On the road in Seattle

Pedaling away from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on this cold December morning I'm greeted by pouring rain and a temperature in the upper 30's but I'm definitely not complaining. On my first year riding around the country I made the mistake of minimizing the importance of geography and weather. This stupidity caused my bike and I to end up in early December knee-deep in snow in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I now make sure to spend winters visiting companies on the West Coast or Deep South.

Alaska Air Group

Headquarters for Alaska Air Group, holding company for Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air Industries (1992 revenues $1.1 billion) is a two-story, 73,000 square foot building several blocks from the entrance to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Though located on busy Pacific Highway, the low-key facility is set back amongst a heavy wooded area. The backside of the five-acre site butts up to fish-filled Angel Lake, part of a county park.

My tour with Greg Witter, Director-Corporate Communications, takes us down hallways lined with Eskimo and Indian face masks. The face masks, paintings and artifacts comprising the company's art collection all have a Northwest theme emphasizing the airline's roots in Alaska.

In many companies, Fridays are designated casual dress days in the summertime. Not here; Mondays AND Fridays are year round casual dress days. The 200 employees meet in rooms named after cities in Alaska. Originally headquartered in Alaska, the company moved to Seattle primarily because it's the airline's biggest hub.

Earlier in the day I flew into Seattle from San Diego, flying Alaska Airlines for the first time. When breakfast was served on the plane I noticed everyone received a scripture card on his or her trays with a verse from the Old Testament. Taking a line from the Seinfeld television show I ask, "What's with the scripture cards?" According to Witter, the sayings, printed on business card-size paper have been a staple on their food trays for over 17 years.

One would think CEO Raymond Vecci, who occupies a second floor corner office, would have a great view of Alaska and Horizon aircraft landing and taking off across the street. Nope. It's a view toward Angel Lake. Amongst the items in Vecci's office is a laptop computer, Kachina doll, three oil paintings of Alaskan scenery and an Eskimo paddle made out of whale skin (a gift from the Baleen tribe in Barrow, Alaska).

The boardroom contains a marble sculpture of a polar bear and, model Alaska Airlines airplanes. Having seen them at every airline visited, me thinks there's an unwritten law requiring airlines to have these miniature planes in their boardrooms.

The Boeing Company

It's 15 miles from Seattle-Tacoma Airport to downtown Seattle. Halfway between the two is Boeing Field, now known as King County International Airport. Why is it called an international airport when commercial flights in and out are non-existent? Sitting directly across the street are the corporate offices of The Boeing Company, which has produced more commercial jetliners than any other company in the world. It's at Boeing Field where "keys" to new Boeing aircraft are officially handed over to new owners from around the globe. I count four brand new 737's with the freshly painted name of China Southern lined up side by side, ready to be flown home by their owner-the People's Republic of China.

Russell Young, Public Relations, gives me a thorough tour of Boeing's massive three-story, 565,000 square foot headquarters. Built in 1941 and originally an assembly plant, 563 corporate employees work in the structure along with others from Boeing's various divisions. Part of the building still gets used for working on aircraft and I'm walked along a catwalk for a view of what looks to be the front end of a huge Boeing 747.

Part of headquarters was renovated in the 1960's. I know this because the escalators connecting the three floors date themselves; these contraptions were big with corporate America in the 1960's. Walking into a room called the Map room, I find walls and tables covered with aerial photos, scale model replicas and relief maps of Boeing plants and facilities around the world. The company does business in 145 countries which qualifies Boeing to call itself a global competitor. You may think of Boeing as being an aerospace company but, did you know its Boeing Computer Services division does over $2.5 billion in business and employees approximately 10,000?

The long, distinctive V-shaped boardroom table in the boardroom makes you think of World War ll. and those familiar V for victory signs. Other than the table and chairs, the boardroom's barren except for a prototype model of the never built SST plane-an aircraft from the same era as the first Concorde and strikingly similar in looks to the foreign-made, supersonic commercial jet.

