As the executive director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Simon Woods must strike a delicate balance between the business and artistic sides of his organization. While for-profits may be based on creating value, non-profits are centered on creating “impact.” So, there’s always a struggle when deciding to “do things that lose more money, but make more impact,” Woods said.
On October 29, Woods presented at the Leaders to Legends lecture series and discussed the recent challenges and transformations the Seattle Symphony faced under his direction. According to Woods, the previous decade was not an easy one for the organization, beset by external pressures like the recession, and internal friction from the misalignment of artistic vision among members. Symphonies are large and fragile organizations: “They’re like giants—they fall hard,” he said.
Woods came to Seattle in May 2011, during “a moment of great artistic potential aligned with a moment of financial peril,” he said. Together with Music Director Ludovic Morlot, Woods has been instrumental in defining and executing a vision to establish the Seattle Symphony as a dynamic, forward-looking, and community-focused organization. Woods worked previously as Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, President and CEO of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and Vice President of Artistic Planning and Operations at The Philadelphia Orchestra. He’s spent the better part of 20 years on the business side of music.
Woods explained the six-part plan that helped turn things around for the Seattle Symphony.
Change the brand from traditional to contemporary. According to Woods, Seattle is a progressive city, so it needs a progressive orchestra.
Plan boldly. To match the new brand, the Seattle Symphony started taking more risks in its programming by performing more contemporary pieces, playing in different spaces, and collaborating with rock, pop, and rap artists.
Control the messaging. Woods underscored the importance of staying on message, so that the organization could present itself as “the orchestra of Seattle, not just in”
Work to build a financial bridge to the future through fundraising and re-budgeting.
Focus on the long term. The Seattle Symphony didn’t ask its constituents for help now, but rather for help becoming a great organization for the next generation.
Gather morale. Woods wanted to “build an internal culture of collaboration and harmony.”
So far the plan has paid off, and the Seattle Symphony has balanced its budget for three years in a row. When you “invest in reflecting the values of your city, not surprisingly, you get rewarded,” Woods said. More significantly, the organization’s impact has not diminished. In fact, the Seattle Symphony has a greater impact than ever, as demonstrated by the launching of new projects like its music education program, prison outreach program, and the creation of a record label, to name a few.
The challenges may not be over, but Woods remains optimistic. “As the world speeds up, there is more and more need for beauty and peace in life,” he said.
Keeping the customer as its lodestar, Alaska Air Group navigated a turbulent decade to emerge as one of the marquee companies in the Pacific Northwest
Alaska Air Group recently moved into to the Fortune 500, that ultimate collection of the nation’s elite businesses, that manifest marker of size and success.
It was no small feat for a comparatively small, independent carrier to join the big boys in an industry marked by brutal competition, rampant consolidation, and chronic crisis. And it was even more remarkable that Alaska sustained its growth through a decade of Herculean trials.
So you might expect this momentous milestone would call for some serious celebration at the company’s south Seattle headquarters. Some bottles of champagne, perhaps. A press release, at least. Did they even pause to savor the achievement?
“We celebrate a lot of things,” says Brad Tilden (EMBA 1997), the chairman and CEO of Alaska Air Group. “But we didn’t really celebrate joining the Fortune 500.”
The understatement adds up when you consider it comes from a man possessed of a pilot’s cool and an accountant’s good sense leading a company with roots in the Last Frontier.
“It’s like compound interest,” Tilden adds. “Somebody had a really good idea 82 years ago, and we’ve been working at it year after year.”
Alaskan roots, American dream
That somebody was Linious McGee, who began flying passengers and cargo in his three-seat Stinson between Anchorage and Bristol Bay back in 1932. A merger, two years later, with Star Air Service created Alaska’s largest airline, eventually renamed after the state.
At the industry’s deregulation in 1978, Alaska was the 24th largest airline in the US. And it was just beginning expansion into the Lower 48. By the end of the 1980s, Alaska Air Group had added regional carriers Horizon Air and Jet America. It had enjoyed nearly two decades of profitability and sustained growth. And it had earned a reputation for superior customer service.
Economic prosperity and low fuel costs kept Alaska growing through the 1990s.
But Tilden, who joined the company from Price Waterhouse in 1991, says that Alaska Airlines was growing almost despite itself. Friendly service masked a declining efficiency of operations. Complacency had crept in, a culture of good enough, not great.
