by the friends and colleagues that know them best
Bellingham has more than its fair share of interesting and unique businesspeople, each with their own personal, introspective, or even humorous stories to tell. Getting these stories out of them is the tough part – so instead of writing them ourselves, we decided to ask their best friends or coworkers to tell us something about each of these entrepreneurs that most Bellinghamsters don’t know.
The Unity Group
“Insurance is something that nobody likes. I try and make the experience as pleasant as possible. I love the interaction with people and I enjoy helping people.” With that, Robb Dale, CEO of The Unity Group, describes his personal view of the industry and his leadership.
With a long history in Bellingham, The Unity Group today counts 53 employees with offices in Bellingham, Everett and Lynden. A full service firm, the company offers a wide array of products and services ranging from commercial insurance, employee benefits and financial services. Dale himself highlights three areas of expertise and customers including manufacturing accounts, school accounts and contractors.
Insurance was not Robb’s first calling. Growing up the son of a traditional family doctor in North Seattle, Robb’s first passion was skiing. Starting as a junior instructor at Inglemoor High School, Robb taught skiing to various groups and individuals while gaining his business degree at Pacific Lutheran University.
Unsure what the next move would be, Dale shadowed a number of professionals to “try out” their industries, including a stockbroker, accountant and banker. A friend in the insurance industry, who was
also a ski instructor, helped him land his first insurance job with Transamerica. That was followed by a couple of other stops, including Marsh McClennan, where he handled major corporate clients ,including K2 and Weyerhaeuser.
Soon thereafter a headhunter came calling about a position in Bellingham. “I’d been to Bellingham once before. My impression of the community was as a hippy place.” But Bellingham’s beauty and the proximity to fishing and skiing helped to seal the deal. “I fell in love with Bellingham,” Dale recalls.
Love came in another form as well, as a mutual friend’s recommendation has endured into a 25- year marriage and two sons, ages 15 and 10. The non-working side of Dale today is about home and family. An 18 handicap, Robb enjoys golf with his son, and skiing remains a major family interest. “I’ve come home early from conferences because my son has a track meet or a soccer game,” Robb explains. My job now is to help create respectful children, kids with confidence.” To that end Dale and his older son will leave for Nicaragua in August with an organization called Bridges To Community, and will build a home for a local family.
His workaday life is about 50 percent selling and 50% management.
Success, Dale explains, comes from “looking at the big picture.” Describing himself as “tenacious,” Dale works to find “win-win situations for customers and employees.”
“Our business is an open book. We have 12 shareholders. We share with employees. It’s important to have a meeting of the minds. I can count on one hand the number of non-unanimous votes in the board room we’ve had in nearly 25 years.”
Dale sees that sharing attitude as important in running a company and in meeting customers’ needs. “I believe in freedom of ideas and that the people who satisfy the customer should get the credit. I surround
myself with talented people and let them experience self fulfillment.”
That fulfillment is a personal passion as well. With a “real interest in the community,” Dale and his wife have co-chaired a school bond levy. His company holds a charity golf tournament each year. He is involved in both the local and national level in his professional association and he has driven the industry’s public policy
involvement through the association’s PAC. And, he is a member of the Whatcom Boys & Girls Clubs’ Board of Governors.
And when it’s time to pass the torch, what then? “My dad was interested in bronze sculpture. That is something I can see myself doing.”
Always creating, and seeking fulfillment personally and professionally-that’s Robb Dale.
– by Lynn Templeton,
Executive Director Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County
The Zervas Group
I believe Mike and I first worked together over 25 years ago. How can that be? One of the first projects we worked on was the Hillside Solar Homes project for the Bellingham Housing Authority as Johnson, Erlewine & Christensen Architects. The energy efficient concepts and building design received a Design Award as one of the best projects in the nation (Early training for his recent accreditation as a “LEED” professional).
Mike has always brought a refreshing balance of architectural skills with practical construction knowledge. No idea was too radical, that it couldn’t be overcome with “down-to-earth” solutions. (I think he also swung a hammer with his former design/build partner, Sid Nesbit) Probably because he had a big bushy beard back then.
