Friday, June 25, 2010

► On the Record

“Obviously, a crisis will compel action here.”

-- Denny Heck, Democratic candidate for the 3rd Congressional District, on the still-unfinished process of achieving consensus on a replacement span for the aging Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!

Students across the English-speaking world may recognize the above phrase as a prime example of a palindrome – a line or word reading identically in both directions – which, in this case, is particularly unique in that it also tells a story.

In my interpretation, the tale begins with one man, chief Panama Canal engineer George Washington Goethals, executing a plan to trim a ship’s journey between two great oceans in half. In tropical heat, he labors against the naysayers, disease and death, carving from the Panamanian isthmus a spectacular feat of engineering which will one day alter the course of human history.

Here comes the point where you most likely are wondering what a palindrome, Goethals and a man-made ditch in Central America has to do with Vancouver, Washington – or anything relating to our lives in 2010, for that matter.

But in yet another example of our regional economy’s dependence on developments occurring far from our borders, what happens in Panama today could affect Southwest Washington a great deal tomorrow.

More than 3,000 miles away, the Panamanian government, which took over operations of the canal in 1999, is currently in the midst of an effort to double the waterway’s capacity – a project that has knitted many a West Coast port director and administrator’s brow with worry.

Why? Today, ships laden with cargo, many of which come from Asian nations, have to wait outside the canal’s locks to pass through to the open sea to ports on the U.S. Gulf Coast and beyond. The fear among many working at Western U.S. ports, including those at ports in Southwest Washington, is that easing delays on the Panama Canal will make Gulf and East Coast destinations more attractive to Asian exporters.

Luckily for us, agencies like the Port of Vancouver are already planning to increase overall port capacity and rail access to make our own waterways more competitive. For example, the ongoing $137 million West Vancouver Freight Access project looks to expand rail service to its current maritime customers and industrial tenants.

But much more needs to be done, especially at regional economic “choke-points” like that at the Port of Kalama, still bedeviled by periodic passenger and freight train congestion.

In addition, critical river improvement projects like the reconstruction of jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River, battered by more than a century’s worth of coastal storms, need to be adequately funded by the federal government. And local port directors need to do even more to work together to push forward regional solutions to regional problems.

Because no one port is an island onto itself. And just like in a palindrome, one cannot expect our increasingly globalized economy to flow in just one direction.

A summertime hiatus

Due to this humble managing editor’s impending summer vacation, Just Business will next appear on Wednesday, July 14. In my absence, I welcome feedback on past columns and ideas for future ones, which I will gladly review when I return.

As always, thanks for reading.

Business around the Northwest

Construction employment continues to decline, Idaho Business Review

FDIC: Profits up, assets down at Oregon banks, Portland Business Journal

Siltronic granted exemption from Portland River Plan, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

► On the Record

“I would be hard-pressed to take that vote.”

– Republican 18th Legislative District, Position 1 candidate Ann Rivers, on a “Yes” vote by current Rep. Jaime Herrera (R-La Center) on H.R. 1329, which allows day care workers to unionize. Herrera was one of six Republicans to vote with the Democratic majority in favor of the measure, which passed the House during the recently-completed legislative session, 62-35.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

An insubordinate employee tool-kit

When it comes to dealing with troublesome employees, it turns out no manager is immune. From the owner of the smallest entrepreneurial firm to the head of the largest corporation on the planet, almost everyone has found themselves, at one time or another, caught in a sticky personnel situation.

Before news got out earlier today regarding the sacking of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top military official in charge of the Allied war effort in Afghanistan, I sought advice from a local HR professional on what any manager – including myself, many of readers of this column, and yes, even President Obama –should do about an insubordinate employee.

“It depends on the nature of the insubordination,” said my source on the subject, Southwest Washington Human Resources Management Association programs co-chair Matthew Warner. “What they really need to do is meet with the employee and find out what’s causing the disconnect.”

With my mind recalling news of President Obama cancelling a previously-scheduled video conference and flying McChrystal 7,000 miles to his doorstep at the White House, I’m thinking that Warner, who is also an HR manager at Albertina Kerr Centers in Portland, might really be onto something here.

“So what should a manager do next?” I asked him.