As the century turned, Alaska’s internal vulnerabilities were about to be mortally tested.
The century’s first decade began in tragedy. The January 2000 crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261—half of its 88 victims being employees, family members or friends—sent the tight-knit company into mourning.
It was only the first of a litany of trials to challenge both airline and industry. Shortly after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, the attacks of 9/11 altered air travel forever. The SARS scare of 2003 followed. Then oil prices spiked just as the financial crisis shook the foundations of the global economy.
Amid the external pressures, Alaska Airlines faced a litany of contentious labor contract negotiations beginning in 2003. Strained morale brought a dip in performance. There were simply too many late flights and mishandled bags.
“Alaska was burning through the goodwill it had earned over many decades,” says Bruce Avolio, director of the Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.
A new case study by Avolio, Chelley Paterson and Bradford Baker chronicles Alaska’s decade of dilemma. Survival would require absolute transformation—modernizing operations and slashing costs—without sacrificing the legendary customer service experience that had made Alaska Alaska.
“There was an increasing recognition among the leadership,” says Avolio, “that the course they were on could not continue.”
Crossing the Rubicon
The situation demanded decisive action. And fortunately, Bill Ayer (MBA 1978) had risen up the ranks to become CEO in 2002.
“At a time when this business required a person of tremendous courage,” says Tilden, “Bill was the perfect leader.”
Ayer never wavered from hard—and sometimes heartbreaking—decisions. The first set the tone for the company’s transformation. Amid an epidemic of default that swept the major carriers, Ayer declared that Alaska would not seek bankruptcy protection.
“We figured out what our costs needed to be for us to be viable and said to ourselves that we simply have to get there,” recalls Tilden, then CFO.
Among the difficult moves to ensure the company’s survival were a painful round of layoffs, the outsourcing of some ground operations, and some pragmatic dealing for concessions from the unions.
“The choice to stay out of bankruptcy helped the company downstream,” Avolio says. “By not destroying people’s pensions and protecting this covenant with their employees, Alaska’s management salvaged a degree of trust.”
That trust would prove vital.
Fix Seattle, then the company
If cost cutting took toughness, improving performance took smarts. There was a lot to fix, but Ayer and Tilden chose, wisely, to first fix Seattle, Alaska’s largest hub.
“We identified the basic things we needed to improve upon to be successful—safe operations, on-time performance, low fares and great customer service,” says Tilden. “And we focused relentlessly on them.”
Applying lean methodology and measuring every task, performance began improving immediately, first in Seattle and then throughout the network.
“Once they fixed Seattle, Alaska demonstrated what can be accomplished in its other cities,” says Avolio.
The dramatic transformation has been widely confirmed. Alaska has been rated highest in customer satisfaction (among traditional network carriers) by J.D. Power seven years in a row. It’s been number one in on-time performance four years running according to FlightStats.com. Outside dubbed Alaska its “Best Airline” in 2014.
Alaska has earned highest marks in just about every category awarded: air cargo handling, delivery and logistics, technology, maintenance, sustainability, philanthropy, loyalty program, employee satisfaction—even friendliness to pets.
And aggressive expansion to the East Coast, Midwest and Hawaii when others retreated has made Alaska one of the fastest growing companies in the industry.
The importance of being Alaska
That growth has lifted Alaska into the Fortune 500. The company may barely have noted the milestone. But Seattle should.
Alaska’s ascendancy adds another industry leader to the region’s increasingly diversified economy, according to Suresh Kotha, the Olesen/Battelle Excellence Chair in Entrepreneurship at the Foster School.
“Having another service-based company like Alaska become a dominant player in its industry creates jobs, broadens our economy and buffers us against the kind of cyclical downturns we used to face.”
He’s referring to the not-so-distant past when a slowdown at Boeing threatened to shut down the city. But today Seattle enjoys a far healthier balance of manufacturing, service and retail. The region is home to nine of the Fortune 500 plus other powers in a wide array of industries including aerospace (Boeing’s continued strong presence, plus a galaxy of suppliers), software (Microsoft, RealNetworks), retail (Amazon, Starbucks, Costco, Nordstrom, REI, Eddie Bauer), truck manufacturing (PACCAR), trade (Expeditors International), forestry products (Weyerhaeuser), and clusters in telecommunications, biosciences and gaming.
