Tag Archives: innovation

Paradigm shifts and P4 Medicine

Dr. Leroy Hood, a pioneer in the systems approach to biology and medicine, spoke at UW Foster School in January 2013 about innovation, complexity, P4 Medicine—predictive, preventative, personalized, and participatory—and much more.

Dr. Hood has played a role in founding more than fourteen biotechnology companies, including Amgen, Applied Biosystems, Darwin, and The Accelerator and Integrated Diagnostics. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. Of the 6,000+ scientists world-wide who belong to one or more of these academies, Dr. Hood is one of only fifteen people accepted to all three. Additionally, Dr. Hood has published more than 700 peer reviewed articles and currently holds 36 patents.

In a career of dramatic innovation, Dr. Hood has seen a number of paradigm shifts. He identified four common traits. Each paradigm change:

  1. Fundamentally altered how, in his case, scientists think about biology and the practice of biology.
  2. Faced enormous initial skepticism and, in some cases, actual hostility because there were perceived threats to the traditional way of getting things done.
  3. Forced the creation of new organizational structures—the bureaucracy that comes from existing organizational structures hurts the ability to change the way you think about something.
  4. Required enormous risk taking.

Watch the video below for more highlights from his talk, including how the Human Genome Project transformed biology, implications of P4 Medicine, and his thoughts on the future of systems biology.

Dr. Leroy Hood from Foster School of Business on Vimeo.

Leroy Hood was one of UW Foster School of Business Dean Jim Jiambalvo’s guest speakers at the annual Leaders to Legends Breakfast Lecture Series, which include notable leaders in an array of industries from greater Seattle and around the country.

Hammering man: John White

Inventor of mammoth machines, reinvents himself in the Foster EMBA Program

You could call John White (EMBA 2012) many things. Inventor. Entrepreneur. Scholar. Philanthropist. Restorer of rare antiquities. Teller of rousing tales.

How about Renaissance man?

Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer

Let’s not get carried away. We’re talking about a uniquely American icon-in-the-rough, more rock-and-roll than lute and lyre. A tall-walking bear of a man who ran off to join the carnival when he was 14, enlisted in the Marines at 17, and made his bones in the heaviest of industries.

White is the founder of American Piledriving Equipment, the world’s foremost manufacturer of vibratory hammers that drive the foundations for the massive structures of modern civilization—skyscrapers, statues, stadiums, oil rigs, wind turbines, bridges. Especially bridges.

He’s been enthralled by these abiding symbols of human ingenuity ever since he was a kid in West Seattle, when an old neighbor would regale him with tales from his days flying bombing runs in World War II. “He said he could never take out the old Roman bridges in Italy and France,” White recalls. “They were just too solidly built.”

Ground up

White’s role in the advancement of transport construction began humbly enough. After his stint in the military and a spell at community college, he was hired as a mechanic by Pacific American Commercial Company, fixing pile drivers from around the world that were surplussed after the construction of the Alaska Pipeline.

Eventually, he became a walking encyclopedia on the subject. “I didn’t realize it at the time,” he says, “but I was, perhaps, the only person on the planet who had been exposed to all of these hammers.”

North Carolina-based International Construction Equipment sought his expertise to coax its shoddy pile drivers to work on the West Seattle Bridge project in the early 1980s, then hired him to manage its west coast operations. But White eventually wearied of trekking from southern California to northern Alaska to install and service hammers that were always breaking down. “When you’re up in Prudhoe Bay, you don’t care how much you saved if the machine doesn’t work,” he says. “So I set out to make the world’s best pile driver.”

Build a better hammer…

After White left ICE, he founded APE in his White Center garage. His first creation was a small hammer that used vibration rather than concussion and heavy tungsten rather than steel to drive piles in tight spaces, a design perfectly suited for Boeing’s seismic retrofit of its facilities in the late 1980s.

White received his first patent in 1992. And the next day he was introduced to Pat Hughes (BA 1957), owner of several rock and gravel companies in the Northwest. They became partners in APE—White president and Hughes CEO.

“We were a great team,” White says. “Pat was an incredible mentor; working with him was like being enrolled in the Pat Hughes School of Business—an extraordinary learning experience in the real world. He said to keep on inventing. And 40 patents later, we were the world’s largest manufacturer of vibratory pile drivers. We revolutionized the industry.”

