Sam Naito, along with brother Bill, founded the retail shop Made in Oregon 35 years ago. It now sells 2,000 Oregon-made products from 10 stores. // PHOTO BY TERESA MEIER
From his small, modest office on Northeast Airport Way in Portland, Sam Naito works five days a week at Made in Oregon, the iconic company he started 35 years ago. That a legend of Oregon business still puts in a full week as he is about to turn 90 would surprise no one who knows the Naito family.
The Naito family opened an importing business in Portland in 1921, and faced with discrimination when World War II began, moved to Salt Lake City. They eventually moved back to Oregon and Sam and his brother, Bill, went on to drive the revitalization of Portland’s Skidmore-Old Town area along with many other redevelopment projects. In 1975, the Naito brothers started Made in Oregon, which was dedicated to “products made, caught or grown in Oregon.”
Back then, “People thought the only thing made in Oregon was lumber and potatoes,” says Naito. Now the company sells goods from more than 2,000 Oregon manufacturers and artists and the little store that started at Portland International Airport now has 10 locations and about 50-60 full-time workers, along with a mail-order catalog and e-commerce website.
While his son, Vern, runs the real estate side of the family business (Bill died in 1996), Naito focuses on Made in Oregon. “I was trying to get down to four days a week, but couldn’t do it,” he says. And retirement isn’t an option. “I just don’t have any outside hobbies,” says Naito.
So he keeps looking for new products, and new locations. His passion to promote Oregon (“Oregon is always taking the back seat”) seems limitless, and his love for the beauty of the state is also how he markets it. “Oregon’s brand is green, fresh, eco-friendly,” he says.
From his perch of a long life dedicated to Oregon, he says the thing Oregon needs most right now is more salesmanship. “We are not strong on promotion,” and the courtly, reserved Naito leaves further comment on leadership in the state at that.
And like many people who have achieved a great deal, Naito will give the past only a quick glance. “I’m not that successful,” says the man who helped build Portland. “I’m just lucky.”