Executive Q&A: Howard S. Wright III
By Leslie Helm September 10, 2015
Howard Wright bears the same name as his great-grandfather, who launched the eponymous construction company responsible for building such regional landmarks as the Grand Coulee Dam and Columbia Tower. He is a partner in multiple family businesses that own and operate such diverse assets as Chihuly Garden and Glass, the Seattle Space Needle and the Sheraton Seattle Hotel.
EARLY YEARS: I went to school in the East in Pullman, Washington. My degree from Washington State was in Latin American studies. My passion is Latin America and Ive been there every year since I was an exchange student at age 18. The Howard S. Wright Construction Company my great-grandfather established [in 1885] built a lot of famous buildings, but my parents were very conservative about showing their wealth. In those days, if your name was in the paper, something bad must have happened. But my dad was proud of what he was doing. He took me up in the cage elevator when his company was building the Space Needle. I wore a hard hat that slipped halfway down to my shoulders. He loved Seattle, he loved people and he loved to be loved.
AVIATION: After college [in 1976], I became a commercial pilot [primarily with Delta Airlines]. It wasnt the career I had planned, but I loved it. Every year, I told my wife and my father, Im sorry, Im only going to do this one more year. After 20 years, I was piloting a Boeing 767 and had gone as far as I could go. I also had a strong entrepreneurial itch I wanted to scratch, so it was time to come home.
FAMILY BUSINESS: When I got back to Seattle in 1993, I liked what my family was doing in hospitality. We had sold the construction company in the 1980s when national competitors moved into the market and margins had shrunk. My father had gotten into the hospitality business by building places like the Sheraton Seattle as a contractor and taking part ownership as part of the deal. Today, Wright Hotels Inc., which is managed by my brother-in-law, Stuart Rolfe, has ownership in the Sheraton Seattle, Monterey Marriott, Semiahmoo Resort and Cedarbrook Lodge. I and four other family members jointly own Chihuly Garden and Glass, the Space Needle and other assets. We believe in best family business practices. We have fiduciary boards and professionally paid management teams. We just recently completed our biannual family summit. We had four generations there ranging in age from 8 weeks to 84 years. We talked about onboarding the next generation and about teaching them civic responsibility. We are all very different, but we are lucky we get to work together.
SEATTLE HOSPITALITY GROUP: I wanted to run my own business so I began making investments that resulted in what is now the Seattle Hospitality Group. We do 600 programs [for corporate and other clients] each year. In 2002, we acquired Seattle V.I.P Services, an events management company. In 2010, we were part of an investment group that acquired MTR Western, a luxury bus company. We now have contracts with the Seahawks and the University of Washington. We offer shuttle services that transport 1.5 million contract employees per year [for private companies]. We also own MC&A, an event operation in Hawaii that has 200 employees. In 2013, we launched Emerald City Trolley because we thought there was a better product to offer tourists in Seattle. We are currently looking at putting a new [amphibious tourist attraction] on Seattle streets. Ride the Ducks is a great product, but this will be unlike anything seen before in the continental United States. It will be something you can hop on and off over three days [for one ticket price].
CONVENTION CENTER: The upcoming expansion will have a big impact on Seattle when its completed in 2020. With convention centers, it takes a day and a half [for exhibitors] to load in and a day to load out. Those are days that the next convention cant come in. When an expanded center opens across the street, if one convention ends on Friday, you will be able to start the next one on the same day [thereby avoiding a drop in customers at local hotels and restaurants]. Right now, you cant start again until Sunday.
SEATTLE: We are trying to do many things right. The $15 minimum wage outcome I was involved in was good. You can either have the employer pay $13 and the government pays the rest through food stamps, vouchers and other things, or you can have the employer pay the whole thing and reduce the burden on the government. But we need to send the message to the world that Seattle is a business-friendly and consumer-friendly destination. We must address issues of street civility such as aggressive panhandling.
EXPANDING AFFORDABLE HOUSING: I have always felt that public housing should be spread more uniformly across the city so that we dont have exclusive pockets of wealth. If you see your neighbors on the bus or at the corner store, you are going to have a more diverse and integrated experience. I hope the new incentives [proposed by the city to encourage affordable housing construction] will create that.
COMMUTING: Seattle is making it increasingly difficult for cars to come into the city. This may be self-serving, but if you are going to do that, we ought to allow more private commuter services. In San Francisco, there was a backlash against tech companies using private [buses]. I would hope Seattle will be more open minded than that.
SEATTLE PROCESS: Sometimes we are slow to trust even our own people. Can you imagine the Space Needle being built today? Im not opposed to people being able to express their opinions. There are poor actors out there. But there are also visionaries. Sometimes you have to let them run with their ideas.
POLITICS: I felt very good about my role on the minimum wage commission. If I can make a difference in a positive way, Id like to do that. I dont want to chair a blue-ribbon committee whose report is going to be put on a shelf and forgotten.