What's the secret sauce for Seattle's global reach?

A remote rainy corner of the country emerged as one of the recognized centers of international commerce and innovation. More than blind luck was at play.

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Bill Gates. (Wikimedia Commons)

A remote rainy corner of the country emerged as one of the recognized centers of international commerce and innovation. More than blind luck was at play.

Geography. People. Events. Dumb luck. Which was it that made this relatively remote city in a rainy corner of the Pacific Northwest one of the world’s recognized centers of international commerce, culture, and innovation? The correct answer is all of the above.

That question was framed in this way at a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Museum of History and Industry as part of its celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Century 21 World’s Fair in 1962. “We have the chance to hear people who actually made the history,” said Leonard Garfield, MOHAI Director. “In some cases we have changed the way we think of events based on what we have heard.”

The question of Seattle's favorable history has long been debated. A century ago, the answer might have been "Destiny." Consider, for example, the report written by W. H. Ruffner for the Seattle, Lake Shore, and Eastern Railway in 1889, the same year the big fire wiped out most of the city. Ruffner saw Seattle as a gateway to Asia, noting shorter travel distances and the Japanese Current: “the famous Kuro Shiwo, or Japanese current; a current which gives a gain to every ship of 20 miles a day in distance.”

A map accompanying Ruffner's report was prescient, showing routes from Puget Sound to Russia, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia. Interestingly, he left off Japan; perhaps with the current, trade with Japan was a given.

Bill Stafford, former president of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle and Crosscut contributor, chaired the panel comprising Dick Ford, an attorney and former head of the Port of Seattle; Shan Mullin, an attorney and former chair of the TDA; and Diane Adachi, Director for International Relations at the University of Washington.

Stafford observed that one element that made Seattle a global city was that it was one of the few places in the United States where “an immigrant from Europe met an immigrant from Asia.” That produced an interesting mix of immigrants and perspectives. Already by the 1880s, one sixth of Seattle’s population was Chinese, for instance.

Mullin cited the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909 and the abundance of natural resources for export. He added that one of the trademarks of Seattle is a strong spirit of collaboration, “the idea of bringing people together to promote the region internationally.”

Ford said the natural deepwater port here was a strong factor in the development of Seattle as a global city, as was the city's role as the major maritime connector to Alaska in the 1897 Gold Rush. The population of the city rose from 42,000 in 1890 to 80,000 in 1900 to 240,000 in 1920. “That did not occur from people taking in each other’s laundry,” Ford said.

Seattle also was selected for the first regular shipping service to Japan, Ford said, noting that the steamship Miike Maru arrived in Elliott Bay in 1896. The Miike Maru — owned by Nippon Yusen Kaisha, the Japanese shipping company that is still a customer of the Port of Seattle — was the first ship to begin a regular run between Japan and North America. The Great Northern Railroad also was a factor when it reached Seattle in 1893, providing direct access to the Midwest and Eastern markets.

Ford recalled the history of the silk trains, making the run from Seattle to New York in 90 hours, a remarkable feat in early 20th century. The silk business was huge, Ford said, citing figures that put the value of silk at nearly 10 percent of all imports.

Seattle was also the beneficiary of two huge innovations, Ford said — the jet engine and the container. Both put Seattle on the map through Boeing jets that soon made international travel accessible to almost anyone and the container, an intermodel shipping system developed after World War II that reduced transport costs and supported a vast increase in international trade. Some of the first containers were developed for the Seattle-Alaska market.

Adachi of the University of Washington stressed the importance of the university in Seattle’s development. She, too, noted the culture of working together that seems to be part of the fabric of Seattle’s success. The Jackson School of International Studies began in part because many scholars were seeking refuge from countries where there was no tradition of academic freedom. Adachi, who was born in Seattle but who lived in Japan for several years, also said that Seattle always seemed like a small city where relationships are important and thoughtful. “We don’t want to be a big city,” she said, “but we happen to be one.”

Some facts and figures emerged from the discussion that underscored the global nature of the city. Among them: 17 percent of current residents were born outside the country; 21 percent speak a language other than English at home; nearly 140 different languages are spoken in the city; and Seattle has 21 sister cities. Mullin said he typed “Seattle international organizations” into Google and got a response that was 17 pages long with seven to eight organizations per page.