White designed progressively bigger and more efficient diesel impact hammers, best on land, and vibratory hammers, more effective and environmentally gentle in water. Locally, APE had a hand in constructing Safeco and Century Link Fields, the new waterfront Great Wheel, and is working on the new 520 Bridge. It helped build bridges in Iraq and Afghanistan, and repaired the Haitian port after the 2010 earthquake. APE now dominates the vibratory hammer market in North American and parts of Asia, and is a growing presence in Europe and South America.

For China, a nation setting new standards for mega construction, White designed the largest pile driver in history. Today his OctaKong, a 500,000-pound vibro hammer, is driving 72-foot diameter steel piles deep into the South China Sea to support the 31-mile Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge.

Reinventing the inventor

Despite being president of APE, White was always more comfortable in his role of inventor. In 2010 he decided it was time to learn the management and financial side of business. So he enrolled in the Foster School’s Executive MBA Program.

Three decades removed from his last classroom experience, White found he was a pretty good student. He soaked up faculty wisdom, polished his interpersonal skills, and grew into the heart-and-soul of a tight-knit class (after studying Ernest Shackleton in a leadership course, White bought his colleagues each a replica bottle of the legendary Antarctic explorer’s recently recovered stash of whiskey).

He also learned that he was ready—and able—to navigate his own future. “It didn’t matter if I was CEO of an antique store,” White says. “After 20 years as second in command, I wanted to run my own ship.”

He sold his stake in APE toward the close of the program, “the hardest decision of my life,” he admits. “But I was born in the EMBA Program. The Foster School has given me the tools and the confidence to do something new.”

Somethings new

White has wasted no time.

Since graduating in June, he has been testing the waters on an innovation that he worked on in the EMBA’s capstone project. This elegant twist on geothermal energy uses a long, hollow screw of heat-conducting steel to deliver the ambient temperature of ground water to an above-ground heat pump—enabling vastly more efficient heating and cooling, and a tidy installation.

John White Motorcycle White also launched Crazy Horse Motorcycles, manufacturing distinctive “V-Plus 100” curvilinear engines—you may have seen them powering the rides of the Discovery Channel’s “American Chopper,” in a stroke of guerilla marketing—and genuinely all-American-made retro bikes sized to fit the big-and-tall market (of which, at 6-foot-4, White is a member).

And he’s bought a house. Well, not just a house. A kind of lost museum, really. White found the historic waterfront residence of Hollister Sprague, Boeing’s first attorney, shrouded in vegetation atop a bluff in Seahurst. Inside was a veritable trove of period furniture, books and music, and a Prohibition-era hidden hooch-running tunnel. In a grand ballroom inspired by the chancel of a Scottish church, he found three grand pianos (a pair of Steinways and a Bosendorfer) and a legendary 1931 pipe organ—the console operated percussion, harp, flute, glockenspiel, voix celeste, and a veritable orchestra of other instruments.

White is sparing no expense to restore this unique, historic residence to its original splendor. “It’s going to be incredible,” he muses.

The measure of an MBA

Since departing APE, White has made one other significant investment.

Midway into a life spent building things to last, it occurred to him that he could help build the school that had unlocked his future to endless possibilities. Just before graduation, he donated $500,000 to Foster—the largest student gift in the school’s 95-year history.

When Neal Dempsey (BA 1965) spoke at this year’s EMBA commencement, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist offered three kernels of advice that struck White—transformed by his days at Foster—as both inspiration and summation. Do something that scares you. Welcome change. Give back.

“Now I’ve done them all,” White says. “But it was his last point that resonated most.”

Carnie days

John White’s father worked as an electrician for Boeing when the company lost funding for the Supersonic Transport (SST) program. “When I was 14,” White recall, “my dad lost his job.”

The power got shut off. Eventually his parents lost their home. “It was depressing,” he says. “So I decided to go get a job.”

The uncle of a friend happened to run an arcade in a traveling carnival. It turned out that White was more mechanical than his friend’s uncle, so the carnival management kept him on.

His job was to set up and service the arcade games, mostly pinball machines. In the evenings, he’d help the carnies set up and run the midway. For three itinerant years, the job led him on a grand adventure across Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alberta.

