food Co-op in Bellingham. Voltz has guided the
Co-op during construction of its second store, which opened Jan. 15
in the Cordata neighborhood. He also has led it since the opening of
a Trader Joe’s store in Bellingham in September 2007 and during a
recession that has hit the grocery industry, which already was quite
competitive in Whatcom County.
But the Co-op’s sales are
rebounding, reaching $18.9 million in 2008, and membership has risen
to 13,000 active members who buy its natural, sustainable, organic
and locally produced grocery products. In addition to its importance
to 220 employees, the Co-op’s financial stability enables it to
adhere to values that include educating the community on issues of
food, healthy lifestyles, the environment and human rights as well
as supporting organic and sustainable food production.
community and cooperatively owned business, we are completely
dedicated to serving our members and the community,” Voltz said.
“This is our purpose. We exist and thrive for the benefit of our
members and the community.”
While the Co-op’s mission is
different from for-profit businesses, Voltz was quite familiar with
it before becoming its general manager. Voltz was general manager of
Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets in the 1990s and promoted to its
CEO and president before leaving that cooperative in 2000 to manage
some nonprofit organizations.
Voltz points with pride to a number
of the Community Food Co-op’s recent accomplishments:
• The new
21,700-square-foot store in Cordata is on track to be certified at
the silver level of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in
Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which would make it
the first LEED-certified grocery store in Whatcom County. It also
provides easier access to the Co-op’s products for North Bellingham
and north-county residents and led to the hiring of 60 employees.
• In 2008, the Co-op, through donations and sponsorships,
provided nearly $100,000 to more than 100 organizations and
• The Co-op’s support of the Whatcom
Conservation District’s annual native plant sale in March 2008
contributed to an increase in its sales from 7,500 plants to
• The Co-op’s Healthy Connections program offered 130
cooking, health and nutrition classes in 2008.
Voltz also is
proud of the Community Food Co-op Farm Fund. The Farm Fund has been
instrumental in developing new programs such as Food To Bank On,
which connects new farmers to low-income communities. It also
financially backed the launch of the Ferndale Farmers Markets and
provided support for Cooperative Jacal, which serves local Latino
“Whatcom County is a fabulous place to
live and work,” Voltz said. “There is a deep communitywide ethos for
taking care of people and the environment. This is in complete
alignment with my personal values and obviously the heartbeat of the
SCOTT WALKER, WALKERS CARPET
By Dave Brumbaugh
The life of an attorney is much more glamorous on
television than in real life. For Scott Walker, it especially didn’t
compare to the enjoyment he receives as president of Walker Flooring
& Interiors, Inc., which operates Walkers Carpet One Floor &
Home in Bellingham.
the enjoyment must come from the challenge of not just operating a
business but thriving in the face of a recession that has hit the
floor covering industry hard. Walker’s company purchased the
Elements Design Center building in September and moved his business
from downtown Bellingham to the larger 25,000-square-foot facility
on East Bakerview Road.
Walker then was chosen in January as the
first recipient of the Alan Greenberg Award, the highest honor given
by CCA Global Partners, a cooperative of more than 3,400
floor-covering stores throughout the world. The award is given to
the member who most embodies the spirit of the cooperative and is
based on a number of criteria, including high ethical business
practices, installation excellence, staff training and community
Walker was a full-time attorney for 17 years,
including 11 years as a partner in a Bellingham law firm. After his
father, founder of Walkers Carpet One Floor & Home in 1962,
unexpectedly died in 1991, Scott Walker became a co-owner with his
brother Brent and his stepmother. The brothers subsequently
purchased the interest of their stepmother.
“In 1996 I decided to
enter business full-time and to phase out of the practice of law,”
Walker said. “I admit that I became bored with the practice of law,
and I found that I enjoyed being involved in business to a much
The move quickly paid dividends for the
business. Walkers Carpet One Floor & Home is the largest Carpet
One store by volume in the state and also one of the largest
commercial floor-covering contractors in the state. It also has
received the 5-Diamond Installation Excellence Award – given to only
the top 4 percent of Carpet One stores based on the ratings of a
store’s customers – every year since 1998.