The conversation also pondered the nature of Seattle's "brand."  Some components: the movie Sleepless in Seattle, Ichiro and the Mariners, coffee and grunge, the Space Needle, Mt. Rainier, the waterfront, beautiful scenery, the mountains, creativity, Boeing, fish, a friendly town, and long-lasting relationships. 

WTO? It was controversial but on the whole a positive. “Sometimes you have to live through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff,” Ford said. “I hope we never get so conservative that we say no to such meetings,” said Adachi.  “If opened up a lot of dialogue,” said Stafford, “that would not have happened without the meeting being here in Seattle.”

How does Seattle keep its competitive edge?  “We can’t leave it to happenstance,” said Mullin. “I am worried that we are not doing the planning and collaboration needed to keep us competitive 40 years from now.” Ford noted that the region is increasingly losing its home-office advantage – “Boeing's move to Chicago changed the dynamic,” he said.  “We don’t have the banks and other companies based here and that’s a challenge.” “Without investment in higher education,” said Adachi, “we will eventually be in a catch-up phase — the gap will show up.”

What’s ahead?  Seattle can remain a global center. Where trees and fish once dominated, now research and global health are the keys.  Referred to as an "aesthetic dustbin” by former Seattle Symphony conductor Thomas Beecham in 1941, the city and region now sees itself as a cultural center. The city was at the center of the dot.com craze, yet is home to the biggest and grandest survivor of that age, Amazon.com. The standing joke in the economic development world is that the best economic development decision ever made was to have Bill Gates born here.

And there are still plenty of homegrown businesses and organizations. Nordstrom, Costco, Starbuck’s, Paccar, Expeditor’s International, Esterline, Univar, and others still field a strong home-field team. In services, legal firms like Perkins Coie keep their Northwest roots as they expand into the world. Architecture firms like NBBJ, Callison, and MulvannyG2 design buildings around the world. The Gates Foundation is a game changer for the city and is the largest foundation in the world.

But let’s go back to those four initial parameters — geography, people, events, and dumb luck.

Geography is easy. Deep-water port. A day closer sailing time to Asia. Almost equidistant by air from Tokyo and London (Tokyo is about 15 miles farther). The mountains and the outdoors in general. There are few major metro areas where you can be hiking in the mountains or skiing down a slope less than an hour from city center.

People. Again easy. Bill Boeing and Bill Gates. James Hill and the Great Northern. That spirit of collaboration and cooperation that created the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and the World’s Fair in 1962. Stone Gossard and Pearl Jam have been strong supporters of the environment. And so forth.

Events.  Also important.  The Miike Maru from Japan at the early days of Seattle. The Liu Lin Hai in 1979 represented the first time in nearly 30 years that a Chinese commercial vessel had entered a U.S. port. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference here in 1993 was also an event worth noting, starting the process that continues today with an APEC center still operating here. Several meetings were held here in advance of the WTO meeting without incident, including the Quad Four meeting early in 1999.

Blind luck. Some events fall into this category. One example perhaps tells the story. The Columbus Day storm in 1962 practically created the business of exporting raw logs to Japan since so many trees were blown down in that storm. 

I would add some other factors. One is the Seattle way in retail. Nordstrom was perhaps the first in this regard but it bred a host of companies for whom the idea of customer service was important. It created a business culture here that persists to this day. Costco continues to get great reviews for customer service.

Another is innovation, with Microsoft as the obvious example. But there are others. Expeditors International created a model that was to combine transportation services and customs brokerage. The idea was sketched out on a napkin in a bar on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. REI combined the idea of providing good climbing equipment and customer service to become a global leader. Univar was one of the first true conglomerates. Esterline in aerospace is one of those companies you never hear about, but one that has been key to the aerospace industry here beyond Boeing.

So what is an international city?  The best definition I ever heard was this: An international city is one that is easy to leave. New York, Paris, Hong Kong, they all fit since you can leave easily at any time and find a flight or a train to where you want to go. Seattle?  Increasingly so over the past few years.

Emirates Airlines just started service from Seattle to Dubai. Hainan Airlines will boost its flights to Beijing to daily in June. You can now fly direct from Seattle to London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo, Taipei, Reykjavík in Iceland and many destinations in Canada and Mexico. Kenmore Air makes even Lake Union an international airport. Now that’s global reach.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Stephen H. Dunphy

Stephen H. Dunphy

Stephen H. Dunphy writes on business and economic issues for Crosscut. He was a business editor and columnist for a number of years at The Seattle Times.