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On The Scene: The life of the party business

Walking into the exhibit hall at the Oregon Convention Center on Wednesday felt almost like stepping into a formal event for which I was considerably underdressed. Lavishness was the theme, with artsy seating areas and dining tables laid out with elegant settings and décor. There was even a small band playing light jazz music in the center of the room where people were crowded around blackjack tables. Whose high school prom did I crash?

My first impression of my surroundings was appropriate: I was visiting the Bravo! Live event, an annual showcase of the local hospitality and meetings industry. The hall was filled with extravagantly outfitted booths representing every sector of the business, from event design to transportation, along with representatives from big-name meeting venues like Timberline Lodge and the Portland Art Museum. Many of the exhibitors pulled out all the stops; the elaborate food displays were just the beginning. And with so much glitz in one room, it was hard to imagine this industry as yet another recession victim.

When I met James Joyce of Lake Oswego-based Gourmet Productions, he talked about the strategy shifts the company had made to keep itself alive, such as pushing to get new contacts and narrowing its focus to wineries and weddings. But while people were eager to try the beautifully arranged food samples at the company’s booth, Joyce did comment that attendance at the show was down compared to what he saw last year, and that attendees seemed to be more interested in venue shopping or networking than in catering services.

Jobs Watch: Desert celebrity watch

It isn’t often that I get to write movie star gossip, so now that I finally get my big chance, forgive me if I get a bit breathless. Like, OMG! What in the world is Michelle Williams doing in Burns, Oregon?

Starring in a film about desperation in a harsh environment — what else?

Williams, who graced the screen in Dawson’s Creek, Brokeback Mountain and Deception, is working with Wendy and Lucy director Kelly Reichardt and rising star Paul Dano in a James Mangold production titled Meek’s Cutoff. It’s a pioneer Western about an ill-fated journey into Harney County in 1845. Three families hire a guide named Stephen Meek to lead them on a detour from the Oregon Trail into unmarked territory, only to get horribly lost in a brutal landscape well known to anyone who has made the mind-numbing trip from Bend to Burns.

Editor's Notes: A beauty named Allison

When I toured the Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg this past spring I wore a hard hat, a safety vest and boots to get through the muddy grounds and unfinished construction. In five short months, the project has been completed, a dream has come true, dozens have found jobs and a nervous bride has been made very happy.

The Allison officially opened Sept. 25 and on that weekend hosted its first wedding. General manager Pierre Zreik took me on that spring tour and told me then that they absolutely had to make their deadline because they had a wedding booked for opening weekend and you never make a bride mad. Just a few days ago, the happy bride proudly sent Zreik wedding pictures.

The dream completed is Joan Austin’s. Austin founded dental equipment maker A-Dec with her husband Ken in 1964. Over the decades, she acquired 450 nearby acres, all within the urban growth boundary. The inn sits on 35 of those acres about two miles of Highway 99W and construction began in November 2007. When I interviewed Austin in April, she would not say (and has not said) what the Allison cost. It only mattered to her that she was creating a gift to the community she had lived in for 60 years, one where she built a business and a home and raised a family. Her dream was to leave behind a place that would provide jobs, a community gathering spot, and a point of pride.

On The Scene: Going green takes a team

In a state like Oregon, going green is not a new cause by any means. The Beaver State is a hub of alternative-vehicle interest, Portland’s public transportation and bike-friendliness are world-famous, and sustainable local products are the norm. So what else could the annual GoGreen Conference have to offer to attendees?

I checked out GoGreen 09 this week to find out. The event was at the Gerding Theater in Portland’s Pearl District — a small venue for the tremendous turnout the conference received. Crowds of businesspeople packed the lobby and milled around outside, representing companies such as Pacific Power, NW Natural and Providence Health & Services. And following its debut last month, Arcimoto’s brand-new Pulse EV was parked proudly in front of the theater (and Portland Mayor Sam Adams even stopped by to check it out again).

