Must Reads

Jobs Watch: Hemp for the masses

Anyone who believes that the hemp industry is best left to the half-baked stoners of the world should spend a few hours talking textiles with Ken Barker. Five minutes into the conversation it becomes clear that this guy is onto something big, and he knows exactly what he is doing.

Barker recently served as head of apparel at Adidas North America in Portland. Before that he held executive positions with Adidas and Levi Strauss in Canada. He knows how hard it is for apparel companies to meet the rising demand for clothing from earth-friendly sources. When he was with Adidas he entertained proposals to make fabric from soy, bamboo, even seaweed. None of them made as much sense as hemp, the plant that once served as the backbone of U.S. industry before it was banned in the 1930s.

Barker and another former Adidas executive, David Howitt (a brain behind the success of Oregon Chai), run an investment firm in Northwest Portland called the Meriwether Group. They have two hemp companies in their portfolio. Living Harvest, which makes hemp milk, is one of the fastest growing companies in Oregon. Naturally Advanced Technologies, the company Barker has run since 2006, recently raised more than $900,000 and plans to get its product to market within six months.

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Jobs Watch: The recession is over. Sort of.

Ben Bernanke said it, so it must be true: The recession is over. Why am I not feeling relieved? For starters, Oregon’s new jobless numbers are out, and they are worse than ever. Unemployment has more than doubled over the past year.

Construction jobs are down 16.3% year over year. Manufacturing jobs are down 15.2%. Professional and business services are down 8.7%. Even government jobs have dropped. There may be signs of rebirth hidden somewhere in these figures, but I’m not seeing them.

Meanwhile, projects that had me thinking optimistic thoughts about Oregon’s future are fizzling out. Amazon is backing away from its plan to build a server farm in Boardman. Vestas appears to be waffling on its earlier promise to building a new headquarters building in Portland. Once mighty Tektronix is being forced by its parent company to move jobs from Beaverton to Shanghai.
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Jobs Watch: Something's burning in Burns

Something was burning in Burns, and it smelled awful. Turns out the town dump was on fire: Black smoke was spewing forth from a privately operated landfill loaded with treated wood, plastics and fiberglass from the RV manufacturing plant.

This was the last thing I wanted to breathe in on a sweet morning last Thurdsay in Harney County, where fewer than 8,000 people populate 10,000 square miles of high desert and pine forest. You expect dust storms, sagebrush, weather-beaten pickup trucks, barbed wire, dried up lakes, bullet holes in the road signs. But burning fiberglass?

The locals weren’t too happy about it, either. The smell served as an acrid reminder of the latest industry to leave town. Bankrupt Monaco Coach, which employed 6,500 people as recently as 2006, was in the last stages of shutting down its local operation, with its final day of operations set for Friday. The closure of the Monaco plant leaves Harney County with basically no manufacturing jobs. That’s a harsh reality to accept in a town that once had one of the busiest lumber mills in the world.

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Jobs Watch: Prineville pines for opportunity

At the corner of Olde Iron Street and Northwest Harwood in Prineville, in front of not-quite-finished housing development, there’s a big sign that reads, “Community First Bank: Re-investing 100% of our local deposits back in Central Oregon. That’s what a REAL community bank does.”

Unfortunately, that strategy didn’t work out real well for Community First, which was seized by regulators in Prineville on Aug. 8. Growth in Central Oregon has been a good bet for the past decade, but that boom has gone bust, and no community has been hit harder than blue-collar Prineville.

Unemployment in Crook County in July was a seasonally adjusted 18.7%, down from an abysmal 22.4% in June but still the highest in Oregon. In addition to the failure of the local bank, Prineville has suffered the closure of its biggest lumber mill (formerly run by Ochoco Lumber), the loss of the corporate headquarters for the billion-dollar Les Schwab tire empire and the anti-climatic fizzling of several ambitious home-on-the-range residential developments.

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Jobs Watch: Down to the wire in Roseburg

For years, it has been a point of pride within Roseburg’s business community to raise $100,000 through the annual duck race to fight child abuse in the community. This year was no different — except of course this year IS different if you’re talking money.

Normally the duck race fundraiser goes right down to the wire and Roseburg’s civic boosters are called on to dig out the final 10% during the final days. But this year they weren’t even close — only $56,000 had been raised, with one week left.

Enter Neil Hummel, who has been in the real estate business in Douglas County for 36 years. He got out his Rolodex and got to work, and by the end of the week the goal was reached.

