Above: Terry Oftedal, director of supply chain operations for YoCream, was one of the company’s original employees when it was founded in 1977.
//Photo by Matthew Ginn
Below: Rejuvenation was founded in Portland in 1977 by Jim Kelly. His brother, Tom, owns the Portland-based remodeling firm Neil Kelly.
//Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
Tripwire, Hanna Andersson and YoCream weren’t startups when they sold. They were established companies. But some of the challenges they faced ring true for a new generation: Startups are responsible for more job growth in the state than any other sector, noted Nick Fowler, CEO of Perpetua Power Source Technologies, during this past December’s Oregon Leadership Summit. Where the state falls short, he added, is securing the investment capital that allows companies to scale globally.
Scaling — and keeping — Oregon companies wasn’t always a big problem. “Thirty years ago, Oregon was home to quite a number of large companies of national or international stature,” says Jeffrey Wolfstone, another Lane Powell attorney who focuses on M&A. “Relative to the size of the population, that hasn’t kept up. In fact, it’s gone backwards.”
To be sure, globalization plays a big role in the changing corporate landscape. Yet the Oregon pattern contrasts with the dynamic in Seattle, where over the past two decades a number of scrappy startups such as Amazon and Starbucks have blossomed into international powerhouses, now standing alongside the region’s largest longstanding employers such as Boeing and Weyerhaeuser.
“Maybe it’s something in the water here,” muses Wolfstone, “A different type of ambition, or we’re more of a lifestyle city.” Or, as one Portland investor put it, Oregon is a bit lacking in the “animal instinct.” Others point to more material drivers. Oregon’s corporate tax structure favors startups because “you’re losing money,” but acts as a deterrent to growing big, says Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association.
Unlike Seattle, Boston, San Francisco or New York, Oregon lacks a major research university — “a geographical anomaly,” says Sue Levin, a former Nike executive who in 1999 co-founded Lucy Activewear, which was sold to a Greensboro-based private equity firm in 2007.
To grow companies “you have to have brains, wealth and business savvy in significant proportions and in proximity to each other,” says Levin, who is now director of the nonprofit Stand For Children. “You do not have it in Eugene and you have it in small quantity in Portland.”
Another “unfortunate thing” is there are not enough Oregon acquirers, says Levin, adding that it takes $50 million to get to profitability in retail. “The only company in Oregon that could have bought Lucy, literally, was Nike.” Levin adds that the original objective was to take Lucy public and “build a large Oregon company,” a decision that was nixed by the company’s original Silicon Valley investors “who had pretty high expectations for return on investment.”