I meet with Philip Condit, President, in his third floor corner office with a view of the new planes lined up at Boeing Field across the street. As usual, I ask tough questions: "How come you don't have any Boeing model airplanes in your office?" The affable Condit answers, "because everyone expects me to". I then spot a banged-up, dented, thoroughly ugly briefcase on his desk and ask Condit if it's his. Somewhat embarrassed, he acknowledges it is and estimates he's been lugging it around since 1979. I tell him not to worry because when visiting shopping center developer Edward DeBartelo in Youngstown, Ohio I counted over 60 worn-out briefcases lined up in his office. When one wears out he gets a new one but, the 80-something year old former billionaire adds the used briefcase to his collection.

Boeing's company newspaper-Boeing News, mailed out to 88,000 current employees and 18,000 retirees in Washington, is the largest weekly newspaper in the state.

Starbucks Coffee Company

People in the Northwest and especially Seattle have a love affair with coffee. It isn't an exaggeration when I tell you there's a kiosk, coffee shop or street vendor on every corner hawking latte, espresso or cappuccino. There are some 3,000 commercial espresso makers in Seattle and an estimated 10,000 in Washington. How lucrative is it? Enough so that even the local McDonalds have espresso and latte on their menus.

Who's the Haagen-Dazs of this industry? Starbucks Coffee Company. This fast expanding purchaser and roaster of high-quality whole bean coffees operates over 200 retail stores in metropolitan areas of Washington, Oregon, California and Illinois with ambitious plans for many more.

Riding up to their two-story headquarters in a warehouse area several miles south of downtown Seattle, the rainy air is filled with the sweet smell of not coffee beans being roasted but, beer from the nearby Rainier brewery (a regional beer).

Meeting with Laura Moix, who's business card reads; Media Relations Contact, she says Starbucks and Rainier daily compete for smell superiority and it's usually decided by which way the wind is blowing. All the conference rooms are named after countries from which Starbucks buys its coffee beans. Moix and I are conversing in the Guatemala Room.

The company's mission statement is prominently displayed on a lobby wall and two very friendly receptionists man the reception desk. After calling up Moix, the two receptionists repeatedly ask me if I'd like a cup of coffee while waiting. I mention this because during my visit I'm asked over a dozen times by various employees if I'd like a cup of coffee. The problem is; I HATE coffee. It turns your teeth yellow and makes my stomach hot and queasy. I ask Moix if you have to be a coffee drinker to work here. "No, but it helps", she answers.

Over 400 employees work in this leased 100,000 square foot building and an 80,000 square foot office building next door. Offices in the headquarters building occupy only a small portion of the 100,000 square feet. The majority is used for warehouse, shipping and the roasting of the coffee beans.

From CEO Howard Schultz's corner upstairs office he can look outside one window and see a railroad siding. The other window (a big picture window) is similar to a plant manager's; it allows Schultz to overlook the entire roasting, shipping and warehouse area. The walls in Schultz's office are lined with Starbucks advertisements and, a typical coffee menu found in their stores.

I'm introduced to Dave Olsen, Senior Vice President-Coffee, who's responsible for buying the company's coffee and is the company's official coffee taster. I remember reading where Dreyer's Ice Cream has a million-dollar insurance policy on the taste buds of the company's official ice cream taster. I ask Olsen if he has a similar arrangement. The fellow avid cyclist laughs and says, "no".

Starbucks (1993 revenues $154 million, net income $9 million) is named after the coffee loving first mate in Moby Dick, and its logo features a two tailed siren-a popular decoration carved on cathedrals in Europe.

Airborne Freight Corporation

With revenues in 1992 of $1.5 billion, net income $5.2 million, Airborne Freight is the third largest air express carrier in the US, following Federal Express and United Parcel Service.

The company's eight-story, black-glassed, half circle headquarters building sits across the street from the waterfront, about a mile north of downtown Seattle. Airborne, which occupies the whole building, has no receptionist to greet visitors upon entering so I read the directory and make my way to the executive floor.

While waiting in the reception area, two uniformed couriers from competing firms drop off packages. "Wow", I tell the two receptionists, "I'm surprised you don't make them drop off their packages in the basement area. Isn't that like walking into Pepsi drinking a Coke?" The two laugh and say it isn't a big deal.