While primarily known
to the general public for its residential floor coverings and
installation, Walkers Carpet One Floor & Home is unusually
“In the commercial realm, we specialize in providing
materials and services in the healthcare and institutional sectors,
from flooring for the emergency rooms at St. Joseph Hospital to gym
flooring at Eastern Washington University,” Walker said. “We are
also involved in providing service in the private sector throughout
Walker said training and education for his 30
full-time employees has been the key to providing excellent customer
service. This emphasis was recognized in 2004 when Walkers Carpet
One Floor & Home received the Commitment to Education Award from
among 1,000 Carpet One stores in North America. While the awards are
appreciated, Walker said his focus is on a much smaller scale. “We
measure our accomplishments one customer and one project at a
BUSINESS PERSON OF THE YEAR
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Bill Bruders’ career
success stems from his work in a number of different
Having worked in
construction, department stores and the automotive industry, he is
now CEO of Dri-Eaz Products, a Burlington-based firm that
manufactures equipment to dry out buildings and homes after water
damage or flooding.
“The work I have done at Legend
Brands/Dri-Eaz represents my finest work,” he said. And he’s most
proud of his achievements here: “Being a key part of the growth of
the company, leading the transition from a domestic supplier to a
global market leader; [and] seeing the company successfully
transition from a founder-managed business to a professional-managed
business, while not losing sight of our roots.”
Dri-Eaz in 1998 to handle the company’s key accounts, and moved
through the ranks as supervisor, manager, general manager, president
and, finally, CEO.
In the same way that Bruders has moved up the
ladder, so has the company. Since it was established in 1980,
Dri-Eaz has achieved U.S. market share of more than 70 percent, and
international share of more than 50 percent.
In 2000, Dri-Eaz
started its expansion, establishing a fully owned subsidiary in the
United Kingdom to serve the European client base and expand business
there. Three years later it created a distribution, service and
education plant in Nashville, Tenn., to improve product availability
to the east and southeast areas of the United States.
recent change occurred last year, when Dri-Eaz acquired Microban and
Unsmoke Systems in Pittsburgh, Pa., which are the brand leaders in
disinfectants and cleaners for fire odor and mold
And all this growth has been accompanied by a number
of awards. In 2001, 2002 and 2004 the Washington State Quality Award
program recognized Dri-Eaz for its achievements in quality, in the
latter year awarding it the highest recognition given. It was also
named small manufacturer of the year by the Association of
Washington Business in 2005.
Bruders attributes Dri-Eaz’s success
to its care for the communities it works in.
“We represent more
than just the people who work in the company; we represent some 140
families in Skagit and Whatcom counties,” he said
active in the two communities, largely through supporting the
Economic Development Association of Skagit County and church
activities. He also sits on the advisory board for the operations
and supply chain management program at Western Washington
University; and is a past board member and current contributor to
the Washington State Quality Award program.
He is fully invested
in Skagit County.
“We believe Skagit County’s diverse community
and lifestyles support and complement our business really well. Our
goal is to continue to grow our business and provide jobs in
Northwest Washington for years to come."
LISA JANICKI, JANICKI
Skagit County has not heard the Janicki family
The first Janicki
business was started by “Grandpa” Stan Janicki in 1921, but it is
not just their long history here that keeps the name fresh in
peoples’ minds. Janicki Industries has continued to stay in the news
with projects such as the new Hamilton manufacturing plant, built to
expand their capacity to make large-scale molds.
It is no wonder
that Lisa Janicki counts “strong family” as part of her success as a
businessperson. “There are people who are incredulous that I work
daily with my husband, his three brothers, two brothers-in-law, and
his mother, yet I consider myself blessed that family values are
central to our business model,” Janicki says.
Of course, they
don’t always agree, but she says there is always “inherent respect
for each other,” that she appreciates.
When she talks about
family, Janicki often includes the extended family of Janicki
employees, and along with that a dedication to the place they call
“Numerous opportunities have arisen where we could have
located – especially our expansion facilities – in different areas,
but the commitment to, not only our family, but our employee family,
to stay where they can raise kids, buy a house, and have a good
place to raise a family, really drove our decision to expand in
Skagit County,” she says.