All the while, he says, he sent back whatever he could of his $90 a week salary to help his parents. “The reason for my leaving was sad,” he says, “but the job was a lot of fun.”

Building bridges

His interest piqued by the stories of his childhood neighbor, John White has become an enthusiastic student of classic construction technique.

“I was inspired to go and see these bridges myself,” he says. “So eventually I had the chance to travel to Italy and France and see these structures that my neighbor could never take out. When you see them in person, they are absolutely amazing.”

At the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct in southern France, White jumped the barrier to get a closer look. “It’s built with boulders bigger than Volkswagens,” White says, “all sitting on foundations of wood piles driven into the Gardon River. When they studied those piles, they were as perfect as the day they were driven. That’s why the bridge probably hasn’t dropped an inch since it was built.”

At another ancient site, the Circus Varianus in Rome, he served on a team that studied the foundations of this ancient race track built in 81 A.D. and still standing tall as the surrounding ground has sunk over the centuries.

“It’s sitting on 30,000 wood pilings,” White reports. “Each one of those was labeled with a serial number and species. They knew the center was soft, so they cut the tip off center, then burnt the tip to make it extra hard. They also cut the piles in octagonal shape to increase the surface area and create friction against underwater soil—just like you’ll see under the piers on the Seattle waterfront. And platoons of men drove them into place with giant manual drop hammers of stone or steel.

“We learned a lot from the Romans.”

Hammers of the gods

In 2004, John White was summoned to China to meet with the country’s 78-year-old master pile driver, a Mr. Wong, about an ambitious new project.

The meeting began with Mr. Wong asking Mr. White, “What’s the largest pile you’ve ever driven?”

“Now, I was feeling a little cocky,” White says today. “I told him that APE had just driven a 10-foot diameter pile in Houston—which I knew, at the time, was the biggest pile ever, at least in the western world.

“Mr. Wong looks at me and says, ‘So that’s the biggest?’

“I say, ‘Yes, sir.’

“Then he pulls out a picture and slides it to me. It’s him in 1952, three years before I was born, with four electric Russian vibro hammers hooked together, driving a 15-foot diameter concrete pile. I nearly fell out of my chair.”

When he recovered, White noted that the process must have been pretty slow. “He says, ‘Mr. White, that’s why you’re here. Because I want to drive a 40-foot diameter concrete pile.’ I thought he was crazy.”

A few years later, the request came for a hammer to drive a 40-foot pile. White connected four of APE’s “Super Kong” hammers to get the job done.

That was 2006. Then a new project arose, of almost unimaginable scale. “They asked how big a pile can we drive?” White recalls. “I said, ‘As big as you want.’ ”

This time, China wanted to hammer piles measuring 72 feet across.

White’s response was the OctaKong, his grandest invention and the largest piledriver in history. Today the 500,000-pound vibro hammer is driving steel piles the size of missile silos into the South China Sea to support the 31-mile Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge.

“And that’s not even the biggest project in the works,” White says. “Now my son David is working on a hammer to drive 105-foot diameter piles.”

Crazy… like a fox

Crazy Horse Motorcycles is a little company. If it didn’t inhabit the tough-guy world of polished chrome and roaring engines, you might even call it a boutique company. Just John White, a few machinists and an assembler, manufacturing engines modeled after the classic Indian Motorcycles and a limited line of original bikes built for tall riders.

But how to go from boutique to blockbuster? White is deploying a number of innovative marketing tactics learned in the Foster School’s Executive MBA Program.

“In the EMBA we talked about how to market a product when you’ve got no money to market, looking at cases such as DaVinci vintage clothing that built its brand by providing bowling shirts for actors Charlie Sheen and James Gandolfini.”

So he began providing Crazy Horse engines to Paul Teutul Jr. (of Paul Jr. Designs) whose award-winning custom motorcycles are featured on the Discovery Channel’s “American Chopper.”

“Every time he builds a custom bike, it has our engine in it,” White says. “We’re now very well known around the world.”

Discovering Shangri-La

As with most archaeological finds, John White discovered his grand “fixer” thanks to a heavy dose of serendipity.

White had signed up for last spring’s Executive MBA study tour of South America. As a side trip, he planned to join in the trek to Machu Picchu, the legendary lost Incan city perched high in the Andes of Peru.