As the firm evolved, he was brought in as a partner. It started as Johnson, Erlewine & Christensen, then it became Johnson Christensen & Associates, then Zervas, Taysi, Johnson & Christensen!
We didn’t want to sound like a law firm, so we shortened it to Zervas Group Architects. As the firm grew, Mike and Jim Zervas were the senior partners as the rest of us left for other opportunities. Mike always has his pulse on what’s happening, and he has taken the firm, with his additional partners, Terry Brown and Sharon Robinson, to new heights as a leader in northwest Architecture. We have even joint-ventured on several award-winning projects, including the original Madrona Medical Building (not the new one!), the
redevelopment of the old “Sears” building into 1616 Cornwall Offices / athletic club, and most recently, the redevelopment of the abandoned building at Chestnut and Cornwall (Shrimp Shack location).
Over the years, he has blossomed into a true leadership role in the architectural profession, through presidency of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the ONLY person to
serve as president of the Washington State Assembly of the AIA twice!
He traveled the state visiting other chapters and helping lobby the Legislature in Olympia for legislative reforms to benefit the citizens of Washington. This involved enormous personal time sacrifice on his family and his firm. This sacrifice was rewarded by the AIA when they elevated him to an FAIA “fellowship” membership standing.
Mike has always been willing to contribute and volunteer resources, time and effort to community projects. This includes participation in community planning, design charettes, and the never ending list of task forces and advisory boards.
You would think that all this bureaucracy would harden him, but he always keeps his sense of humor and moves things forward. It is a great pleasure knowing Mike and I look forward to his continued leadership contributions to our community.
– by Dave Christensen
Christensen Design Management
Mark Bergsma Gallery
When I was asked to write about my husband, Mark Bergsma, I immediately thought of it as an opportunity to share what it is like to be married to a creative photographer and how so many people think of the glamour of traveling with him to capture the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
Almost every trip we have ever taken has been centered on the possibility of what photograph Mark might be able to capture.
Initially I thought it would be so exciting to go with Mark and be there to watch him at his craft, but I soon realized that it was not going to be the adventure I was hoping for. It usually entailed many long hours waiting for “the right light” and at any cost. This often meant no food, no restroom, bug bites, enticing birds by feeding them day-old bread I desperately wanted to eat myself, setting up a campsite in the dark and the list goes on.
Being a city gal at heart and having an accounting background, I often wondered if Mark would have enjoyed hiking to the top of a mountain and watching me add up numbers on a calculator while overlooking a panoramic view point.
One particular trip that will always stand out in my mind is our Oregon Coast trip. We started out going through central Oregon down to Crescent City, Calif., and up the coast on Hwy 101.
Mark had asked me to pack a long dress and straw hat that I had worn as a maid of honor in my best friend’s wedding and I reluctantly agreed, not having any idea what he was thinking. As we traveled down the road I soon realized that if Mark stopped at one more “vista point” I was truly going to be carsick or cry.
As we drove into the town of Brookings, we journeyed out to the Cape Blanco lighthouse where there was a beautiful view of the ocean with the lighthouse and tall, wheat-colored grasses in the foreground.
As he composed the photograph in his head he asked me to put on the dress and the hat then pose in the grass next to the lighthouse with the ocean in the background, which I did with some apprehension.
After a long while of standing in the grass and many poses later, I realized the amount of effort that actually goes into the composition of Mark’s photography. It is so much more than one would ever think.
That photograph was taken in 1982 and was one of the first limited edition triptychs (three separate photographs) of which Mark has become known for. It was the first limited edition that sold out and it became the catalyst for many more similar panoramic images that have directed some of Mark’s photography. After more than 20 years the photograph originally titled “Summer Of ’42” has just been
re-released as a digitally undivided print with the new title “Summer of ’82.”
There are many more stories as there are images which come to my mind and have much the same outcome, a beautiful and memorable photograph of the Pacific Northwest. I can honestly say while joining Mark in his journey to create outstanding images, his work continues to amaze and inspire me and I hope you will be able to appreciate his work in some way also.
Despite the rigors of being married to a photographer, Bev Bergsma still helps Mark with the operation of the business.
