In a turbulent year, these three have been making waves
Photo by Vincent Aiosa
Filled with intriguing moves and earth-bending shakes, 2008 was a whirlwind year for business news. Or maybe it was a tornado.
As the business community settles in for what is bound to be a long winter, The Bellingham Business Journal takes a look back at a few of Bellingham’s power players that made it worth picking up the newspaper in 2008.
This was the year we saw a local developer toss a new development plan into the rough seas of waterfront planning, a local CEO orchestrate the merger of two of Whatcom County’s largest private employers, and a new president for Western Washington University listen his way to a new era for the college.
Owner of New Whatcom Interiors and community activist
Family: Four daughters, Jennifer, Marilla, Caitlin and Lissa; and four granddaughters, Cecilia, Iris, Lauren and Emily
John Blethen has never really understood the title “community activist,” but he does feel very deeply that, as a Bellingham citizen, he has a duty to be involved in his community. For many years he has been active in his community, most recently as the chair of Bellingham’s Greenways committee and as a member of the Waterfront Advisory Group.
“I think people need to be engaged on a level larger than their own personal family,” Blethen said. “It’s a way that I can give back to the community and know my life has some meaning.”
Both of Blethen’s parents were born in Washington state, but “by some accident” Blethen said he was born in New York state. He made his way to Bellingham in 1969 after teaching at an inner city high school on the south side of Chicago and a summer abroad in London.
“I was a single parent with a young daughter at the time,” Blethen said
Through his years of work at New Whatcom Interiors and his various civic involvements, Blethen’s foresight, idealism and fidelity to the community eventually led him to the forefront of local politics and development.
Over the past few months as the Port of Bellingham and the City of Bellingham have debated over a redevelopment plan for the former Georgia-Pacific property, two plans have emerged, which have polarized the waterfront discussion.
In October, Blethen funded a third plan with local architect Dave Christensen. Blethen said their proposal takes positive aspects from both the city and port plans, but also captures the excitement and idealism of years of public process.
“The community asked for open space and a level of excitement. There was also a strong desire to save some historical buildings and to have linkages to the waterfront,” Blethen said. “For example, the high-speed bike lane was something that we introduced in our plan. We also braided in a series of pedestrian access points, so the community can really enjoy this waterfront.”
Blethen said while the port has spent a lot of money on out-of-town consultants and designers, local people with local knowledge can better represent the community vision.
“We had a mini-charette and we pulled a plan together,” Blethen said. “We pulled together some of the key people that we thought had good ideas to add to this planning process and we used their ideas and other ideas we heard at several Waterfront Futures Group meetings.”
Though the city has shown some interest in the hybrid nature of the Blethen-Christensen plan, Blethen is not sure how it will be used going forward.
“Hopefully, some of the ideas we have will help the port and the city get on the same page,” he said.
Blethen also made news this year with his live/work development at the corner of Ellis and North State streets, which has living space above office space.
“It’s a form that is new to Bellingham but is not a new form,” Blethen said. “It’s a mom-and-pop approach to having a hands-on business. The new spaces are small but it would be a perfect place for a beginning lawyer or an architect or someone who has a small business.”
Blethen said the development would allow people to live lightly in an urban situation.
“You can just go downstairs and go to work,” Blethen said. “This development also happens to be two blocks from the bus station, so you could run your business without even having a car.”
In addition to an innovative live/work format, Blethen is also installing tanks to capture and recycle rainwater, as well as setting up a solar voltaic system and a solar hot water heater.
“I am hoping people will want to live this way,” Blethen said. “I think it’s our future. As costs continue to skyrocket, we have to get out from under our dependence on foreign oil and we need to use our national resources to the best of our ability.”
Blethen said a little publicity is nice for important projects, but it is not the motivating factor.
“I am probably going to continue doing whatever I do with or without that, because these are things that I believe need to happen,” Blethen said.
CEO of PeaceHealth Whatcom Region
Family: Husband, Jackson Helsloot, and two grown children, son, Jordan, and daughter, Shaine
While Nancy Steiger is the CEO of PeaceHealth Whatcom Region, she prefers the title of chief mission officer.
“I found the title very inspiring because it is leading the mission that I really care about,” Steiger said.
Steiger said she felt called to Bellingham to work for PeaceHealth because she was inspired by its mission: to be a steward of personal and community health and caring for people in loving and compassionate ways to relieve pain and suffering.