A successful airline adds to the economic diversity. “It’s making Seattle one of the nation’s best places to do business,” Kotha says.
Avolio adds that other companies could learn a great deal from Alaska’s customer focus and level-headed navigation of crisis “with discipline and focus.”
The other lesson of Alaska, he says, “is that the essence of great leadership is building a sense of ownership in employees and customers.”
Ayer asked a lot of Alaska Air Group’s employees to save the company in its darkest hour. And those employees stepped up.
“We are the only legacy airline not to have filed for bankruptcy, thanks to the determination of our people,” he says. “What we learned by doing the hard work ourselves bodes well for our future.”
In 2012 Ayer passed the controls to Tilden, a new kind of leader for a new chapter in Alaska’s story. His focus today is on fine tuning the customer experience.
Tilden is continuing to foster Alaska’s celebrated culture of innovation that delivered the industry’s first online ticket sales and check-in kiosks, and is now developing apps to remove the anxiety from travel. “The goal today is to be the easiest airline in the world to fly by 2017,” he says.
Of course, technology can only do so much. People make the difference. While continuing to cultivate top management prospects in the Foster Executive MBA Program (see sidebar), he’s really trying to push the airline’s leadership to the front lines.
“The big opportunities going forward will come from consistent execution and delivery of service across every airport and every employee,” says Tilden.
To that end, he has initiated two company-wide programs to engage every employee and empower them to lead. It helps that they have a vested interest. As the profit-sharing program that Ayer and Tilden started during the lean days of the mid-2000s begins to pay handsomely, the link between airline performance and personal prosperity is easy to follow. That’s good for everyone’s bottom line.
“If the employees want us to be a great airline, we’ll be a great airline,” Tilden says.
The airline industry seems to have stabilized, and Alaska is all systems go, elevating both its standards and goals. An exemplar of corporate responsibility, it’s also a pillar of philanthropy in the larger community—and especially at the University of Washington.
“There is a really special culture at Alaska,” Tilden says. “A real sense of mission, that what we do for the communities we serve—the infrastructure we provide businesses, the connections we provide families—is important.”
“What makes me proudest is the company’s outstanding performance since I retired,” says Ayer. “The team is executing better than ever and, as always, there’s no shortage of challenges. The reality is that there are a lot of factors that are not controllable, so those that are must be very well managed.”
Tilden is ever vigilant. Or, as they like to say in Alaska’s HQ, “Brad’s never happy.”
He’s seen the perils of complacency, especially when most of the challenges ahead are yet unseen.
“In some ways, the challenge was simpler ten years ago,” notes Avolio. “You knew all of the things that were broken; you just had to fix them. Today, you don’t know where the market is going. There are a lot of question marks.”
One certainty is that fierce competition will come from smaller airlines and the big ones (which keep getting bigger through consolidation). Most immediately, Delta is making a significant incursion on Alaska’s prime West Coast territory.
But Tilden believes that Alaska Air Group has found the secret. And it’s not at all sexy. “What’s going to help us succeed over the long run is continuing to do the basics well,” he says. “We need to be safe. We need to be on-time. We need to offer low fares. We need to provide great service. Those things are 100 percent in our control. And I think if we get them right, we’re going to win.”
Kien Ha describes himself as a risk-averse entrepreneur. And given that restaurants are notoriously risky start-ups, Ha went with a concept he knows well – shabu-shabu. Shabu-shabu, or Japanese hot pot dining, is a trendsetting phenomenon that has long driven technology transplants from California to expect its healthy, simple, and affordable food on almost every street corner. Ha’s discovery that Washington is the fourth fastest growing state for Japanese-style restaurants convinced him to launch Shabu Chic at the UW’s 2008 Business Plan Competition.
Open Friday through Sunday in Seattle’s International District, Shabu Chic boasts fans who are true devotees talking and sharing photos of the restaurant and the unique food presentation. Yelp gives Shabu Chic a 4.5, and the restaurant got 200+ Facebook “likes” when it posted the possibility of adding a Kimchi sauce in the fall. “Word of mouth has been great,” Ha says. But once a customer is in the door, he relies on wait staff training and social media to share little morsels of Japanese food history along the way.
Still working part-time as an advisory manager for a Seattle accounting firm, Ha is content taking things a bit more slowly than his tech entrepreneur peers. “Most restaurants fail in the first year because they’re under-capitalized. Having no outside funding from the outset has kept us on task and deliberate in all that we do,” he said. His hope is to break even in year two, make a profit in year three, and go full-time with a second location.
