The 2015 Family Business Awards: Legacy Award

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Laird Norton Company
Seattle

Seattle Business magazine’s judges consider Laird Norton to be the gold standard of family business when it comes to implementing best practices, succession planning and long-range, flexible strategies.

Founded in 1855 as a frontier logging operation in Minnesota, the diversified holding company today continues to raise the bar through active dialogue, planning and review of how family governance should evolve, says CEO Jeff Vincent.

“We’ve been around 160 years,” he says, “and I attribute a lot of that success to the family being very progressive about how the family governs the business.”

Family owners gather to verify directional themes. One change included how nominating occurs to attract board directors. For adopting best practices, a governance committee reports on top standards found around the business community. Laird Norton ranks itself against those best practices among both private and public companies, large and small.

A short-term emergency-succession plan remains in place and is regularly communicated. With a focus on building lasting partnerships, the company invests equity capital in real estate and in leading lower middle-market companies in consumer brands, building materials and asset management. The management team and board of directors comprising both family and non-family members guide business strategy.

Regular communication goes out to the base of 400 family shareholders, who gather for an annual summit. The Laird Norton legacy continues through family members Debbie Brown, board chair since 2012, and Allison Parks, family president since 2014. 

2016 Family Business Awards: Heritage/Legacy Award

2016 Family Business Awards: Heritage/Legacy Award

Winner: Bartell Drugs
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WINNER
Bartell Drugs
Location: Seattle

Sometimes, the best course for a family business managing succession is to reach outside the family for expertise while it prepares for the next generation to assume leadership. This happened to Bartell Drugs in 2015. With third-generation family leaders George Bartell and Jean Bartell Barber retiring and the five fourth-generation Bartells mostly still in college and not yet ready to take on leadership positions, the 126-year-old company hired longtime REI executive Brian Unmacht as CEO. 

Now those five young adults are actively involved through quarterly family council meetings to learn about stewardship of a family business. 

Eldest cousin Evelyn Merrill, 29, works as Bartell’s senior marketing manager. She’s the daughter of Jean Bartell Barber and niece of former CEO George D. Bartell. Although her cousins are coming of age and each has their own career passions, Merrill says one thing all family members agree on is that the company should remain in family hands. Merrill says the family all feel a commitment to their shared family history going back to 1890, when young pharmacist George H. Bartell Sr. bought a storefront in Seattle’s Central District. 

As a teenager, Merrill first got a sense of the Bartell legacy as a cashier clerk, a job all cousins have held. She spent a year working in various departments, from marketing to human resources, and that’s when she felt a calling. “I saw a commitment from employees to our family that was really inspiring,” says Merrill, who earned an MBA and worked for a Seattle-area ad agency before joining Bartell in August 2015. She focuses on digital marketing. One of her first projects helped improve the online interface for the company’s 10 walk-in medical clinics. 

Merrill credits Unmacht with taking the company farther and providing a key component to family succession planning. “I see us as a business moving faster, in part thinking more strategically,” she says. “But it’s more about setting our business up for success.”

Bartell has 2,000 employees and 65 stores in greater Seattle. It plans to add new stores in fast-growing urban areas like Ballard and the International District.  

Unmacht says the willingness of the family council to bring in an outsider shows its commitment to maintaining the vitality of the business. “My primary goal is to run a $600 million company in a very competitive space,” says Unmacht. [And] I’m very conscious of where I can help the next generation learn the business.”

That dedication, Unmacht notes, remains crucial to Bartell’s ability to maintain family ownership far into the future.