CEO Robert Cline greets me and immediately asks if I'd be interested in attending a soon-to-start question and answer session management periodically has with employees. I accept his invitation. In a large meeting room, CEO Cline and Robert Brazier, President, first give a "state of the company" speech, then answer questions submitted in advance and finally, open up the floor to any and all questions. It's quite interesting. Brazier and Cline are impressive in their candid answers to a wide multitude of topics ranging from company health benefits to advertising strategies to long-term forecasts.

Walking around the floors with Lisa Lawless, Manager-Public Relations, I find out 1,000 employees work in this building (which is leased) and in another building located directly across the street on the waterfront.

CEO Cline's middle office is very spartan but, does contains two real plants, a computer and, a great straight-out view of the comings and goings in Elliott Bay-which includes the Port of Seattle. Huge container and cargo ships can be seen loading and unloading goods plus, ferries are constantly tying up at the piers to discharge or take on commuters and tourists headed to the various islands in Puget Sound.

Simpson Investment Company

The seven year-old, 56-story Washington Mutual Tower (the second tallest behind Columbia Center) is a real beaut and gets my vote for "Best Looking Building" in Seattle.

Visiting privately held Simpson Investment Company requires zipping up to the 49th floor. Exiting the elevator, I pass two mean looking, six-feet tall, 18th-century Japanese guardian deities on the wall. Though they're only ink-on-rice-paper warriors, you still get the feeling they're keeping an eye on you.

This 103 year-old lumber and paper company occupies the 48th, 49th and 50th floors (all connected by a winding staircase) and according to charming Maureen Frisch, Vice President-Public Affairs, 150 employees work on the three floors.

An impressive corporate art collection lines the various corridors and I agree with Frisch; a "mish-mash" would be the best way to describe it. Prominent, are large colorful glass sculptures by the well-known Dale Chihuly, who resides in Seattle.

Forbes magazine estimates the company's revenue at $860 million. Simpson Investment is known for being tight-lipped and Frisch passes on confirming or denying the Forbes estimate.

The boardroom contains an unusual table and chairs: The boardroom table is a large slice of uneven redwood-complete with dinks in the wood. Board members sit in uncomfortable-looking, straight-back wood chairs. Cushioned, padded and leather swivel chairs are usually the standard fare found in boardrooms.

Why doesn't the company occupy the higher floors? One reason: After the 50th floor, the next six get smaller as the building comes to a point. Plus, the 50th contains a great perk: an outside deck on all four corners-which if the weather cooperates-are popular lunchtime eating spots for employees brown bagging it.

On the way down I stop on the 15th floor to visit Washington Mutual Savings Bank, with $9 billion in assets it's the largest independent bank in Washington (First Interstate Bank and Seafirst, a BankAmerica subsidiary are bigger). Get a blah reception. Roger Nyhus, Corporate Communications Specialist, shows little interest in showing me around the seven floors the bank occupies. Though its name is on the building, Washington Mutual leases space.

Nordstrom, Inc.

Finding the corporate offices for Nordstrom (1993 revenues $3.4 billion), a fashion specialty retailer, is tricky. I'm in their six story, 268,000 square foot flagship store in downtown Seattle and can't seem to find signs or elevators directing me to the offices, which I assume are on the top floor. Running into an assistant store manager on the fourth floor, she walks me up to the sixth floor via a back stairwell. "How come we don't use the elevator?", I inquire. "Between 11AM and 4PM the elevators are not to be used by employees because it's our busiest time and we don't want customers waiting more than necessary", she answers. From one who has shopped at Nordstrom for years, it's exactly that kind of attention to service and detail which sets Nordstrom's a notch above its competitors.

Nothing fancy or big about John Whitacre's office, who's one of two Co-Presidents. The amiable 40 year-old Whitacre's dinked-up desk looks like a hand-me-down and he admits it is. Lining the hallway wall outside his office are pictures of the company through the years. Having Co-Presidents is unusual in itself but Nordstrom also has four Co-CEO's who are also Co-Chairman of the Board of Directors. Being Nordstrom family members is what the four have in common.

Corporate offices take up 23,000 square feet of the flagship store, which has grown and expanded through the years to encompass five inter-connected buildings.

Before leaving I let Whitacre know my displeasure in their San Diego stores (my hometown) not carrying the totally awesome and delectable triple chocolate chewy Nordy Bars. Whitacre says they didn't sell well there but, says I can mail order them.