The family’s commitment to the area
also comes through in their philanthropic endeavors. Janicki says
the company’s philosophy was best summed up by Stan Janicki when he
said, “To those whom much is given; much is required” – a
mantra they live by – focusing on basic needs such as food, shelter
and clothing first, and secondarily on education and youth
activities. Among many volunteer activities, Lisa Janicki serves as
a board member for the United Way of Skagit County, is active in
Soroptimist International of Sedro-Woolley, and is a board adviser
for Habitat for Humanity, Women Build Project.
As the vice
president of finance for Janicki Industries, Janicki describes her
role as to “keep protective business arms around this company as
it’s trying to expand in a lot of different ways ... and provide
that reality check.” And although human resources are not officially
her domain, she says that she is involved in HR policy decisions
“because it affects our people, and that is what the company depends
on that good solid base of people.”
Being a role model for other
women in business is something that Janicki finds rewarding, serving
as a mentor for college interns. She is also sometimes surprised by
admiring working mothers who seek her advice. “When you realize
you’ve influenced a stranger’s life, it’s pretty humbling,” she
As for her own role model, Janicki had to look no further
than her mother-in-law, Annie Janicki, mother of eight, whom she has
worked with side-by-side since 1984. What she learned from Annie is,
“Faith came first (whatever is the right thing to do), family is
next, and then you take care of business, and there’s plenty of time
in the day to do all of that."
CLAY LEARNED, LEARNED
Commercial real estate agents commonly close around 15
deals per year. In the past few years, Clay Learned, owner of
Learned Commercial Inc., closed around 100 transactions per year at
the value of $30 million to $40 million per year.
Learned is a real estate broker and agent
specializing in select commercial real estate. He opened his
Burlington business in 2007.
After working 10 years in
construction, Learned decided, at the age of 27, to venture into the
commercial real estate business. He explained: “I made a decision to
do it. When I decide to do something, I don’t ‘kind of’ do it. I
don’t ‘sort of’ do it. I do it.”
Learned began working as a real
estate agent at Realty World. Later, he moved to Aiken and
Associates, which became NorthWest Properties. Here, he ran the
commercial division with up to four agents.
In order to better
serve clients, Learned attended numerous courses on real estate law,
offered by the American Bar Association and other law institutions.
Learned said he endeavors to provide uncompromised integrity and
an unmatched skill set in his daily work: “In this business, it is
very easy for licensees to want to represent themselves first; to
first ensure that they get paid. However, integrity is ‘the client
comes first.’ Getting paid comes later.”
Virginia Learned, comments: “[Clay] is adamant about fairness.
Sometimes a person wants to list a property for a too large sum of
money. … But Clay will say: ‘You will not like to hear what I say.
Your property is not worth that amount.’” The person may leave the
office, but return a few days later and list the property for a
Learned is a Certified Commercial Investment
Member (CCIM); a member of the Society of Industrial & Office
Realtors; and a member of the Commercial Brokers Association. He is
a licensed Realtor and broker and a member of the American Bar
Association and the American Law Institute. He was selected Broker
of the Year by the Washington State Chapter of the CCIM
Among Learned’s achievements are leading the site
selection for Northwest Medical Bureau (Regence Blue Shield) for
construction of a 100,000-square-foot building; and representing the
city of Burlington during the acquisition of 100 acres, now
Riverfront Park, from National Frozen Foods, a $2.4 million
Learned devotes considerable time to nonprofit
organizations and community activities. One of his personal passions
is volunteering for the Professional Bull Riders and the Rider
Relief Fund. He travels to nine bull riding events yearly. Learned
also supports more than 20 other nonprofit or community
organizations, including The Smile Train, an organization that
provides surgery for children with cleft palates. Last year, Clay
and Virginia Learned enabled 87 children to receive surgery,
transforming their lives.
About doing business in Skagit County,
Learned says: “It’s home. Does it get any better than
PATSY MARTIN, PORT OF
Martin was simply looking for a job in the Skagit area when she
applied for a property manager position at the Port of Anacortes –
what she found was a calling that has turned into a successful
“I loved it,” Martin
says of that first port job. “It was so interesting and fun to learn
how to help tenants over there at the Port of Anacortes and work on
all their projects.”
What Martin found rewarding and challenging
was helping the variety of tenants – whether at the airport, the
marina or in the business parks – cut through governmental red
tape or whatever obstacles they were encountering to grow their
business. It is not necessarily a passion one would expect from
someone with a bachelor’s degree in earth and physical science from
Western Washington University.