“It’s important for them to make sure the employee realizes that this is not how one should conduct oneself in the workplace,” Warner said.

Meanwhile, I wonder if this might have been how President Obama phrased it to McChrystal when he confronted him about being quoted blasting senior members of his administration and calling his Commander-in-Chief “uncomfortable and intimidated.”

In any case, the President stressed in his news conference today that his decision to replace McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus wasn’t “personal”– a good move for anyone looking to diffuse a difficult employee situation, according to Warner.

I then asked Warner if there was anything a business owner, sales lead or say, a newspaper managing editor should be wary of after meeting with an insubordinate employee.

“I think you should do a quick risk assessment,” he said. “If you are looking at possible retaliation, you need to protect yourself and the company.”

Hear that President Obama? I’m hoping you’re watching not only your own back, but ours too.

Business around the Northwest

Oregon, Washington credit union merger faces vote, Portland Business Journal

Firm buys Vancouver Market Center for $11M
, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Workplace violence can put your company at risk
, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal

Friday, June 18, 2010

► On the Record

“The good news is, things are getting worse slower.”

– Arun Raha, Washington state’s chief economist, about revised estimates released this week for 2009-11 showing a $207 million drop in revenue, which was offset by tax increases passed by the legislature this year for a net gain of $558 million over February’s budget forecast (quote courtesy of The Olympian).

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Gushing for clean energy

Watchers of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show on Comedy Central this week may already know that every U.S. President since Richard Nixon has made a solemn vow to the American people to wean our nation off foreign oil.

The speeches – right up to President Obama’s first Oval Office address to the nation on Tuesday – are depressingly similar. And clearly the chortles of laughter from The Daily Show’s studio audience in New York are meant to signify one thing: how politicians make promises on which they ultimately do not deliver.

That’s a sentiment I cannot in good conscience disagree with. However, I gleaned something else from the repeated calls from commander-in-chiefs past and present for an America free of offshore petrol, made during times of conflict with oil-producing trouble spots, of economic crisis and our current environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

If we are to laugh at anyone, it should be ourselves.

Sure, those calls to action coming from presidents Carter to Clinton ring hollow now. But what of the American people’s three-decade track record of failing to act, to make not only the sacrifices, but the innovations necessary to reduce our dependence on the “black gold” that is already turning against us.

Luckily, here in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, the seeds of clean energy industry are beginning to be sown in the fertile ground of our manufacturing sector. Companies like Columbia Machine in Vancouver are proceeding with plans to apply their know-how to take advantage of a growing wind energy sector. The newly-founded Renewable Energy Institute-NW, also in Vancouver, looks to help boost the number of experienced technicians in the local clean energy sector.

Habits are changing, not just with individuals, but with public agencies as well. Currently, the City of Vancouver is studying the feasibility of installing energy-efficient light bulbs in its 10,000-plus street lamps – potentially cutting its annual electric usage by half.

The region’s business development community is also getting into the clean energy act. On Wednesday, June 30 at The Heathman Lodge in Vancouver, the Columbia River Economic Development Council will welcome one of the world’s leading clean energy firms, CH2M Hill, to help the local business community attract more renewable energy projects (for more info, visit

These innovative steps made by business leaders, entrepreneurs and local government are a good first step. But much still needs to be done.

From the everyday consumer to the President of the United States, in the face of one of the most challenging crises of our time, words are not enough. Instead, only action will do.

Young in America

In response to my column on Wednesday regarding teen unemployment, found here, Community Services NW development director Kathy Deschner passed along the following opportunity for a recent grad:

“I need a bright, talented Marketing/Communications/Development Intern. You will be working with a well-respected, experienced Development and Communications Director with a track record of mentoring bright graduates to becoming experienced professionals. I need you to help me with marketing and communications, special events and building awareness for a highly respected non-profit organization in Vancouver, Washington.”

If you or someone you know is interested in this job opening, contact Kathy directly at 360.356.3920 or . According to Kathy, this unpaid internship is applicable for college credit.

