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How Seattle-Based Businesses Foreshadow What is Happening with the County Commission

At noon 33 years ago today, George Herbert Walker Bush raised his right hand and swore to uphold and defend the Constitution. Thirty-four minutes later, I was born.

Today is my birthday, although in the aftermath of Tuesday’s meeting, it’s difficult to get into a joyful mood. Nonetheless, it’s a day worth celebrating yet also one for introspective reflection.

My thoughts about the limited life I’ve lived so far mirror my analysis of some of the issues raised in the commission meeting.

Mainly: you can be smart, popular and even in the right, and yet if you can’t adapt to timing, then none of the previous three things will get you very far. An easy example of what I mean by this is demonstrated by business in the city of Seattle, Washington.

Seattle is home to ten Fortune 500 companies. For most of the 1900s, only one dominated - Nordstrom.

The high-end clothes retailer founded by John Nordstrom in 1901 seemed like an unstoppable force for most of the middle part of the 20th century. When the NFL wanted to expand a team into Seattle, who did the league call? Lloyd Nordstrom.

Despite being publicly traded, the company has remained family operated and Erik Nordstrom is CEO today. The company is worth an estimated $3.5 billion dollars today…and it isn’t one of the top 5 most valuable companies based in Seattle.

How did this happen? How did the company fall from being a dominant national player through the early 1970s to being in the bottom half of the top 10 most valuable companies in its own city? Let’s assume that the Nordstrom family didn’t suddenly get dumber or that the management decisions they made didn’t drastically reduce the company’s ability to reach its earning potential.

Let’s instead agree that it wasn’t something that changed in the Nordstrom family, but rather a shift in the world around them.

The five largest companies based in Seattle are Amazon, Costco, Microsoft, Starbucks and Paccar. The last on this list, a truck manufacturer, is the 159th most valuable company in America. Nordstrom is sixth on the list at the 289th most valuable, a significant drop off.

Commissioner Scott Carnahan and Chairman Ron Kitchen reminded me of Nordstrom in Tuesday’s meeting. This was especially true during the ending part of the meeting when County Administrator Randy Oliver’s annual performance review became the topic of discussion.

Both of these commissioners made it clear before any other spoke that they wanted the administrator to receive the highest possible rating, something that qualifies him for a pay raise, but two of their colleagues weren’t as quick to heap unqualified praise on Mr. Oliver.

Before we get into exactly what happened, the performance review system is terribly flawed in its abstractness. There’s not an objective set of criteria for the commission to follow; they simply have to say they hold the administrator in the highest regard.

Commissioner Holly Davis started what could be perceived as criticism, but is more accurately described as constructive advice by saying that she “half” agrees that Mr. Oliver had done an exemplary job. It wasn’t meant maliciously or even coyly. She simply wanted to provide some advice for improvement, such as creating a succession plan, but Chairman Kitchen instantly went on the defensive.

His tone worsened with Commissioner Ruthie Schlabach.

The two traded barbs including Chairman Kitchen accusing Ms. Schlabach of bragging to friends that she intended to fire the administrator and her responding that she had been attacked by slanderous gossip on the dias.

This type of bullish approach was popularized, particularly over the four years of the Trump presidency, with good reason; it can be successful in winning an argument. It actually worked in this instance as no commissioner ended up officially objecting to giving Mr. Oliver the highest rating.

Aggressive argument was popular in Citrus prior to the Trump candidacy however. Commissioner Scott Adams rode a similar tone into office in 2012.

I think we’re in a transitionary period though. My guess is that the electorate is like the consumer public in 2005 and Commissioners Carnahan and Kitchen are Nordstrom while the county is looking for Microsoft and Amazon. Will that be Commissioners Davis and Schlabach? I don’t know.

You can still find success with a strongarm approach, but in five years that success will be limited simply because the county has changed. The world will pass some by, as now with me, another year has as well. Here’s to 33.


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