Safeco Corporation

Three miles north of the skyscrapers and waterfront bustle of downtown Seattle lies the University of Washington, one of my favorite campuses. The eastern part of the school butts up to the edge of Lake Washington, who's 60-mile shoreline is great to circumvent on a bike. An eight block long avenue of bustling shops and restaurants servicing the college crowd bounds the westside of the sprawling campus. Two blocks over from this college shopping area stands the imposing and out of place, 22-story headquarters of Safeco, an insurance and financial services company with 1992 revenues of $3.3 billion, net income $311 million.

With Safeco's name embedded in big letters atop its light gold colored building and the next tallest structure around being six stories, the 311 foot tall structure definitely sticks out.

Safeco's headquarters is a special place for me because this was the very first company visited. Back in 1986 when I started riding my bike around the country visiting headquarters, Seattle was my "test city" and Safeco the first of (so far) over 1,400 companies to be scrutinized. My first visit went well and I'm back seven years later to do a follow up.

Hey!, maybe my visit back in '86 made a difference because right outside the front entrance doors are over 20 bike racks which weren't here before.

The security guard/receptionist finds out I'm to meet with someone from Corporate Communications. This changes however when the guard receives a call telling him to send me up immediately to the CEO's office because CEO Roger Eigsti wants to spend a few minutes with me

On the way up the elevator I check to see if there's a 13th floor. Yep. As mentioned before, most office buildings don't have 13th floor but, in the over 50 insurance companies visited-99% have a 13th floor. Methinks insurance companies do that to show they're not superstitious.

The view from Eigsti's large, but sparsely furnished corner office on the 22nd floor is terrific! He can see across Lake Washington, the impressive downtown Seattle skyline and snow capped Mt. Rainier in the distance. On the wall behind Eigsti's desk is an oil painting of a ferry crossing the water. Its significance? Growing up in the area, Eigsti loved riding the ferries and admits he still rides them.

Eigsti walks me down the hall to check out the boardroom, which features a long boardroom table, a great view and, furnishings that obviously haven't been changed since the building's opening in 1973. Normally, I would have kidded super nice guy Eigsti about the outdated furnishings but, since he was kind enough to overlook my ridiculous attire of shorts and a jacket on this cold wintry day-I refrain from opening my mouth.

Price/Costco Inc.

San Diego-based Price Company and Kirkland-based Costco Wholesale Corporation completed their merger October 22, 1993. The company's new name is Price/Costco and this operator of 218 warehouse clubs in 21 states, Canada and the United Kingdom maintains dual headquarters.

Though suburban Kirkland is only several miles due east of Seattle, those several miles are across Lake Washington. As operator of no-frills warehouse clubs it's not surprising to find corporate offices in two buildings alongside I-405 in a light industrial-warehouse area. The size of the two, plain-looking, 2-story buildings (one is 250,000 square feet, the other 300,000) is deceiving because they sit on a knoll with one hidden behind the other.

Six chairs and nine seats on the two sofas make up the seating possibilities in the small lobby that feels real homey with all the X-mas decorations. Next to the front door are two 25 cent and two 10 cent machines spitting out gumballs and M&M candies.

I receive a warm welcome and have a fun time meeting with Diane Wilkinson, Assistant to CEO James Sinegal. There's no dress code for the 600 employees working in the two buildings, no executive dining rooms, parking is assigned by seniority and no window offices.

Does the man who runs this $13 billion in revenues company have a nice office? Heck, CEO Sinegal doesn't even have an office! His "office" consists of a cheap-looking desk stuck in the middle of this big open room. Walking by, you'd never know this is where the CEO hangs his hat especially, with the signed poster of Buck Owens pinned up on a board behind his desk. Seems Sinegal was introduced to country western singer Owens at a Costco store and had no clue as to who he was. As a joke, employees obtained the poster and presented it to Sinegal.

Actually, it would be easy to pick out Sinegal's "office" because his visitors either sit on two loud orangish-colored, metal fold-up chairs or two pea-green colored ones. Sinegal's an avid basketball fan and the green chairs are Seattle Supersonic colors and the others; the Los Angeles Lakers. I also spot a basketball sign by the Supersonic players.