– By Bev Bergsma
The Opportunity Council
Among local economic forces, one shouldn’t underestimate the impact the nonprofit sector has in both purchasing power and employment. There are, of course, large institutional nonprofits, such as universities and hospitals, but smaller, community-based organizations have their own significant impact. Often, these
corporations import or contribute as many (or more) resources to the local economic cycle as those “small businesses” that might otherwise come to mind.
The Opportunity Council, led by Executive Director Kay Sardo, employs 160 individuals in three counties, though more than 90% are Whatcom-based. The agency operates with an annual budget of $11 million and has a payroll of more than $4.2 million, excluding benefits. As the area’s “community action agency,” the Opportunity Council has been front and center in fighting poverty, homelessness and other family crises since President Lyndon Johnson declared war on such social ills in 1964. As a result, the organization is set to
celebrate soon its 40th anniversary of services to our poorest co-citizens.
Kay has guided the agency for more than 25 percent of that history. She assumed her role in 1995, after the board of directors conducted a national search to end a tumultuous period. Raised in Washington, she spent some 30 years in Texas, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York before coming home again. Those years away had her working in higher education, research and local government. “Local,” however has a slightly different scale when you’re a senior manager in New York City’s government, which Sardo was under the Dinkins’ administration. In fact, for obvious reasons, she has cause to frequently reflect on her New York department’s tenure on an upper floor of one of the World Trade Center Towers. Fortunately for her team and successors, she had the vision to move the department out of the tower in order to be closer to the people they were charged with serving.
Whether in the heart of the Big Apple or on Cornwall Avenue in Bellingham, the same issues, causes and philosophies have driven her.
First, is an unwavering belief that the poor and disenfranchised deserve and want the means to self-sufficiency and community governance. Second, in the struggle against seemingly intractable social issues, the ends must shape the means. If an approach doesn’t work, don’t give up; try something different. And, third, social progress is not the responsibility of one sector or one class in our culture; it is a responsibility shared by all.
Now in the twilight of her career of service and working fewer paid hours, Sardo has intensified her look at ways to mentor others as part of her legacy. She has also led the mostly government-funded agency she heads into more entrepreneurial pursuits to meet local needs and acquire the resources necessary to fulfill its mission.
She co-founded the local Northwest Institute for Non-Profit Excellence (NINE) in partnership with Northwest Youth Services and her agency has successfully launched a Protective Payee initiative on
a fee-for-service basis.
In measurement of success in life she offers one of her favorite quotes: “Don’t ask me how many millions I’ve made, ask me how many people are better off, how many lives improved.” The counting continues.
– by David Webster
Northwest Youth Services
The Bellingham Public Market
To many people, Stephen comes across as someone born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, but he is originally from New Jersey, which is where I’m also from. He has a very good sense of humor, so we both
like to joke around about East Coast and West Coast differences.
Something else people may not know about Stephen is that he’s a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. He is mystified when a Bruce Springsteen concert doesn’t sell out in Seattle, or anywhere else in the country,for that matter.
Stephen has spent the last eight years building his business and giving back to the community. He has learned first-hand the challenges that business owners face when starting a business and keeping it going through tough times.
His passion for Bellingham’s future is evident, as he ran for city council a few years ago and has been active in his neighborhood group along with many other organizations.
The two of us balance each other out as partners in the Bellingham Public Market and we both feel fortunate to be working with each other.
When not working late on one of his many projects, Stephen can be found going for walks with his wife, Jillian, and son, Cody, down at Cornwall Park.
– by Gary Holloway
Bellingham Public Market
The Bellingham Public Market
The way I met Gary is a funny story.
On Fridays at the Barganica store we usually need some extra help stocking the shelves and I was having trouble finding someone. I told my staff that I would try to hire the next customer that walked into the store.
The first guy who came in was definitely under the influence of alcohol, so we didn’t hire him. The next person seemed like he would be a good fit, so I asked him if he could help out and he said yes.
To make a long story short, a couple weeks later this random customer (Gary) and I had formed an LLC to undertake the Public Market project.
Taking on such a complex project requires a certain amount of drive and a great deal of vision.
Gary possesses both in spades. He is also very personable and is a quick study in what makes other businesses tick – ideal traits for someone who needs to manage a marketplace with 10 or 12 businesses
sharing the same space.