Not everyone was there representing business. I chatted with a recent MBA graduate from Dominican University of California who was attending the conference simply to get a sense of the way Portland approached sustainability issues. But with panel session topics ranging from green funding options to plan writing, the conference was clearly aimed at getting businesses of all stages started in the sustainability game.

Jobs Watch: Back to work

When I interviewed Sam Adams back in 2005, it was like an aerobic workout. He was midway through a campaign stunt to work at 100 businesses in 100 days, and ideas and energy were spilling out of him.

This summer, interviewing the mayor was an entirely different experience. The ideas were still there but the energy was not. Transcribing the tape later, I wondered if my recorder was running low on batteries, he was speaking so slowly and with so little inflection and passion. He sounded like a burnt-out bureaucrat.

This is not surprising. We all know about the sordid sex scandal that surfaced at the worst possible moment, just as Adams was taking office and the economy was crashing. That mess nearly cost him his job, and it hasn’t done the city any good either.

Your Business: Finding the right recipe

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There are a lot of moving parts that go into starting a successful new business — a good idea, sufficient capital, a quality team, and so on — but a vital, often overlooked factor is the need for a good business recipe.

The OB Poll: Darwin had a point

Diversify or die. That’s what the majority of our respondents agreed would lift Oregon’s economy in this week’s poll. Not bad advice for organisms or economies.

Diversifying the business base has been the mantra of most economic development plans in Oregon in the past few decades. It was a state built on natural resources, and since the fisheries and timber operations started to collapse, small towns throughout Oregon have tried to find a way to reinvent themselves. It’s still a work in progress. Oregon Business will examine some of those former timber towns in its November issue.

Despite the historic rollercoaster of the natural resources industry, the second most popular vote was to get back to the basic of agriculture and timber. Timber is unlikely to ever be king again because of federal forests policies, but ag has the ability to always be the once and future king, albeit with a volatile time on the throne. In our September issue last year, we detailed how spiking prices and an insatiable worldwide demand for commodities such as wheat brought record-breaking prices to Oregon’s ag industry. But just a few months later, the demand plummeted, prices dropped and the rollercoaster hit the bottom again.

Editor's Notes: The 100 Best Nonprofits

Last night, in the presence of a sell-out crowd of 560 at the Portland Art Museum, we ended a two-year journey and began another one when Oregon Business unveiled its first 100 Best Nonprofits to Work For in Oregon.

I was so moved by the turnout that I impulsively asked everyone to stand at the beginning, and asked everyone to turn and hug their tablemate since I couldn’t give that many people a giant hug. Maybe because this is Oregon, or maybe because this was a heart-driven group, they actually did it. It was a room full of laughing, hugging people. It took me about half the program to recover from the emotion, flubbing a few remarks along the way.

There couldn’t have been a better debut. Former Gov. Barbara Roberts delivered a spirited keynote address that drew on her personal story of how, as a single mother with an autistic son, she advocated for his rights and in the process launched not only groundbreaking legislation for the disabled but her political career. She challenged the audience to not get dragged down by the current tough economy by telling the story of her ancestors on the Oregon Trail. They had nothing when they arrived in this state, and built it from scratch. So if you need a problem fixed and can’t find the help? Look in the mirror and you’ll find the leader you need.

Jobs Watch: A surprise win for the harbor

There’s good news and then there’s REALLY good news. Daimler’s decision to keep making trucks in Portland isn’t just a reprieve for the hundreds of people who work for Daimler and the companies that feed into that truck-building machine. It is a vote of confidence for the industrial harbor that Portland was built on.

The harbor has been losing jobs steadily over the past decade due to cheaper labor costs overseas and the environmental uncertainties that go with a Superfund listing. But the harbor remains vital to the regional economy, a place where people without college educations can get good jobs to support their families building barges, pumps, rail cars and trucks. Some of these jobs have moved to Mexico, but a lot remain here. Manufacturing powerhouses such as Schnitzer Steel, Esco, Gunderson and Vigor Industrial give Portland “a manufacturing base in this city that most mayors would give their left arms for,” in the words of Mayor Sam Adams.