John White In BallroomTo train for this grueling ascent, he often hiked the steps of Eagles Landing Park, a sliver of greenspace leading from high bluff to seashore in Seahurst, on the edge of Burien. While catching his breath on the beach one day, he looked up and caught a glimpse of a sprawling house that was covered in vegetation.

“You couldn’t even see it from Google Earth,” he says.

Beneath its botanical shroud lay the surprisingly well-preserved 7,400-square-foot residence called Forestledge, the long-vacant Sprague mansion.

And it was for sale.

Owing to its outward condition, White purchased his dream home at a remarkable discount.

Now, just as Machu Picchu was gradually reclaimed from the encroaching forest after its discovery in 1911, White has set out to restore his own lost palace—and the treasures within—to its original grandeur.

The job also serves as a diversion from his early retirement from the piledriving business. “I’m using it as my therapy,” he says.

John White APE Logo
What about that angry gorilla?

APE had been represented by a conservative corporate logo for years. But what about the other emblem, that ferocious face of the angry gorilla?

“One day we hired this kid to help us in the shop,” recounts John White. “During a break, he drew a gorilla on a napkin. Two days later he was gone and we never saw him again. I thought it would be fun to put the gorilla on a hat. And everybody wanted one. I couldn’t believe it. Now we have an entire APE clothing line featuring the gorilla logo, and we painted the logo 40-feet tall on the side of our headquarters in Kent, WA.

“It all started with some part-time kid doodling on a napkin.”

Accelerating first-time start-ups

The start-up process is messy and unpredictable. And student start-ups are certainly no exception. When teams that wow judges and win competitions move to the real world, the sheer enormity of the transition can be overwhelming. Licensing intellectual property, producing a manufacture-ready prototype, lining up customers, raising money—all critical and all daunting. The Foster Accelerator helps early-stage, student-led companies through those decisive first six months.

At  CIE, we believe it’s possible to create a TechStars-like program within a public university environment. True, we can’t pay a modest living wage to the founders. But we do look at the broad range of start-ups—and we don’t take equity.  In the Foster Accelerator, we provide six months of mentoring, a framework for achieving “reasonable but measureable” milestones, much-needed connections, and an incentive—as much as $25,000 in follow-on funding.  May not sound like much, but $25,000 can represent another three months of runway for a young company.

This year there are 10 start-ups in the Foster Accelerator.  There’s everything from consumer products (JoeyBra, Strideline,  MyPartsYard) to cleantech (SuperCritical Technologies, LumiSands, Green Innovation Safety Technologies) to service companies (PatientStream, Urban Harvest) and socially responsible companies (Haiti Babi and Microryza).

Does this work? It does!  In the last two years, we’ve worked with 10 companies—6 of which are still making progress.  Cadence Biomedical, which makes a medical device that helps people with mobility impairments walk, has raised $1.2M and is now selling a commercial product. Wander, formerly YonogPal , morphed from helping Korean students learn English via the web to a cultural exchange mobile app. And they were one of the top three 2011 “stand-outs” in Dave McClure’s 500 Startups. Stockbox Grocers just opened their first store-front location in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle, selling fresh food in a “food desert.”

The Foster Accelerator started with a three-year grant of $240,000 from the Herbert B. Jones Foundation to create the Jones Milestone Achievement Awards. Since then, other donors have come on board to provide additional financial support. You can follow this year’s Foster Accelerator teams on the Foster Unplugged Blog. They’ll be writing about their experiences over the next six month.

Alumnus is Pirq-ing up the daily deals market

Maybe James Sun was never the hiring type.

More of a job creator, the 1999 BA graduate of the University of Washington Foster School of Business has been one busy entrepreneur since being the last contestant “fired” on national television by Donald Trump in the season six finale of “The Apprentice.”

Sun’s latest venture is Pirq, a clever twist on the buzzing “daily deal” industry that was pioneered by Groupon.

James Sun (Foster BA 1999) is a serial entrepreneurPirq’s innovation is a smart phone app that identifies instant deals offered by businesses—initially restaurants—near your location or destination. Simply activate the virtual coupon and redeem on the spot for up to 50% off the total bill. Instant gratification.