When I tell Wilkinson about Boeing's President having a beat-up, 20-year old briefcase she laughs and says her boss is worse: Sinegal doesn't use a briefcase but, lugs around one of those one foot high basket trays used by the post office. Another interesting note: Sinegal's business cards have his name but, no title.

Microsoft Corporation

Visiting Microsoft's campus-like headquarters three years ago in Redmond (the next town over from Kirkland) I had trouble maneuvering around all the new buildings being constructed. I was also quickly dismissed from the place because "we never received your introduction material" sent several weeks ahead of my arrival. Riding through the grounds I see some things haven't changed, noting several structures going up. Matter of fact, the locals joke Microsoft's corporate logo is the crane, due to several of the big construction cranes never leaving the premises.

There're no signs directing visitors to any of the buildings. I stop a bus driver who shuttles employees around the campus and ask directions to the Administration building. He doesn't know but, tells me there're 25 buildings on the site. Three times I stop employees on the grass-covered grounds and ask directions and, three times I get blank looks. Hey Microsoft!, you had a profit of $953 million last year-cough up some money and hire security guards to direct visitors or at the least have some signs made!

Frustrated, I end up picking a building, walk in, and ask if I can use the phone. I call Jollen Smallwood, CEO Willam Gates's secretary and ask if she knows where or who ended up with my introduction material. Smallwood recalls receiving my letter and puts me on hold for five minutes while checking the computer to find out when it was logged in and where it was directed. She comes back on the line and says she can't find the letter in the database. Shades of deja vu! I tell Smallwood I was told those same words three years ago. Gee, if the mail to the CEO isn't being handled correctly-it makes you wonder about the rest of the company. Maybe they need to change the software? Smallwood transfers me to a woman in Corporate Communications who's voice mail comes on and says she won't be back until tomorrow. I'm transferred to someone else who's voice mail says they're out of the office today. Back on the phone with Smallwood, she tells me in a could-care-less voice, "that's the best I can do".

Nintendo of America

Nintendo Co., Ltd. was founded in Japan in 1889 as a manufacturer of Japanese playing cards. Today Nintendo (1993 revenues $5.5 billion, net income $764 million) is recognized as the leading software-based entertainment company in the world.

How big is Nintendo in the US? Look at this: 97% of all households have color television, 80% VCR's, 42% CD players, 40% Nintendo systems and 35% personal computers. The top selling video game in the US is Super Mario Bros. 3-with over 9.6 million copies sold.

Corporate offices for the US subsidiary are in two company-owned, 2-story white buildings (total of 184,000 square feet) several miles from Microsoft's headquarters. The company has been located here since 1980, with a small sign near the road identifying the place.

I thought for sure Nintendo's lobby would have several game systems on display or for use by visitors while they wait. Nope. Toshiko Watson, International Manager, answers my questions sitting in the Donkey Kong conference room. All the meeting rooms are named after game characters (Mario room, Super Mario room, Link room etc.).

I was expecting to find Minoru Arakawa, President, on the second floor-enjoying a view from his corner office. On the contrary. His is the first office you pass when leaving the main reception area. I kid Arakawa about his view of the parking lot and lack of a computer. But, I do let Arakawa know this is the first time I've found a television with a Nintendo game system hooked up to it in a head honcho's office.

Eddie Bauer

Tucked away on 13 heavily wooded acres in Redmond, the one-story headquarters for outdoor sportswear retailer Eddie Bauer befits its image. Going along the heavy-forested driveway you forget there's busy freeway 502 less than a quarter mile away. which operates almost 300 stores across the country and a mail order catalog business.

Making my way up the steps I pass an arbor decorated with X-mas wreaths. Entering the place, with its exposed heavy wood beams, is like entering a big, homey cabin in the mountains. The building sits on concrete stilts-with parking on ground level underneath the structure.

Tom Bosch, Senior Vice President-Stores, and Margie Meyer, Assistant Manager-Facilities, give me an enthusiastic welcome. "Why are you visiting us when we're only a subsidiary of Chicago-based Spiegel?" they ask. Several reasons: I've visited quite a few other direct mail operators such as L.L. Bean, Land's End, Fingerhut and Blair. Plus, besides its mail order, Eddie Bauer operates over 300 retail stores-contributing almost half of Spiegel's $2 billion in annual sales. So, we're not talking about some mom and pop operation.