Business around the Northwest

Oregon ranks fifth in teen unemployment, Portland Business Journal

BP to use Idaho lab's technology in gulf oil spill, Idaho Business Review

Economic indicators point to slow, continued growth
, South Sound Business Examiner

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

► On the Record

“A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

-- Stephen Dedalus, from the novel “Ulysses” by James Joyce (1882-1941).

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Young and unemployed in America

Dishwasher. Salesclerk. Cashier.

When many of us were teenagers, these “exciting job opportunities” – as they were billed by many a parent tired of giving handouts to their kids – were, for the most part, readily available.

Indeed, as a dishwasher at Toll Gate Restaurant in Slingerlands, N.Y., working a six-hour shift cleaning an unholy mess of sauerkraut mixed with ice cream off dinner plates, I would have said those jobs were much too available.

But it’s a funny thing: that job, my first, ended up teaching me more than almost any other.

Fast forward to summer 2010. School is wrapping up for the year and thousands of young people are submitting their credentials to local restaurant managers, shop owners and overworked parents of small children.

And if last summer is any indication, for those teens looking for gainful employment beyond changing a diaper, walking a dog or cutting grass for a neighbor, the odds of a successful job search are seriously stacked.

With the state Dept. of Employment Security releasing figures on Tuesday showing Clark County’s unemployment rate for May virtually unchanged at 13 percent, these young people are competing for entry-level jobs with older, more skilled employees pushed off higher rungs of the job market.

So what’s the big deal? Compared to the desperate situation of an out-of-work former breadwinner, the plight of an unemployed teen seems miniscule.

But here’s what I think is at stake and what may be the hidden casualty of the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression:

Some call it the Great American Work Ethic. Others just call it work. In any case, it’s the force of nature creating engineers, insurance salespeople and yes, even newspaper editors.

That sound you are hearing right now? Well, it’s not the sound of young people complaining about the highest teen unemployment rate since World War II. And if you are looking for packs of young men and women hitting the streets with nothing to do – look again. A recent study found that by the time the typical American male hits 21, they will have spent 10,000 hours playing videogames. And while data is not presently available, I’m sure if you studied a group of typical teenage girls, a similar amount of time will have been devoted to texting.

So don’t worry, these unemployed teens will keep busy.

I know I’m lumping a lot of hardworking kids into the jobless mix, generalizing as adults usually do where teenagers are concerned. But a good number of young people will move forward into adulthood without the formative employment experience enjoyed by people like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who worked as a computer programmer during his senior year of high school, or investment god Warren Buffett, fixing pinball machines in small-town barber shops.

Or for that matter, this editor, who was called “Gomer Pyle” by his coworkers for an entire summer after accidentally toppling three stacks of glassware onto his employer’s head.

Because no matter how unrewarding, awkward and embarrassing one’s first job is, in terms of our future workforce, nothing teaches like experience.

Business around the Northwest

Oregon lands $500,000 for green jobs, Portland Business Journal

Employment: the lagging economic indicator, Bellingham Business Journal

Foster-care facility breaks ground in Portland
, Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Friday, June 11, 2010

► On the Record

“Don't make excuses. Take responsibility not just for your successes, but for your failures as well.”

-- President Barack Obama, speaking to graduates of Kalamazoo Central High School at their commencement ceremony this week.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Waiting for the crash

Many a Just Business reader is probably taking one look at the header to this column, thinking, “More bad news?”

But wait. The fact that the crash I’m referring to – the long-promised wave of commercial real estate loan defaults – has yet to materialize, is definitely not a bad thing.

However, to be sure, it is not a good thing either.

With a rebound in demand for office space far beyond the horizon, and with vacancy rates in Clark County beginning to tick back upward after more than six months of small yet steady declines, the commercial real estate market is far from anything approaching a recovery.

However, it still has not tanked. If there was a bubble in commercial real estate, instead of bursting, the sound one hears in the empty halls of buildings from downtown to east Vancouver is the high-pitched whine of air as the market deflates.

At 415 W. Sixth St. downtown, that sound is more like a “whoosh,” with the Vancouver City Council set to vote on a possible $18.5 million purchase of the bank-owned property, once listed for $41.5 million.

Luckily for investors, developers and bankers alike, the 118,000 square-foot office building seems to be the exception, not the rule in Clark County. At least, so far.