Sun says it’s a win-win. Customers pay no upfront charge, endure no waiting period, swallow no pre-purchased coupons that never get used. And businesses get the opportunity to offer more targeted deals and the flexibility to avoid being crushed by oversold daily deals.

“Pirq shifts the way we discover and get deals by letting our smart phones help us find instant, relevant savings wherever we are—in a way that benefits both consumers and businesses,” said Sun.

UW alumni exclusive deals

Pirq recently raised $2 million in venture capital funding and is expanding rapidly from its home market of Seattle. Sun, the company’s CEO, has been busy making exclusive partnerships with a variety of organizations. The newest is with the University of Washington Alumni Association, announced in May 2012.

UWAA members have only to enter their member number when downloading the free Pirq app to become eligible for exclusive offers unavailable to the general public. What’s more, Pirq will donate 10 percent of the proceeds from each member transaction to support the UWAA.

“Pirq is an innovative business founded by a UW alum, and it provides our members with relevant benefits they can access through their phones while generating support for the UWAA,” said UWAA executive director Paul Rucker, in an interview with GeekWire. “Members will absolutely enjoy saving money with Pirq and… we’re thrilled to be working with Pirq.”

Life after Trump

Given his adventures since “The Apprentice” wrapped, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Sun would have been better off as a foot soldier in Trump’s gold-plated, real-estate empire.

After his televised dismissal, Sun leveraged his new-found celebrity to launch and host his own international TV show. “Sun Tzu: War on Business,” a co-production of the BBC, MediaCorp and CCTV, was broadcast in 20 nations across Asia in 2009-10. In each episode, Sun counseled motivated-but-struggling entrepreneurs on lessons from “The Art of War,” the iconic writings of the ancient Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu.

Returning to business of his own making, Sun founded GeoPage, a location-based search company that helps people find restaurants, hotels and attractions in their vicinity. GeoPage built the platform upon which Pirq now operates.

Sun also is an active angel investor and strategic advisor to a number of start-ups. He serves on the board of United Way of King County and the King County Scoutreach Program, as well as Seeyourimpact.org, an organization that solicits micro-donations to support children in the developing world.

Columns magazine recently named Sun one of the UW’s “Wondrous 100 Alumni,” and he recently judged the Foster School Business Plan Competition.

Kikking it

James LeppGolf champion-turned-entrepreneur James Lepp brings style and performance to the green

Different. Believes saddles are for horses. Always scores better than it appears. Only replaces divots that are actually going to grow back. Welcomes unnecessary noise in his backswing. Is in several people’s dream foursome. Respects golf history, but embraces change. That describes the Kikkor golfer, according to the shoe company’s 2011 catalog.

Sound a little edgy? Cool? Like you—maybe? If that’s the case, James Lepp (BA 2006) welcomes you to the world of Kikkor Golf.

“I don’t know many guys who say they want to dress like their dad,” says Lepp. So, in 2008, with his career as a pro golfer lagging, he felt the entrepreneurial spark and began designing alternatives to classic golf shoes. The company started with six styles when they launched in 2010; they currently offer more than 40.

As good as they look

Lepp finds inspiration on the streets and the courts. Kikkor’s current line-up of styles range from slip-ons resembling skater shoes to a high top that begs for a shot beyond the 3-point line. Read the shoe names and descriptions and the Kikkor brand comes to life. For the Men’s New Heights – Whiteout: “No, we weren’t high when we designed this bad boy. This high top golf shoe is legit.” Or, the Women’s Tour Classe – Black Aruba: “While the shoes may be lightweight and waterproof, you’ll want to resist the temptation to dive into the ocean or nearby pool. Instead, just run to your ball and tap in for birdie.”

Make no mistake however, as cool as “Kikks” may be, they are also made to perform. A review on mygolfspy.com gave the shoes 96 points out of 100, and 20 out of 20 points for performance.

Kristen Williams, the author behind the popular blog “The Golf Chick,” writes about her Kikkors: “If I could stop looking at them I might forget I was wearing shoes at all. However, they’re also quite stabilizing. They make me feel secure when addressing the ball and give me confidence in my golf shots.”

Consider the chip shot

The fact that Kikkor shoes perform as well as they look shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Lepp’s background. Among his many golfing triumphs, Lepp was named the Royal Order of Merit as Canada’s top amateur golfer for 2003 and 2004, was the first non-American to win the Pacific Coast Amateur Championship, and made Husky history when he became UW’s first NCAA Individual Champion in 2005.

