Volume 34 • Issue 3 • March 2009
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Business Person Awards Nominees

Whatcom County

Sid Baron proclaims “My life has been a wonderful journey.

Sid Baron proclaims life of many blessings
Whatcom businessman founded Exxel Pacific, KLYN and more
By Elisa Claassen

One longtime Whatcom County businessman noted for his numerous successes in and out of the county enjoys watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show.”

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?

Baron was 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 Monthly.
“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 construction
Lynden businessman Mike Hollander was Baron’s first real estate partner before they created their own companies – “We’re still very good friends,” he notes.
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 guy.”
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
“No, you can’t tell by looking at me … but I know each day that I have MS.”
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 half full.”
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: The Author
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, 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.”

Words of wisdom for business leaders
What has Baron noticed in Whatcom County’s business sector after being in several different industries for more than 40 years?
The answer 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.
He 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.”
Baron 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.”

Skagit County

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 dreams
Late CEO of Nordic Tugs is the Skagit Lifetime Achievement award recipient
By Michael Barrett

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 award.

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 is today.
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.
“He loved 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 time.”
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 racetrack.
“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 sales manager.”
“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.
Cress started 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 point
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 Anacortes.
“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.”
Nordic Tugs, 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 Beitler.
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 riches
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.
Since 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.”
Skipper Cress 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 all.”

Whatcom County

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 Rankin.

Their wholesale 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.
“Using local 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 spinach.
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 companies.
“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.
Rankin also 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. Fresh. Local.

By Kate Nicols

While 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 County.

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 in Bellingham.
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.
Additionally, the 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 second.
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.

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 idea.

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.
Their 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.
Matt explained 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 through Thursday.
“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.
“During difficult 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

At the 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 2007.
The business offers free and easy-to-use group text and voice messaging services to groups, businesses and organizations.
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.
Since 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 group.
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.
Both 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.
Johnson said 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 campus.
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 post-graduate work.
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.

Skagit County

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 consumers.
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 County.
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.
He was thrilled to find the best potential in his own backyard.
The 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 advertising.
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 their car.
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.
“We feel 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.

By Rachel Robertson

The 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 jump.

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 Force.
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 multiple levels.
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 explained.
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.”
Their 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

The planets feel like they are aligning for one Skagit County business.

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.
He 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.
The 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.
It didn’t 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.
“We like 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 rise.

Whatcom County

By Kate Nichols

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.
The 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 truffles.
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’ travels.
“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 between."

By Elisa Claassen

Credo Construction Inc., a Whatcom County-based general contractor, is built upon four constant principles: Quality, communication, integrity and commitment.

“By 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 homes.
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 project.
“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.
With a 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.”
Actions taken: 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 operations.
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 expectations.”

By Tara Nelson

Trudy Sherting had a huge learning curve ahead of her when she went from homemaker to one of the most successful businesswomen in Whatcom County.

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.”
Sherting started 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 own coffee.
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 believe.”

By Hilary Parker

“Any 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 (NSNA).

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 problems arise.
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 added.
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.
One way 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.
“Being a 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 instead.
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 back.”

Skagit County

By Hilary Parker

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 need.

"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 once more.
“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.
She also 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.
“Our clients’ 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 Canada.
“Our mission at Axthelm Construction is to be a building industry leader by providing unprecedented excellence in service, product and performance,” Axthelm said.
Axthelm Construction’s 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

Jacque 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 + Advertising.
“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 business.”
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 friend.
“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.”
Her 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.
The name 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 customer.”
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 customers"

By Brita Adkinson

Skagit 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 merchandise.

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 learning.”
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.
The 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 gardens.
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.
Skagit 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.
Lorenz 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 and live.
“I hope that the care that I give to our community will help it strive and grow."

By Michael Barrett

They 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 necessity.

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 use.
“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.
TruckVault has 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 the marketplace.

Whatcom County

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 Everson.
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 seminars.
“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 borrow.”
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 family."

By Dave Brumbaugh

One 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 period.

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 County.
“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 associated with.”
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,” Steiger said.
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 solutions."

By Dave Brumbaugh

"I always was willing to take risks and interesting paths,” Jeff Voltz said.

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.
“As a 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 community groups.
• 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 28,000.
• 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 agricultural producers.
“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 Co-op."

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.

Much of 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 involvement.
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 greater extent.”
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 diverse.
“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 Washington state.”
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 time."

Skagit County

By Amanda Baltazar

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Bill Bruders’ career success stems from his work in a number of different fields.

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.”
Bruders joined 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.
The most 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 remediation.
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
He’s very 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."

By Rachel Robertson

Who in Skagit County has not heard the Janicki family name?

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 home.
“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 says.
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."

By Brita Adkinson

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.”
Learned’s wife, 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 reasonable price.
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 Institute.
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 deal.
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 that?"

By Rachel Robertson

Patsy 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 career.

“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 executive director.
“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 Park.
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.”
Martin’s interest in conservation is also apparent in her volunteer work as the president for Skagit Land Trust and a member of the Padilla Bay Foundation.
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 says.

By Amanda Baltazar

Many 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 endocrinology.
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 Stanwood.
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 years.
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.
“I 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 with others.
“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 age.”
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 county."

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