“I mean, who wouldn’t sign up for that?” she asked.
In early 2008, after being on the job for only six weeks, Steiger got a call from Dr. Erick Layne, former CEO of Madrona Medical Group, asking if PeaceHealth would be interested in merging with Madrona. At the time, PeaceHealth and Madrona were two of the largest private employers in Whatcom County, with a total of more than 2,800 employees.
“If I had to plan it, I would not have planned for it after only six weeks,” Steiger said. “Maybe six months or six years, but not six weeks — it’s a bit soon. I really didn’t have the lay of the land at the time.”
As Steiger got to know Madrona’s leadership and its physicians, she really began to see the possibilities.
“We would be better together than apart,” Steiger said. “Our organizations had been competitive previously, but why don’t we put the competition away and start focusing our resources toward the same end? That seemed to make sense.”
But Steiger is not entirely unskilled at bringing together two or even multiple entities under the same organization. As CEO of the San Mateo Medical Center in San Mateo County, Calif., Steiger led the incorporation of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, Petaluma Valley Hospital and a neighboring rehab hospital under one medical foundation with San Mateo Medical Center.
“There are a lot of things we did wrong and hopefully I won’t make the same mistakes again, and there were some things that were right that I would want to re-create,” Steiger said. “That was probably the best training I had for this.”
Steiger said one of the most difficult parts of merging two separate entities is merging their different and unique cultures.
Steiger said they are trying to bring the best of both cultures together.
“We started back in February trying to understand what is important to Madrona — what they hold dear, what their norms, policies, dress codes and procedures are,” she said. “How can we honor the past and re-create the future?”
Steiger said that while the merger is final on paper, merging cultures can take three to five years on average.
Overall, Steiger said, the merger went smoother than she had expected.
“It was almost uneventful. There are a million possible things that could have gone wrong and there were virtually none of those,” Steiger said. “I wouldn’t call it business as usual, but it was about as close to business as usual as you can get.”
With the merger, Steiger said, is the responsibility for every PeaceHealth employee to broaden their definition of what it means to work for PeaceHealth in Whatcom County.
“We are no longer a hospital — we are PeaceHealth Whatcom Region, which includes this wonderful hospital,” Steiger said. “There isn’t a single person who isn’t touched by this. Who we are as an organization has so fundamentally changed.”
President of Western Washington University
Family: Wife, Cyndie, and three sons, one deceased
When it comes to leadership, Bruce Shepard, Western Washington University’s new president, strongly believes in leading with questions instead of answers.
At the end of January, Shepard will have hosted more than 100 “listening sessions” with faculty, student groups and community and neighborhood associations to hear how they would like to see the university move ahead under the new president.
Shepard, who took the torch from former President Karen Morse, said these sessions need to challenge the university community to think outside their comfort zones.
“It’s not just the president who will take this university forward, but all the people who are this university,” Shepard said.
Shepard also assumes the role of representing the university in an ongoing debate over how the waterfront redevelopment will take shape. The university is planning to expand its campus down to the waterfront as early as 2012.
So far, Shepard said, his transition has gone well and he and his wife, Cyndie, have been comforted by the warmth and welcoming nature of the community.
“I have lost count of how many thousands of people we have met,” Shepard said. “As with all new situations, you see strangers become friends on campus and in the community and that has been a real pleasure.”
In taking this new job, Shepard said it is very important to avoid two common mistakes: assuming this university is the same as the one you came from and buying into what has always been done there.
“While you have to be sensitive to the culture, you can’t fall into the trap of, well this is how they have always done it, so let’s do it that way,” Shepard said. “You have to ask questions that make people rethink whether or not that is how they really want to be managed. That’s been a fun part of the transition.”
Shepard said one of the things that attracted him to Western was the waterfront redevelopment project, where the university would be an anchor tenant with its Huxley College of the Environment campus.
“I like things that are undefined,” Shepard said. “You know there is huge potential out there, but you don’t know quite how you are going to get from A to B.”
On the path from A to B, Shepard said he sees the university as a go-between that both the city and port can communicate with.
“They are all good people, but they have different constituencies and different things they are good at,” Shepard said. “I think we are looked at by both the city and the port as people they can talk to.”
However, Shepard said that the priorities of both the city and the port must be married in an equal way to create a property the citizens can be proud of.
“When I am in the ground, I want our kids to look back and say they got it right — not that they blew an opportunity,” Shepard said.