“I love the subject of James Lepp” says UW men’s golf Coach Matt Thurmond.  “James is a guy I’d always bet on because he’s committed to finding creative and innovative ways to get results.”

Take Lepp’s approach to wedge play, something Thurmond says is a point of pride in the program and that Lepp took to a new level.

“He would constantly practice his chipping,” says Thurmond (for golf novices, a chip shot is a short, usually low approach shot that lofts the ball to the green). “He’d do it the night before a round in the hallway of the hotel, chipping over and over again, or into a garbage can, or onto the seat of a chair. He even chipped on the putting green, which most golfers say is taboo, but he knew that and he would practice his chipping on the putting green doing things that no one else does—he’d chip it into the pin and bang the pin over and over to make sure his alignment was perfect. He’s incredible with a golf club.”

Passionate and prepared

Similar to many entrepreneurs, the classroom didn’t garner as much attention from Lepp as the things he was most passionate about—like the golf club.

“Looking back on it I wish I didn’t view assignments, tests, projects as something I needed to get done, like a chore,” says Lepp. Yet his business school experience did help him launch the company. “There were definitely some things I learned that helped me when I started to think about launching Kikkor.”

There is ongoing research about whether entrepreneurial success is rooted in passion or preparedness. In Lepp’s case, it may be a bit of both. Lepp is still making mad chip shots (just check out Kikkor’s Day-at-the-Office video) and Kikkor experienced a 550% growth in its first year and revenues are up 250% to-date in 2012.

There’s profit in prediction

When undergraduate Mike Fridgen started his first business in 1997, a lot of parents suffered sleepless nights. Predictably. Imagine groups of unescorted university students heading off to Mexico on spring break tours arranged by a group of college fraternity brothers. Fridgen was the driving force behind iSTours, his first foray into the travel business and, happily, the company doubled its market volume in just one year.

Today Fridgen is CEO of Decide.com, a unique web site and mobile app that predicts the optimal time for electronics consumers to buy their dream products. In a world of ever-changing prices and models, that information can save serious coinage. The company claims a 77% accuracy rate in its price predictions, saving buyers an average of $54.

Decide.com resulted from the discovery that similarly to airlines, electronic manufacturers use complex proprietary algorithms to regularly update the prices of cameras, computers, televisions, etc. Behind the easy-to-navigate user interface of Decide, over 100 million terabytes of computational power are constantly mining trillions of bits of data, looking for hints of price fluctuations.

The cutting edge “future-tense” predictive computer modeling that provides the backbone of Decide.com was the brainchild of Oren Etzioni, UW professor of computer science. At the time he developed Farecast, a travel program that predicted fluctuations in airfares, Etzioni became aware of how pricing algorithms were used across a wide range of industries. Fridgen was vice president of marketing at Farecast when it was sold to Microsoft in 2008 for $115 million.

Although he is in the prediction business, Mike Fridgen is the first to admit he has a rare advantage—one he could not have appreciated as a student entrepreneur. “I’m on my third venture-backed start-up with the same investors who backed iSTours and TripHub, [his second travel start-up]. I still work with Andy Farsje, one of the same company co-founders, and Decide is my second venture with Oren.”

Greg Gottesman, managing director at Madrona Venture Group and an investor since TripHub, agrees: “The teams that have repeat successes are unique. People who work with Mike have had a great experience and go on to build the next thing together.”

And back in the Web 1.0 days of the 1990s, Fridgen told a campus publication that there was “no better time to explore business options and receive guidance than in college.” Does he still believe that? Predictably, yes.

Informed innovation: interview with Steve Tolton of Petrocard

Guest blog post by Rita Brogan, CEO of PRR

RitaBrogan

The Brogan Blog had a chance recently to chat with Steve Tolton, the CEO of PetroCard, a leading Pacific Northwest fuel and lubrication distributor. PetroCard, specializes in unattended stations that use a proprietary card lock technology to provide fuel to commercial customers that can be as large as Pepsico or as small as the one-truck plumber down the street.

And it may be one of the largest companies you’ve never heard of.