What has really made this partnership work is how well we communicate. With some people you have to go over things many times to get on the same page, but with Gary we are often of one mind without even talking.
– by Stephen Trinkaus
Bellingham Public Market
Cy Lindberg, a vice president and private banker at Wells Fargo, has been a leader in the Whatcom County banking community for 20 years.
In writing about Cy, I feel the need to strike just the right balance in tone, somewhere between adulation and insult. By force of habit, I am inclined toward the latter, since Cy and I both have several brothers and learned at an early age to engage in the old thrust and parry. Cy’s facility with the caustic quip, I have found, is best met by a reciprocal barb. My concern is that by saying nice things about him, I will somehow dull my sword for future verbal combat.
Nevertheless, assuming all the attendant risks, I have resolved at this time to set aside my considerable misgivings and discuss Cy’s attributes, such as they are.
In the first place, it is important to know that Cy, like many of the finest people one encounters in Bellingham, or anywhere else on the West Coast for that matter, comes from the Midwest, in his case
Minnesota. My view is that people who (1) start out in the Midwest and (2) end up out here, share some common characteristics. First, they were generally raised in a simpler, less pretentious social environment than that which prevails on either coast. Often they come from families which are particularly close-knit. Perhaps most importantly, these immigrants have been sufficiently independent, adventuresome, and discerning to pick up stakes and move to a geographically more attractive part of the country. Happily, a good number of these folks, including Cy, have found their way to Bellingham.
Cy admirably reflects the aforementioned traits of other refugees from the Mississippi River watershed. After a tour in the Army, he had the self-confidence and spirit of adventure necessary to leave a warm and supportive family and move halfway across the continent to attend Western Washington University under the GI Bill. Since arriving here nearly 30 years ago, he has exhibited the good sense of a Midwesterner in choosing people with whom to associate himself. For example, he took a job during college at Bellingham Sash & Door and looked to Morrie Tarte as a model of how a businessman should conduct himself. To this day, Cy is influenced by his observation of Morrie in the way he treats his employees and meets his customers’ needs.
Like other Midwesterners, Cy has found in Bellingham fertile ground to sink roots. He and his wife, Lynn, have long been active in the community, in their church, in clubs and civic projects. They have raised and educated two daughters who delightfully reflect their parents’ character and wit. Their daughters, like their parents, have had the self-confidence to leave the nest and seek education and employment afar.
Both in his professional and home life, Cy employs his unique sense of humor. His remarks are often wonderfully succinct, literal one-liners. He has a way of getting maximum leverage from the inherent humor of a situation.
But Cy is not only a comic, he is also something of a sage. He often imparts deeply philosophical advice. For example, at a time when I looked to Cy for important guidance, he told me, “When it comes to motorcycles, there are only two good colors: black and chrome.”
– by David B. Anderson
Anderson, Connell & Carey
Attorneys at Law
I’ve only gotten to know Steve Roguski over the last year and a half, mostly on the golf course. To look at him you would not guess that he is 10 years my senior�� which I remind him of constantly. He has the
appearance and energy of a much younger man. I suppose that is one of the benefits of running 8 miles a day. The energy and passion he has for his business is admirable. His story of starting Fairhaven Runners is both interesting and inspiring.
At the age of 40, Steve decided to start a new life for himself, which included his passion for running. He wrote down his goal on a piece of paper and stuck it on the refrigerator. It said, “to own a community oriented shoe store.” Six months later, the store was up and running (pardon the pun). Now the store is celebrating its sixth year. Steve’s passion and enjoyment in operating the store is apparent.
All of his employees seem to enjoy working there, which to me says a lot about a business owner. They are excited about his latest project, a new local trail map. I know he has invested thousands of dollars and many hours into producing the map. It will be a long time before he breaks even, because he is donating two-thirds of the revenue to various groups to help sustain the local parks and trails.
This is just one example of Steve using the success of his business to give back to the community. There should be more business owners like Steve. People with integrity and the concern for the community they live and work in. I forget who said, “A man’s word is only worth the paper it’s written on,” but I would trust Steve on a handshake. He is funny, outgoing, and honest.
I could prove the last one if I told you his latest golf score.
– by David Killian
The Colophon Cafe