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Jobs Watch: Integra promises no layoffs

Maybe you’ve heard the one about the fast-rising Portland company that got snapped up in a “loan-to-own” deal that’s becoming increasingly commonplace as the vultures circle. Maybe you read it last week in this blog, under the category of bad news.

Dudley Slater, CEO of Integra Telecom (one of Oregon’s most successful private companies over the past decade, 700 jobs statewide), took exception to my characterization of his company’s efforts to restructure its debt. In his view, the deal is good news because it cuts Integra’s debt in half and sets a course for growth. But rather than paraphrase his perspective, allow me to print an excerpt from our hour-long conversation Tuesday morning at Integra’s corporate headquarters in Northeast Portland, edited for clarity and brevity.

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Jobs Watch: There's good news, and there's bad news

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: One of Oregon’s most successful private companies in recent years, Integra Telecom, is on the verge of changing hands under less than ideal circumstances. A front-page story about a sharp increase in “distressed takeovers” in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reported that Integra is being forced to turn over ownership to Tennenbaum Capital Partners LLC following a barrage of “hardball tactics” deployed by the debtholder.

In the story, Integra CEO Dudley Slater is quoted as saying, “Life is always better when you have options and in this case, we didn’t have any options.”

That’s bad news for Integra, which earned $684 million in revenues last year and employs 2,300 people including 550 in Oregon. Companies that get taken over by private equity firms don’t always suffer massive job cuts shortly thereafter, but it comes as no surprise when they do.

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Job Watch: Wading in the shallow end

I don’t know about you, but my neighborhood pool has been a bit over-crowded lately, closer to human stew than the Mediterranean. I’ve spent quite a few evenings there over the past week, soaking in shallow water while the kids swim free, catching up on what the parents have to say about their jobs — or former jobs.

Not surprisingly, I’ve heard some grim stuff: 60-hour work weeks cut down to a trickle, law firms giving up on a decent recovery until somewhere in 2010, newcomers with advanced degrees and great ideas getting nowhere with their job searches.

It’s enough to make you wonder if the economy — and the pools for that matter — might be more appealing elsewhere. But then the other day I wandered into a shallow-end conversation that gave me a completely different impression. I had met Prashant before through the usual stuff, tennis and kids and so forth, but we had never really talked. What I didn’t know is that he’s held executive positions with local firms like Tripwire and Fios; he’s launched a start-up and business is pouring in faster than he can handle it. His partner is a lawyer who lives across the street, and he says that tons of people from his neighborhood are seizing on the momentary lull to build new businesses. As you might expect, he’s got a substantially brighter view of the current trend towards frugality, because it is creating exactly the sort of environment he needs to convince companies to take a chance on his value proposition.

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Job Watch: finding survival tactics

For the second month in a row, we are scrambling to revise a story about a great local business that has been harder hit than expected by the continuing recession.

Last month it was Pendleton Woolen Mills, a 100-year old Oregon icon that surprised us by announcing that 45 employees would be laid off as we were preparing to put our August issue to bed. This month it’s a local bank to be named later that has been dealing with hard-nosed FDIC regulators scouring through every record, email and report they could unearth. My conversations with the CEO went from fascinating to ominous over the course of the past several weeks, and we agreed that running a story before the matter is clarified with a formal FDIC report would be unwise for the magazine as well as the bank.

Both of these stories were slotted for our Tactics page, where we explore a company and its leaders, what they are facing and how they are proceeding and why. I’m a big fan of the page, because it strives to dig deeper than the usual business profile by shaving off the fluff and honing in on what is crucial. Unfortunately, more and more of these pieces are reflecting the harsh reality that for many businesses, the over-riding goal for 2009 is simply to remain in business. Our research editor Brandon Sawyer quipped the other day that maybe we should rename the page Survival Tactics.

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The gift that keeps shrinking

The latest round of job losses at the Portland Tribune comes as little surprise to those of us who launched that paper in 2001.

Managing editor Todd Murphy has quit in frustration after learning about a plan for sizable newsroom cuts that he didn't like. In the end the features section was eliminated, two reporters were laid off and one sportswriter was reassigned to the news section. It could have been much worse, and had Murphy not elected to leave, it probably would have been.

A clumsy approach to management and schizophrenic hiring and firing decisions have been par for the course for years at the Trib, which has been shrinking ever since it started up with a rousing speech from the mayor in Pioneer Square, tons of hype and a large pile of money from the man who was then Oregon’s second wealthiest citizen, Robert Pamplin, Jr.

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