Final Analysis: Crowning Achievement

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Welcome to “the dark months.” This is what Mick McHugh calls the period between the end of one baseball season in late September and the beginning of the next one in early April.

McHugh owns F.X. McRory’s Steak, Chop & Oyster House, which debuted in Pioneer Square in 1977, the same year the Seattle Mariners were born. If you’re a diehard Seattle sports junkie, you’ve probably quaffed or noshed at McRory’s at least once. If you have visited during the dark months, it was probably on a day when the Seattle Seahawks were playing football.

There are only eight Seahawks home games each NFL season, so the dark months—October through March—are a challenge for establishments like McRory’s that rely on the sports-obsessed public for much of their income. Basketball and hockey are played during the dark months, which is why McHugh probably thinks Chris Hansen is a heavenly combination of messiah, mensch and Merlin.

Hansen is the rich guy from San Francisco who wants to put a basketball/hockey arena near the existing football and baseball stadiums in Seattle. He has spent more than $50 million buying up property nearby. In a recent blog post, McHugh described Hansen’s arena as having “the potential to … make a difference in the lives of not only the business owners in the area … but the staff we will be able to keep on during those quiet times and the additional people we will have to hire.”

In sporting circles, Hansen has already had his halo fitting. His canonization is likely on the fast track because anyone who can bring professional basketball back to Seattle—and maybe a hockey team, too—while footing much of the bill for a new arena is destined to be seated at the right hand of Oprah come Judgment Day.

But on the day in September that Seattle was celebrating the City Council’s tentative agreement over the financing of Hansen Arena, I was moderating a panel discussion about the outlook for the Washington state economy in 2013. Susan Sigl, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, mentioned that our economic future is inexorably linked to our ability to close the high-tech education gap—the yawning chasm between the huge number of available tech jobs in Washington and the small number of graduates qualified to fill them.

It’s an oft-heard refrain, but if we don’t improve education in the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), it doesn’t really matter if we get a shiny new version of the Seattle Sonics to play in a shiny new arena. Without a successful economy firing on all cylinders, adding one or two more teams to the professional sports landscape is like putting gas in a car whose fuel tank has a hole in it.

And so as I moderated the discussion, I began to wonder: Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody like Chris Hansen, a zillionaire who grew up in Seattle loving the Sonics and who wants to give back to the community he loves, were willing to pony up about $300 million to kick-start a first-class effort to close the tech education gap?

Look, I love sports. But sports is entertainment. It can boost civic identity to a point, but it’s not as if a city lives or dies according to the number of millionaire athletes it’s willing to coddle. Trust me. The city of Seattle and the state of Washington will survive without a pro basketball team. But without enough highly qualified tech graduates to stoke our economic engine, Mick McHugh’s dark months could become an all-year proposition.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

CEO Adviser: Paving the Way to Digital

CEO Adviser: Paving the Way to Digital

How the Northwest’s leading asphalt company is embracing technology.
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“What’s the ROI on software?”

This is the question facing many leaders of traditional mid-market companies. For a well-established family-run business, there is often the temptation to invest in assets that can generate revenue faster in the short term instead of technology upgrades that don’t deliver immediate profit.

When I first met Mike Lee, president of Lakeside Industries, he asked an interesting question: “Are we doing the right things when it comes to technology?” Lee understood that his 600-person asphalt company in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood had to make technology a strategic objective in order to ensure the future of the business.

Here are a few ways Lee showed leadership in making ones and zeroes important in an industry focused on rock and oil.

Establish crystal clarity about how digital can support the overall vision.

Lee had a compelling “why” and vision for the company in place: to make a lasting impact on our community, our relationships and our people, and to be the low-cost supplier that provides an exceptional customer experience. The core values focused on safety, environmental responsibility, quality and profitability. But there was no solid technology vision to realize it, and IT didn’t have a presence at the business table, so Lee made a point to involve the CFO/acting CIO. The beauty of setting a digital vision is in its simplicity — not looking at every solution available, but only those that can further the company’s reason for being. In Lakeside’s case, how could new technologies bring it closer to its employees, its community and its customers? How could software make it improve efficiency, visibility and environmental commitments? When Lee looked closely at his vision, it became clear that technology could help bolster it, but that it couldn’t happen without tech being elevated.

Identify the gaps that technology can fill. 

“There is more to our business than asphalt and paving,” says Lee. “We have to keep up with plant and equipment management, communications, competitors, security and environmental regulations.” Lee met with his CIO and IT directors to determine how technology was going to add value inside and outside the business. The firm developed a digital roadmap that provided clarity around the technology initiatives people were going to work on; for each, it set accountabilities, timelines and goals. They used this roadmap to manage ongoing progress and to determine whether or not the new “shiny technology objects” matched the vision and strategy. The most important initiative was to replace Lakeside’s aging enterprise resource planning system. This would require modernizing processes and technology infrastructure to support collaboration with business management across the company — a broad impact to the business. Another key initiative was improving how it estimated projects and managed customer relationships. This new system would only be successful with buy-in from the people in the field using the software.

Communicate the importance of technology to the management team.

While its employees are part of a family, Lakeside Industries is also a distributed business run by a group of autonomous regional managers who needed to believe in the vision. Lee presented the specifics of the strategy to all managers: The message was “IT can no longer be just a department.” Business and technology leaders — who rarely interfaced — had the opportunity to discuss and debate what was at stake. Their conclusion? Software isn’t a gutsy gamble or a bold bet — it’s table stakes. The result was a set of guiding principles, alignment and excitement for what’s ahead. For the first time in the company’s history, business and technology people now have harmony around a shared digital vision — working together as one to contribute to healthier profitability and improved customer relations. In the end, Lakeside Industries’ road to the future has been paved with much more than good intentions. 

TIM GOGGIN is president of Sappington, a Seattle consulting firm that advises clients on digital change. Reach him at tim.goggin@sappington.co.