Nationally, real estate behemoths like private equity firm Blackstone Group, owner of Hilton Hotels, have managed to restructure their debt to give themselves some breathing room as the economy recovers. Locally, patience seems to be the name of the game for landlords.

Whether these moves are the equivalent of kicking the “can” of commercial real estate foreclosures down the road is anyone’s guess since the question rests on the still-uncertain fate of the overall economy.

But in an age of collapsing markets, of toxic assets and talk of “flawed” capitalist systems, the commercial real estate sector is demonstrating one remarkable virtue – flexibility.

As of this writing, the commercial real estate sector may yet prove that, when it comes to this corner of the market, cooler heads will prevail – that tough financial decisions may yet be made based on a sound fiscal foundation and not hysteria.

However, we’re not out of the woods, not by a long-shot. There’s still much to be done to ensure the fate of 415 W. Sixth St. is merely the fodder of real estate developers’ collective nightmares and not the stuff of everyday reality.

Business around the Northwest

What caused the crash of 2:45 p.m., Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce

Sterling Financial bumped down on NASDAQ
, Portland Business Journal

Washington, Oregon credit union organizations to merge
, South Sound Business Examiner

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

► On the Record

“As we all move to top-flight soccer in Soccer City USA, the Timbers have made it a priority to establish partnerships with great local companies that share the same commitment to Portland and our region as we do.”

– Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, on Wednesday’s selection of Vancouver-based Burgerville as the expansion Major League Soccer team’s exclusive “burger partner.”

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Portland-Vancouver USA

It’s a t-shirt that communications executive Ron Arp says he would most like to burn – preferably in public, presumably safely, perhaps in an unused corner of downtown Vancouver’s Esther Short Park.

To be clear, it’s not the t-shirt itself that has aroused this Clark County resident’s ire. Instead, it’s these words, which encapsulate the geographical malaise bedeviling an entire metropolitan statistical area and its inhabitants:

“Vancouver, not B.C.; Washington, not D.C.; Clark County, not Nevada; Near Portland, Ore., not Maine.”

Lucky for us that Ron put away the lighter fluid and strike-anywhere matches, instead leading an effort, unveiled for a packed room at the Hilton Vancouver Wednesday, to rebrand the region.

The launch of the new campaign, which includes the slogan, “Land here, live here,” as well as a logo incorporating an image of Mt. Hood’s peak with a winding Columbia River, was notable, first and foremost, for the location of its announcement.

“Once again, Vancouver is out ahead of Portland,” said Port of Portland marketing manager Susan Bladholm – a remarkable statement given the Rose City’s innovative reputation.

But then again, it should come as no surprise to any Southwest Washingtonian that Vancouver has led the way in a discussion touching on its own economic, social, political – and I’m breaking the journalistic “law of three” for good reason here – geographic identity.

In Portland, there’s very little hand-wringing about the potential confusion between themselves and another quite charming and lifestyle-oriented old Port town.

Here, there tends to be a bit of an unconscious drop in cadence as we explain to the confused outsider, “Wrong Vancouver.”

Of course, our proximity on the I-5 corridor with our namesake doesn’t help matters. But why the subtle change in tone? I’m proud to be here, to be part of this community; as are the bulk of the Clark County residents I speak with on a daily basis.

Though the jury remains out on the ultimate success of this rebranding effort – this week, at least, a team of planners, business leaders and a t-shirt-slogan-hating Ron Arp has accomplished something that any die-hard Vancouverite can be proud of.

We made Portland jealous. For a moment, at least.

Business around the Northwest

Burgerville will sponsor Timbers, Portland Business Journal

Chain of demand: Bridge work builds up local economy, Portland Daily Journal of Commerce

Local projects look to expand recreation and conservation, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal

Friday, June 4, 2010

► On the Record

“If they are going to run a road through the middle of our business, we won't have much of a choice.”

-- Jack Dunn, manager at Andersen Plastics, Inc., on plans to extend Grace Avenue through its downtown Battle Ground plant. For more on the city’s plans for downtown Battle Ground and Andersen’s possible relocation, see VBJ’s story here.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

The great lending “disconnect”

Sen. Maria Cantwell’s public appearance on Thursday at WorkSource in Vancouver could not have been better timed.