Within a mile of this structure are 10 more buildings housing a total of 1,100 employees. Most are connected by paths through the woods. The company just bought 6.5 acres of adjacent land and plans call for several more buildings.

Walking down the hall to check out the corner office of Rick Fersch, President, I ask the outdoorsy-clad Bosch if he's wearing Eddie Bauer clothing. "Yep, everything I'm wearing except for my underwear is Eddie Bauer" he replies. Fersch has a view of a small man-made trout pond outside his window. I count five real plants in his wood beamed office and three framed original paintings of old Eddie Bauer catalog covers hanging on a wall. Eyeing the coffee table, I see Fersch keeps up on the competition because there're direct mail catalogs from Land's End, J.Crew and his parent, Spiegel.

(For more information: SPGLA)

Weyerhaeuser Company

Though it's mailing address says Tacoma, headquarters for Weyerhaeuser, a manufacturer of timber products and the world's largest private owner of merchantable softwood timber, is actually 10 miles northeast in Federal Way (population 45,000).

Visiting Weyerhaeuser (1992 revenues $9.2 billion, net income $372 million) back in 1986 I was given a warm welcome and extensive tour of the place. Situated on a 489-acre site, the facility ranks among the five most beautiful headquarters I've visited (out of over 1,400).

A huge 30x50-foot American flag flying on a 120-foot, laminated wood flagpole greets you upon approaching the site. Walking into the building I remember super receptionist Carol Caughlan from my previous visit in 1986. The thoroughly professional and personable Caughlan again does a great job of greeting and making me feel welcome. It only reconfirms her name on my listing of 10 Best Receptionists. Richard Long, Vice President-Corporate Communications, who's my contact person isn't available. Caughlan however, gives me the okay to wonder around.

Built in 1971, this Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed 5-story headquarters building is a horizontal skyscraper-a sequence of stepped concrete slabs layered between transparent glass panels. Spanning a small valley, the 354,000 square foot structure is equivalent to a 37-story skyscraper. The building's foundation serves as a dam for a 10-acre, creek-fed, trout-filled lake (no fishing allowed). Small islands in the lake allow Canadian honkers and swans to nest.

The long, long corridors are maple-floored, with the rich wood paneled walls being American white oak and teak-finished. Over 1,000 plants, including a 4,000-pound redwood root enhanced by a sculptor are found in the building. The general public is allowed to wander the main floor and take in a self-guided tour of a forestry exhibit plus, admire the various tapestries depicting old-growth forest scenes.

This self-contained facility includes a gift shop, barber shop, library, a cafeteria with a 350-seat dining area overlooking the lake, exercise facilities including sauna, tennis & basketball courts, jogging trails and 1,300 parking spots for the over 900 employees. Even on a dark dreary rainy day such as today-the place is still spectacular.

Company tidbits

Univar Corporation (1993 revenues $1.8 billion) distributes chemicals throughout the US, Canada and Europe. The company leases a good-looking, 7-story, lakefront building in suburban Kirkland. Over 500 employees work here. I meet with John Sammons, Director-Corporate Communications, who just goes through the motions. The office complex, with boat marina out front is called, Carillon Point. Piece of trivia: before the site was developed the NFL Seattle Seahawks trained on the grounds.

Paccar Inc., third visit in seven years to this builder of heavy trucks and still get runaround. Located in 20 year old, 13-story building in downtown Bellevue. Low-key publicly held company finally put its name atop headquarters.

Burlington Resources, holding company whose principal subsidiary is Meridian Oil, engaged in oil & gas exploration. Occupy plush offices on 45th floor of 46-story First Interstate Tower in downtown Seattle. Receptionist has to buzz you past the large glass doors. Walking up to receptionist, she says she knows who I am and was instructed to tell me, "we aren't interested in talking to you".

Ackerley Communications, occupy space on 37th floor of 41-story downtown Seattle high-rise. Secretary to CEO Barry Ackerley, answers my questions as we stand near switchboard. Own Seattle Supersonics basketball team. Thirteen employees at headquarters. Wasn't allowed past lobby.