On March 23, Bruce MacCormack will step down as chair of the Northwest Economic Council (NWEC) after serving a very busy two-year term. This comes just a few weeks after he announced that he is also stepping down as the chair of the Bellingham Angel Group, a private investment group that MacCormack helped start almost six years ago.
Since retiring in 2001 from a career with IBM, MacCormack, now 73, hasn’t slowed down a bit and is a familiar face on several local executive boards. But his passion lies in business and economic development, and he has led the NWEC on a path of greater cooperation with government agencies and other business organizations.
The end goal, MacCormack said, is for Whatcom County to recreate the jobs it lost during the recession and create a more self-sustaining economy.
The Bellingham Business Journal sat down with MacCormack in February to talk about his tenure at the NWEC and Bellingham Angel Group and get his perspective on the state of the economy in Whatcom County.
BBJ: How did you find your way to Whatcom County?
MacCormack: I arrived here in 1983, so I’ve been here 28 years now, except that most of the time up until 2001 I was working for the IBM Corporation and traveling literally all over the world. It was very interesting work but it meant a lot of travel, so while I was here I really wasn’t here, in a community sense.
It wasn’t until I retired in 2001 from IBM that I started to get more involved in the community. Having freed myself up and having taken an early retirement from IBM, a number of friends had great ideas, one of whom suggested that he’d been trying to create a private equity organization here and it hadn’t come to fruition. And that’s how the Bellingham Angels started with about five of us in June 2005.
It’s now grown to 50 members and we have probably 20-odd companies a month apply for financing and see a total of 18 companies a month present to us a year.
BBJ: Besides the suggestion from your friend, what spurred you to start an investment group?
MacCormack: I’m a great believer in entrepreneurship and small companies. And the thing about Angel investing is that it’s a lot of fun — it really is.
When you go to your broker and invest in something, that’s what I call a passive-type investment and to a great extent you are not involved in it. With a company startup, you put money in and you have an expectation of return. While it’s high risk, there’s also a very high reward.
You also have an opportunity to work with that management team. You become a member of the advisory board or you coach them in certain ways and you certainly have very close oversight over their financial activity, so you’re far more integrated into the investment process with a small company than you would be in stocks and so forth. You can have a real influence on the outcome of their success.
BBJ: You’ve seen a lot of young entrepreneurs and startup businesses come around. Do you have any advice for new entrepreneurs?
MacCormack: One of the important things I think is to build a strong management team. Another one is if you have intellectual property, then protect it by all means.
I would also say don’t be too proud to seek advice and coaching from your investors. They are, to the most extent, successful businessmen in their own right and they have a lot to offer and most of them really want to help you. So be prepared to reach out.
And finally I’d say prepare an exit strategy. There’s going to be a peak in the value of your organization and you need to be ready ahead of time to divest that organization when it has hit its peak. It needs as much planning to exit as it does to set up, if you want to make money.
BBJ: When did you join the Northwest Economic Council?
MacCormack: I joined about three years ago as a board member and I was encouraged to take over as chair in March 2009. It’s a two-year term — and it has been a busy two years, busier than I had anticipated.
This year my wife, Patricia, and I celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. So I have agreed with her that after March 23, I will devote myself to whatever she wants to do for the rest of the year. So we’ll be doing some traveling and taking a break from everything.
BBJ: In terms of economic development, what do you think are Whatcom County’s strengths and weaknesses?
MacCormack: I think one of the things we could do better is the way in which we attract small businesses to the county. I’m thinking particularly of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Especially with the dollar being on par and the attractiveness of U.S. market and the size of the U.S. market, we should be the natural gateway for Canadian entrepreneurs. I don’t think we’ve developed a sufficiently good plan to take advantage of that yet. At least we recognize it; we just need to actualize it now.
One of the things that has puzzled me to no end and I’ve never quite figured out — I’m going from north of the border now to south, to the Bellevues and Kirklands and Rentons — all of those people who pay all of those taxes and have that terrible commute and deal with all those other issues, why would they not move their businesses up into Whatcom County where the property taxes are less, there’s plenty of good labor for their businesses and it’s probably less expensive because our overhead is less expensive here? What is it we have to do to make them think about coming up here?
Skagit County is good at this — I think there’s a few lessons we could learn from Skagit County. The way they welcome new business opportunities into Skagit County and how they work in a coordinated fashion toward that end, we could learn some lessons from what they do there.
BBJ: Whatcom County certainly has a lot to offer.
MacCormack: It has a lot to offer. The good things we have here are clearly the environment. We don’t have a rush hour. The cost of living here is certainly less than in the greater Seattle area. And we have, I believe, the opportunity for people to take advantage of services like the IRC (Innovation Resource Center) and things like that where we can help them.
I talk a lot about us being a concierge. I see the NWEC as being a concierge for all the people who come here. We should have all the answers for businesses and I think we are good at that.
Some parts of the community don’t want to see more business come here. They like it as it is. The trouble with that philosophy is that that’s like standing still on an escalator going down — you’re automatically going backwards, whether you like it or not. Progress is about moving forward and there isn’t such a thing as the status quo when it comes to the economy. You have to be moving forward.
Here’s a final strength: We have great people in our community to make things happen. We’ve got Jim Long at the Public Development Authority, we’ve got John Sechrest at the IRC, we’ve got people running agencies like the Center for Economic Vitality and Small Business Development Center. We have a great team of people. What we need is coordination between the entities and we need whatever financial support we can get from funding agencies.
Even though the state is going through terrible budgetary problems, this is not a time to be shortchanging the economic development process. It would be entirely shortsighted to shortchange anybody who’s working in economic development at this point. The very thing that is going to recreate jobs is going to be economic development initiatives that we can use.