Coming one day before the release of May statistics showing anemic private sector job growth, Cantwell’s visit highlighted a continuing employment conundrum among small business owners.

The conundrum – best described as a job-killing Catch-22 – is this: despite a rise in demand, customers and orders, businesses still lack sufficient access to credit to hire more workers. Without significant job growth, the economic recovery threatens to stall, putting more pressure on small businesses – pushing back hiring even further down the road.

This, of course, is not news. In the months since I took over the editorial helm at the VBJ, I’ve heard from dozens of small business owners about a lingering freeze in crucial lines of credit.

But here’s something that may not be common knowledge: to a man and woman, local commercial bankers claim they have plenty of money to lend, albeit, to “qualified” applicants.

However, tougher lending standards do not explain the persistent lending “disconnect” between bankers, on one hand, seemingly ready to hand out money; and businesses claiming those same hands are empty, on the other.

In my capacity as an editor of a business publication, I have the nagging desire to get these two separate camps together, to foster understanding and most importantly, to make some deals. It would be a small business banking Woodstock, with the hippie doctrine of “free love” replaced with the perhaps just-as-revolutionary philosophy of “free-flowing capital.”

But it is my job (some say “calling”) to report on and not to intervene in the deal-making, or lack thereof, between our readers.

What I can do, however, is slip a few telephone numbers to any banker or small business owner looking to bridge this economic chasm.

The rules? Keep the conversation friendly, drop the blame game and remember – you two belong together, so hop to it, won’t you?

Business around the Northwest

Demand for businesses to buy rises, Idaho Business Review

Jobs and innovation, South Sound Business Examiner

U.S. unemployment eases to 9.7%, Portland Business Journal

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

► On the Record

“We need to make sure that we are all part of the public process.”

-- Sharif Burdzik, assistant vice president and team leader of the Fourth Plain Business Coalition, on plans for a rapid bus line on the busy corridor. C-TRAN will hold a meeting to discuss the issue, along with other portions of its 20-Year Transit Development Plan, at its next board meeting on Tuesday, June 8 from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the C-TRAN offices, 2425 N.W. 65th Ave. in Vancouver.

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Investing for dummies

Last week, I did the unthinkable. I looked at my 401K statement.

For months, it was easy to ignore the pile of envelopes lying in a neglected pile in the box where I keep my least-cherished badges of adulthood – bills, insurance statements, the back issues of Harper’s Magazine that I will never have the time to read.

As a reporter, I’m curious by nature. However, this time, I had no desire to track the roller coaster ride of the financial markets through the darkened prism of my retirement – which by my reckoning, will occur not when I’m 65, but in 65 years or so.

In the end though, curiosity won out as I took a letter opener and went to work on my pile of envelopes – but more on that in a moment.

Instead let’s fast forward a few days, as I meet a friend (who just happens to be an investment advisor) at a local watering hole in Vancouver for a beer on a rainy evening. “It should be so easy,” I say, in regards to that often elusive task of growing one’s money.

We talk about the investment decisions people make and how those decisions are often tainted by emotion. We discuss how every business owner and worker wants to grow their wealth, yet so few seem to succeed, even after a lifetime of trying.

And then it occurred to me. As I thought about the pile of envelopes in my kitchen, each one a tiny window looking out onto my financial future, I realized what kept me from even taking a peek. Like many other investors, weary of the extreme market volatility of the past few years, I was afraid of what I might find.

I remembered my trepidation as I finally opened the statements, scanning the pie charts and percentages, catching up on more than a year’s worth of account activity.

Needless to say, the news wasn’t good.

But it wasn’t that bad, either.

After two-plus years of recession, I’m thinking there are many people still unable or unwilling to peek into an uncertain future. In living rooms, kitchens and mailboxes across the region, there are surely piles of envelopes like mine, waiting for their owners to digest their contents.

To those people, I say it’s time to rip the envelope open, deal with what’s inside – and most importantly – move on.

Business around the Northwest

HP to cut 9,000 data center jobs, Portland Business Journal

April construction spending up
, but recovery uncertain, Idaho Business Review

Downsizing takes a breather
, South Sound Business Examiner