Meet Bob Donegan, Crosscut Courage Award winner in Business

The president of Ivar's has helped lead the company toward worker-friendly policies, and the city toward waterfront solutions.
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Bob Donegan

The president of Ivar's has helped lead the company toward worker-friendly policies, and the city toward waterfront solutions.

As a business executive and leader, Bob Donegan has made himself a quiet force for changing the shape of Seattle's future, doing well by workers and the community and helping to strengthen — not just preserve — an independent, locally owned business. He did all this in the face of the odds and the trends that have run in opposite directions.

Whether on the job at Ivar's or working on community issues, Donegan moves ahead with tenacity, respect for those around him and an uplifting optimism. 

Companies built around the personality and skills of a charismatic founder, even one as iconic as entrepreneur-entertainer Ivar Haglund, often have a hard time surviving his death. It's even more rare for them to thrive. But Ivar's and its team — Donegan is the first to point to others' contributions — have pulled that off.

And they've done it while operating in ways that define their own industry's norms. He has helped lead Ivar's, the beloved local restaurant group, to years of success using a model of operations built around good pay, benefits and respect for workers that defy the trends and economic pressures that push many companies in their field in the opposite direction.

Since Donegan arrived as chief financial officer in 1997 and became president after the death of his predecessor in 2001, Ivar's has moved in a direction that has proven good for both its employees and its business. He looked at high employee turnover, running at more than 400 percent annually in much of the company and decided to emphasize good pay, benefits and even retirement plans for employees.

While other restaurants pursue a path of low wages in a competitive and increasingly personality-based culture, at Ivar's, the philosophy is that the company knows its most important asset: Its workforce — not, as the saying goes, the valued customer. Long before Obamacare, the company began offering full benefits to part-time employees and it matches every contribution they make to their 401(k) plans with a 50 percent donation.

When Ivar's put out a book marking its 75th anniversary earlier this year, it prominently listed the names of some 150 employees who had been with the company anywhere from 10 to 50 years. Some do what Donegan regards as the toughest job, washing dishes on a hot summer day at Ivar's historic waterfront location. They need wages and benefits where they can be proud of their work, their support of their families and their ability to be part of their communities, Donegan says.

The results have been good for the company, too. Since the start of the Great Recession, Ivar's has almost continually had its best financial years. 

At the same time, Donegan is a critical thinker on the topic. He has personally spoken out against a SeaTac ballot proposition that would require a union preference, paid sick leave and a $15 minimum wage in the Seatte-Tacoma International Airport, where Ivar's has a spot in the central terminal. His argument: The higher expenses would force employers to look at trimming jobs and the higher costs would discourage purchases.

He has thrown himself into various committees working on the future of the Alaskan Way Waterfront, something that civic leaders since the Greg Nickels administration have identified as crucial to the quality of life, economic competitiveness and the environment. He continues to devote long hours to that work and, until this month, served as board chair for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

Donegan has also helped shape the future of the waterfront, working tirelessly on issues around the Alaskan Way Viaduct's replacement for more than six years. When the state hurtled toward construction of a replacement viaduct that would have shut off the downtown from Elliott Bay for 10 years, Donegan stepped in with what he saw as a superior option: The waterfront tunnel. Donegan says there was never any thought that Ivar's Acres of Clams, the flagship restaurant on the waterfront, would go under. But some of the other historic spots would have had no chance of surviving the construction disruptions. 

When he and others began researching the option of combining better transit with a deep bore tunnel, they could count the number of leaders interested in the idea on one hand. A group calling themselves the Sandhogs began meeting weekly — at Ivar's, naturally. As they learned more about deep-bore tunneling — and the fact that some of the world's experts lived around Seattle —they began to make progress.

Asked if he ever felt hopeless about the effort, he unhesitatingly replies, "Only three or four times. A day." And then there was the endless Seattle process: Donegan counts a half-dozen waterfront and viaduct replacement committees on which he served, plus a business group and a ferry terminal committee. Even as many transit supporters came to see the need for a tunnel, uncertainty around the its chances as a political winner remained. 

Eventually, the idea that had been mocked as expensive, risky and catering to the automobile, finally won out, both among politicians and — overwhelmingly — Seattle voters.

Those who know Donegan say he must work on the waterfront issues 20 hours per week — an assessment he confirms. Maud Daudon, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, says he listens carefully and respectfully, but never hesitates to ask the tough questions that prod bureaucrats and public officials to look at the bigger picture. At the chamber, she says, he used his term as chair to open up the conversation to a wider range of voices. 

Donegan's style is quiet and unassuming — when told him he was an award finalist, he responded, "Oh, this is embarrassing." But his tenacity, focus and determination in the face of conventional wisdom have proved themselves to be exactly what was needed.


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