In 2010, PetroCard grossed over $900 million. PetroCard was ranked last year as the fifth largest privately held corporation in Washington State.  It is owned by Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.  BBNC is owned by about 8,200 Eskimo, Indian and Aleut shareholders.

PetroCard started in 1997, when Steve Tolton, then the Chief Financial Officer of BBNC, was looking for promising investments.  He partnered with banker Tom Farr, who saw an opportunity to consolidate the fragmented card lock business, starting with the purchase of a small company called PetroCard.

Neither Steve or Tom knew much about petroleum.  But they knew a good business opportunity when they saw it.  In less than 15 years, PetroCard has gone from 25 million gallons to 300 million gallons of fuel sales per year and it has leveraged its base business into other compatible business ventures

Steve Tolton attributes PetroCard’s success to focus on its customer base..   Their regional customers include school fleets and taxis, as well as Waste Management vehicles.”

“We touch our customers a thousand times a day,” says Tolton.  “We stay abreast of trends so we can offer solutions to our customers before they have to ask for them.”  Innovation means knowing how to manage risk with great due diligence.

“It is rare to hit a complete home run,” says Tolton.  He noted, however that the “Clean N’ Green” fuel stations, PetroCard’s partnership with Waste Management, has come pretty close to a homerun—exceeding all  expectations.

“For the last two years, we’ve been operating commercial natural gas stations, because of the continued expansion in the area of compressed natural gas,” said Tolton.

Tolton has grown PetroCard, but  does not believe in growth for its own sake.  “We focus on our commercial customers fueling and lube solutions, even though we may see other opportunities,” he said.  “We’re better at taking a decent companies and helping make them better.” PetroCard’s venture into natural gas has been an entrepreneurial “home run,” built on a deep understanding of industry trends and changing customer needs, including the need for a cost-competitive product in an emerging market.

Rita Brogan is the CEO of PRR, a public affairs and communications firm based in Seattle, one of Washington’s 50 largest minority-owned businesses. Brogan was a recent recipient of the Foster School’s Business and Economic Development Center Asian/Pacific Islander Business Leadership Award. She writes the BEDC Brogan blog series monthly. Previously, she covered green economy issues with an emphasis on ways that businesses owned by people of color or women can create a competitive advantage. Her current blog topic focus is on innovation.

Foster MBA grad expands the horizons for bacon

Just as oranges in the 1970’s ad campaign became “not just for breakfast anymore,” a recent Foster School grad has given bacon (or at least bacon flavor) a post-morning rise in popularity as a vital ingredient in libations ranging from Bloody Marys to chocolate martinis.

Sven Liden was back at the UW for the 2009 MBA Reunion Weekend on Sept. 11 and 12 when he discussed how he transformed bacon from eggs’ traditional sidekick to Bakon Vodka.

The Foster grad’s new brand of vodka hit the market earlier this year and sales are sizzling.  Mentions from CNN to Details magazine have driven demand for bottles of Bakon as fast as Liden and his partners can produce them.

So is Liden “that guy” everyone in college tabbed as going into the spirits business?  Well…yes and no.

Returning to Balmer Hall along with 50 of his classmates for their five-year reunion, Sven’s development of Bakon surprised no one.  Along with being known as the life of the party by more than a few classmates, Sven was also remembered as the electrical engineer who worked for Sprint, Nortel and AT&T Wireless before piloting start-up TeachTown, maker of software to assist children with Autism and language disorders.

Following a standing-room-only afternoon of professional development in Boeing Auditorium – including presentations from former Starbucks President Howard Behar on culture, Gates Foundation President of U.S. Allan Golston on k-12 education, and molecular biologist John Medina comparing the brains of 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace to that of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards – Liden held court at his class’s gathering later that evening at The District Lounge.

Showing his true Foster MBA colors, Liden explained Bakon’s surprisingly complex route through production and shipping, licensing and gaining access to new markets.  Of course there were more than a few taste tests conducted…an activity Liden’s class – along with other returning reunion participants from ’99, ’94, ’89 and ’84 – took up again at the Foster School tailgate on Lake Washington prior to the Huskies victory over Idaho.

Maybe it’s not just for breakfast, but plenty of people enjoyed Bakon (in moderation, of course) that sunny morning…courtesy of Sven.  We can’t wait to see what Liden cooks up by his 10-year reunion!