Ha sees tech start-ups and restaurant start-ups in the same light. “Whether it’s a tech or food,” he says, “you have to own everything from end to end.” By serving Seattle’s unmet shabu-shabu need, Ha is developing a market for something people in Seattle never knew they’d love. An entrepreneur’s dream.
The 2012 University of Washington Foster School of Business’ Business Plan Competition had a record amount of seed funding and record participation. Winning start-ups are innovating in sectors like hyper-local agriculture, functional fashion, health care patient tracking technology and alternative forms of mobile advertising.
UW Foster School Dean Jiambalvo says, “If you look at the basis for having a free and prosperous nation, it’s job creation. And where are jobs created? They are created by entrepreneurs.”
At the awards banquet, Connie Bourassa-Shaw, director of Foster’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, announced a new innovation lab to open soon at the Foster School where students can utilize office space to incubate and start ventures.
$25,000 Grand Prize + $2,500 Best Clean-Tech Idea
UW’s UrbanHarvest will grow the healthiest, tastiest and most environmentally sustainable produce available anywhere, all on a rooftop near you. Two students are both Foster School MBAs: Chris Bajuk (MBA/MS Real Estate) and Chris Sheppard (MBA/Juris Doctorate). “We are two locally raised, UW-educated military veterans creating green, sustainable business,” says Bajuk.
A pilot project is underway to build a rooftop, hydroponic greenhouse on a Microsoft garage. They reduce the fossil fuel burn of transporting produce from elsewhere to consume locally. Bajuk adds, “We’re going to be supplying Microsoft food services with their entire lettuce and herb quotient. They currently source it all from Salinas Valley, California.”
Washington Research Foundation Capital sponsored the Grand Prize. CEO Ron Howell says, “We have invested in 57 companies in this [Seattle] area and most of those have been related to technology coming out of the University of Washington. The best of the best this year is Urban Harvest.”
$10,000 2nd Prize
UW’s Xylemed is a cloud-based electronic patient tracking and operations management system that leverages existing information systems to manage hospital workflows—improving communication and safety, while reducing expenses. Students are all enrolled in the UW Foster School of Business Technology Management MBA Program: Ben Andersen, Marc Brown, Anoop Gupta, Jason Imani and Glen Jensen.
CEO Ben Andersen, who created and successfully deployed his new technology called Ember at UW Harborview Medical Center, says, “You would be shocked at the number of hospitals still using white boards as a way to track patients. [Ember] really improves communication inside a hospital. We’re in 55 locations across three medical centers.”
$5,000 Finalist Prize
UW’s JoeyBra, a unique pocketed bra design that allows women of all ages to go to dances, parties, or events without having to worry about bringing a purse. Two Foster undergraduate students founded JoeyBra: Kyle Bartlow and Mariah Gentry.
$5,000 Finalist Prize
UW’s Biking Billboards is a new kind of mobile advertising combining billboards pulled on bicycle trailers with savvy and engaging brand ambassadors to promote our client’s messages. Team includes: Curtis Howell (Foster entrepreneurship undergraduate), Claire Koerner (Foster entrepreneurship undergraduate), Andrea Lieberman and Alyssa Norwood.
$3,000 Low-Income, Senior-Service Prize
UW’s Flash Volunteer offers a set of mobile and social tools to create, discover, track and easily share volunteer service events via a variety of integrated channels. Team consists of Brad Wilke (MBA 2012), Damon Gjording (Executive MBA 2012), Logan Buesching and Janis Lee.
$2,500 Best Technology Idea
UW’s EchoGuide Medical is developing a disposable ultrasound based catheter guidance technology that will address the current high rate of error in placement of catheters during ventriculostomy procedures while reducing cost. Team consists of Daniel Butts, Evening MBA; Edward Lo, PhD bioengineering; Molly Moore, Evening MBA; Revathi Murthy, MS bioengineering; Michael Robinson, graduate in chemical engineering; Ryan St. John, Evening MBA; and Anning Yao.
$2,500 Best Consumer Product Idea
UW’s GroBox aims to make it super easy to grow your own fruits and vegetables in a small amount of space. The entire team consists of UW Foster School of Business Technology Management MBA students: Amador Abreu, Jared McInelly, Aaron Parsley, Steve Stroberger and Murat Yanar.