Martin melded her interests,
however, and continued her education by receiving her master’s in
political science and environmental studies, also at Western. She
says her focus was, “How do we have nongovernmental environmental
protection? What can we do to help industry make it profitable to
protect the environment?”
Fitting with her education, Martin
came back to the Port of Anacortes as the environmental manager. She
moved to the Port of Skagit County in 1995 where she worked as the
environmental manager, property manager, deputy director and finally
“What I have attempted to do for both
organizations is try to balance need for creating jobs and
supporting and enhancing commerce in this valley, with the quality
of life in the valley – to make sure that we can still continue
to have a wonderful place to live, and continue to provide a great
business climate for businesses to want to locate here so that the
jobs can be created,” Martin says.
She describes her work at the
port as “finding ways to install infrastructure that is supportive
of additional business development.” By infrastructure she means not
only roads, utilities and buildings, but also policies, procedures
and programs that spur growth for Skagit County.
Some of the
recent projects to help port tenants expand include the completion
of a 12,500-square-foot industrial building at the LaConner Marina,
and the construction of two 10-unit hanger buildings at the Skagit
Regional Airport. Although less directly applicable to port growth,
Martin also counts as one of her achievements the completion of the
pedestrian trail system at Bayview Business and Industrial
On a project that combines her goals, Martin has been part
of Skagit WIN (Wetlands and Industrial Negotiation). The goal of the
project she says is to “protect and conserve the highest functioning
wetlands, and then target the lowest functioning wetlands where they
were interfering with our development footprint.”
interest in conservation is also apparent in her volunteer work as
the president for Skagit Land Trust and a member of the Padilla Bay
She admits that her dual interests are a bit unusual.
“It’s easy to be one way or the other – it’s easy to be focused just
on preserving the environment, and it’s easy to be focused just on
economic development and commerce – it’s harder to do both,” she
local people who’ve been sick or injured will vouch for the fact
that Skagit Valley Medical Center helped speed their recovery and
make them more comfortable.
While the business offers a high level of
compassion to its patients, it also offers a high level of
technology and specialized departments, the latter including sleep
medicine, rheumatology, cardiac electrophysiology and pediatric
In fact, SVMC provides 20 different specialties
and services, as well as 20 types of ancillary services such as lab,
imaging, pharmacy and physical therapy.
Skagit Valley Medical
Center was formed in 1971 when nine general practitioners
consolidated their expertise and resources under one roof to better
meet the needs of a growing community.
It now includes some 100
physicians and allied healthcare professionals in 20 medical
specialties, and the center has grown from a single site in Mount
Vernon to offering services in Anacortes, Arlington, Sedro-Woolley
And in the past year alone, SVMC has expanded to
open a 33,000-square-foot, state-of-the art facility at its main
Mount Vernon campus.
“[This] allowed us to continue recruiting
new physicians and specialties to the area,” said Larry Thompson,
the center’s CEO.
This is a position he’s held for four years,
and he’s well suited for it, following years of experience in the
industry. In academia, he spent nearly a decade researching what
makes HMOs successful and taught health program planning at the
University of Washington.
“I found that my passion was not in
research, but wanted to apply my knowledge in the operational
setting where I could make a difference in the delivery of
healthcare,” he said.
He then went on to work for the state of
Washington and to run a health systems agency for eight
He’s also been involved in projects such as expanding
needed healthcare employment; increasing access to care in rural
Washington; in developing the state’s basic health plan; creating a
healthcare purchasing organization for Washington; and has served on
several community clinic boards.
But he was drawn to SVMC.
had great admiration for this group of physicians and felt that I
could make a contribution to the management team and further develop
a strategic focus for the group and a vision for the clinic’s
future,” he pointed out.
And what he likes about it is working
“We focus on working collaboratively with the area’s
hospitals to improve local healthcare. Because the healthcare system
is so fragmented, our involvement as a complete system of care is
really important in problem areas such as improving access for
low-income residents and in moving medical care into the electronic
And Thompson is excited about doing this in Skagit Valley.
“The area is growing rapidly and changing fast. In healthcare
that has meant a shift from basic rural healthcare to an
increasingly sophisticated regional referral center. It is exciting
for SVMC to ‘grow up’ in pace with the