What do Bain Capital, a Boston-based private equity firm, and New Seasons Market, the Portland-based organic grocery chain, have in common? Co-founded by Mitt Romney, Bain has faced increasing scrutiny since the former Massachusetts governor announced his presidential run. Co-founded by Eileen Brady, New Seasons has also found itself in the spotlight since the mayoral hopeful announced her candidacy.
It’s not uncommon for business people to launch political campaigns, but the attention it brings the company is not always welcome.
New Seasons, for example, is an important campaign frame for Brady, who promotes her association with one of Portland’s most popular grocery chains as one of the reasons she's qualified for the city's head office.
But if New Seasons is good for Brady, Brady's campaign is “not necessarily” good for New Seasons, said chief executive Lisa Sedlar. There’s been no negative impact on sales, Sedlar told me. “But political elections tend to be polarizing, and I don’t want New Seasons to be stuck in the middle of some oppositional battle.”
New Seasons' customers have a wide spectrum of political beliefs and the store has a policy of not supporting political candidates, said Sedlar. "My goal is to distance the company from all political activity.”
But as election season shifts into high gear, that may be something of a Sisyphean task. “I’m starting to read what’s out there, and I think that people are trying to attach some things to Eileen that are happening here that have nothing to do with her and vice versa,” Sedlar said. In the past few weeks, news outlets have reported on a number of issues that have been potentially controversial or awkward for New Seasons, ranging from anti-labor language in an early version of the company’s employee handbook to detailed descriptions of the company's founding history and financing.
Last week, the grocer’s union also called on Brady to support unionization at New Seasons, which does not have a unionized workforce.
Voter ignorance is another headache for the grocery chain. “People come in and say: ‘Is your CEO running for mayor?’” said Sedlar. “And people have to say, ‘No, our CEO is not running for mayor.’ It’s confusing.”
I asked Brady spokesperson Neel Pender about the impact of Brady’s candidacy on New Seasons. Brady's history with the organic grocer is a central part of her campaign narrative, he said. “So we’re certainly sensitive to the fact that it’s a very popular brand.” As for stories that may have cast a negative light on New Seasons, Pender said: “It’s unfortunate that people for political purposes have sought to drag them into the campaign, attacking both Eileen and the company.”
In Oregon, companies founded by present day politicos tend to be relatively small, such as Pareto Global, a consulting firm founded by Rep. Jules Bailey. While those firms may stay under the radar, larger companies face more scrutiny — for better or worse. “Whether or not the Brady campaign helps or hurts New Seasons I’m not sure,” said Mike Riley, president of Riley Research Associates, a market research firm. ‘They would probably opt not to be in the spotlight.”
Sedlar seems reconciled to the glare. Months ago, when Brady first announced her candidacy, Sedlar sent out a staff email announcing one of our “co-founding family members is running for mayor” and reminding employees “we don’t endorse candidates and we don’t want anybody to talk about the election on the sales floor.”
Now that election season is ramping up, Sedlar is thinking about expanding that missive into a blog post intended for a wider audience. “Dear customers,” it will say. “We want you to know that New Seasons is not part of the election at all.”
About that Bain Capital connection. In 2009, New Seasons sold a majority (55 percent) stake to Endeavour Capital, a Portland-based private equity firm. The $31 million deal provides an interesting twist on the cover story I wrote last month about Oregon companies selling to large, out of state companies or private equity firms.
New Seasons may have sold, but so far it’s still locally owned.
Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.