$2,500 Best Innovation Idea
UW’s SuperCritical Technologies provides a compact power solution that will revolutionize the way we generate and distribute electricity. Team includes Chal Davidson, Evening MBA; Max Effgen, Evening MBA; Nico Spitz, Evening MBA; Brooke Macomber and Josh Walter.
$2,500 Best Service/Retail Idea
UW’s ViewPointe, UW, is a real time software tool that enables emergency response agencies such as police, fire and utilities to collaborate, communicate and track resource locations on an interactive geographic map. Team consists of all UW Foster Evening MBA students: Anna Atlasova, Abhishek Gupta and Ross Town.
$2,500 Best Sustainable Advantage Idea
UW’s Barrels of Hope provides safe, affordable and sustainable permanent shelter solutions to disaster victims and citizens of developing nations. Team: Sloan DuRoss, MBA; Sarah Jeglum, MBA; Corina Popescu, BS civil engineering; Ryan Scott, MBA; Sushant Wad, MBA; and Travis Corigliano.
A record 101 student teams representing colleges and universities across Washington state applied to participate in the 2012 University of Washington Business Plan Competition. 36 teams pitched a who’s who list of 200 Seattle-area venture capitalists and entrepreneurs at the investment round trade show. Sweet 16 teams advanced to semifinals and the top 4 teams polishes their pitches for the final round on May 24, 2012.
Start-up teams at various stages of the competition came from a range of institutions: Bainbridge Graduate Institute, Eastern Washington University, Evergreen State College, Gonzaga University, Northwest University, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle University, University of Washington, University of Washington Bothell, Walla Walla Community College and Washington State University.
The UW Foster School of Business Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship puts on this competition every year.
Professor Nouriel Roubini, the respected NYU economist sometimes called “Dr. Doom,” is known for his predictions of the real estate meltdown, oil shock and recent recession. So it was a ray of sunshine poking through the gloomy November morning in Seattle when a Wall Street Journal article (Nov. 12, 2011) co-authored by Roubini noted that of major world economies, the long-term future appears brightest for the US. Why? We are still the leader in the cutting-edge technologies that expand a nation’s potential, including renewable energy, medical devices and nanotechnology.
If the U.S. is to lead the way, Seattle was noted as a city that contributes its share. The November 2011 issue of Seattle Business Magazinelays out reasons why Seattle provides the perfect hothouse atmosphere to encourage the start-up ambitions of younger and younger entrepreneurs.
Seattle has a reputation for a strong venture capital/angel community and a vibrant entrepreneurial community. Recognizing the increasing numbers of high-potential students, University of Washington and Seattle University have expanded their reach toward younger students. The UW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) at the Foster School of Business recruits students directly out of high school into its Lavin Entrepreneurship Program.
At the age when most teen bands are breaking up, many students already have business experience. Connie Bourassa-Shaw, CIE director notes, “Of the undergraduates we’ve admitted, nearly half started their first companies in high school.”
Young people who start companies have less risk and smaller opportunity costs. Lack of experience may work in the favor of young entrepreneurs. As Bourassa-Shaw says, “They don’t know what they don’t know, but they make up for it in sheer motivation and determination.”
This morning’s UW Foster School of Business breakfast lecture focused on the social media revolution. Richard Law, CEO of Seattle-based Allyis, talked about “Social Media as a Leadership Tool” and how executives can socialize their way to employee engagement, retention, collaboration and success.
Law touched on the communication game that’s already changed due to social media, ROI of engagement, statistics, social media being a broader concept than just its platforms of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Conversations among customers, employees and their peers now help create brands. Two-way dialogue is the best way to represent a brand and Law offers tips for staying competitive in today’s marketplace. Listen to podcast on social media.
Video extra: The Generation Y workforce will equal Baby Boomers in numbers, and Gen Y’s digital media presence is noteworthy. Law played this four-minute “Socialnomics” video about current social media use and demographics.
This lecture is part of Leaders to Legends Breakfast Lecture Series, an event for business leaders and faculty to share insights about current business topics and trends with other business leaders, alumni, faculty, students and the Foster School community.
- Faculty perspectives, alumni happenings, student experiences, Seattle and Pacific Northwest community connections, and a taste of life around the Foster School.