For Portland, A Fast Future

Propeller consultants launch smart solutions for a quick-changing city.

The Silicon Forest : it’s a playful handle sometimes used to describe the humming tech momentum in and around Portland — speedily refashioning itself into a dynamic business hub. But the humble sandbox may well be a better metaphor.

Portland’s businesses are daily molding fresh conceptions of what commerce — and even cities themselves — might look and act like in the 21st century, says Adam Bamford, director of Portland-grown management consulting firm Propeller.

“It’s a tolerant place, an accepting place where things are possible, ideas are explored,” he says. “We think about value systems a little differently here.”

And, as with the sandboxes of youth, a few sacred tenets apply: share the tools, welcome continuous disruption and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Propeller got its wings back in 2012, when founders Jeff Foley and Amy Weeden joined forces to put a mutually shared belief to the test: Portland’s growing business community needed management solutions that were more agile and more people-centric.

Today, Propeller is one of the city’s biggest consulting firms. It offers the highly customized project leadership, business consulting and change management services envisioned by Foley and Weeden, and it’s still got its eye squarely on the horizon.

That’s crucial in a place like Portland, which folds its Northwest heritage into the city’s persistent evolution, notes Bamford. The New Portland is culled from a colorful composite of elements: long-lived manufacturing industries brush elbows with tech, health care, energy and consumer goods companies, and spry start-ups regularly go head to head against well established, world-class brands.

This isn’t San Francisco (though Propeller’s got a second office there). It’s not Seattle, either. The market’s smaller. Relationships compel a long-term view. And keeping up means looking ahead.

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Propeller’s consultants help clients thrive in this environment by tracking trends and forecasting future needs while staying loyal to the humanistic approach that makes Portland unique, says Bamford: “A positive mindset and a focus on being contributors and not detractors is core to who we are. And that’s tied to the ethos of the city.”

Propeller consultants develop customized solutions that simplify complexity and keep growing organizations nimble, which is also essential, says Propeller Managing Director Sunil Kasturi: “We’re considered a small city, but the class of business problems that we’re engaged with — that Portland companies are solving and involving us in the solutions of — they’re world-class problems, world-class business opportunities.”

Despite the changes, Portland’s business culture remains relationship-based and inextricably interconnected, with players regularly shuffling about among and within the same large organizations. Management consulting in this milieu demands the ability to spot opportunity and see past hype, and the people best positioned to do that are consultants with backgrounds as broad as they are deep, Kasturi adds.

Propeller brings on just 1.5 percent of the people who apply, and the 63 on-board consultants who’ve scaled that bar thus far are, to a one, energy-bringers and change makers eager to put those broad resumes to work.

Bamford, for example, arrived at Propeller’s doorstep with a background boasting not only strategic planning and marketing expertise, but also chops in guitar performance and land development. This eclectic resume enables easy toggling between right- and left-brain thinking, he says, and that enables him to handily simplify and visualize complex concepts for clients.

Cross-functionality breeds an instinctive comfort with ambiguity, agrees fellow Propeller Consultant Heather McFarland. And that regularly comes in handy when you’re advising Portland’s organizations, she says. Though the city is poised at the cutting edge of ideas and technology, heritage manufacturing and industry remain economic lynchpins, and the approach to innovation is still abidingly collaborative and inextricably interconnected.

“It feels very holistic,” she says. “They [the businesses] are just trying to do right by Portland, and Portland reciprocates, and that shows up in businesses, as friendships, as community training and as outreach and service.”

Before landing at Propeller, McFarland hopped around the Pacific Northwest outdoor industry, discovering a love of business process design and improvement and collecting a diversity of experiences that enable her to think beyond the same old best practices when troubleshooting for clients.

That’s a trait common among Propeller consultants, she says: “We’re not afraid to drop in and solve big hairy problems in really straightforward ways.”

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Adaptability is baked in to Propeller’s approach, and as Portland matures, keeping pace with technology, attracting top-notch talent and bringing organizations together to evolve best practices will be essential to ensuring that everybody — from heritage manufacturers to established brands to lively start-ups — gets a seat in the sandbox.

“It’s about using Portland solutions to solve Portland problems,” explains McFarland, “and to keep folding that back in is really key … It’s about building a community and not being afraid to use that community and the tools at hand to build something nobody else has thought of.”

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