As civic icons like Safeco drift away from their Puget Sound roots, here's a look at the components of a Seattle way of doing business that built up such brands. The key was motivated employees. The poison was rapid growth.
In business, Seattle has been breeding worldwide "muscle brands" for decades. Think of Amazon, Starbucks, Costco, Microsoft, Nordstrom, Boeing, and UPS. Few cities of this size have such an impact worldwide, or have done better in creating a powerful and compelling brand for the city.
Is that era ending? Does the fact that in the last few weeks we've witnessed the effective sale of Washington Mutual to outside investment groups and now the prospective sale of Safeco to a Boston insurance giant, tell us something? These are home-grown icons, albeit pillars of the old economy.
Their troubles and sales may mostly reflect the "creative destruction" of the age of hypercapitalism, or the coming pinch of the rececession (driving down prices and making acquisitions more timely). But it may also be a kind of cresting of the wave of Seattle's commercial dynamism.
I recently was shown the results of some interviews with key Seattle business leaders who were asked to define the distinctive Seattle style of retailing and brand-creation. There was a lot of agreement about the ingredients of success. Among them:
That's the formula, or it least that was the formula. It reflects a Seattle that is going away, a small-town and mutually supportive community. Once these companies get taken over by larger companies in distant cities, the culture can easily erode. "Growth tears at a culture," as one executive put it, and the "get big fast" mentality (in the Amazon.com slogan) really makes it hard to sustain the Seattle style, if only because store managers are always being transferred to open a new branch. Takeovers usually mean layoffs due to redundancies, and that anxiety quickly corrodes a company culture.
If rapid growth is the serpent in the garden, it's also hard to imagine that such growth won't continue to be the driver of Seattle companies. Once the Cold War ended and a huge new global market opened up, the temptation to grow big or die became irresistible, particularly in a outward-looking, highly commercial port city such as Seattle.
Could Seattle regain its balance? Perhaps here and there. A lot rides on how well Starbucks can slow down the growth that almost destroyed the company and its image and "get back to basics." Washington Mutual was all about rapid growth, and has now paid the price. Boeing's plunge into outsourcing so many components of its airplanes is another example of poorly managed explosive growth. Have we learned from these stumbles, or will the old book title, You Can't Go Home Again, prove true?
I suspect the old Seattle brand, as described above, will turn into nostalgia, although probably a marketable nostalgia if not the reality of the companies. We'll have Safeco Field, just not Safeco.