Executive Q&A: The Brand Manager

Rob Harris, founder and CEO of Pacific Market International.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
The founder and CEO of Pacific Market International has transformed PMI from a trading company into a product development and manufacturing business with more than 150 corporate employees in offices around the globe.
 
Rob Harris has always been entrepreneurial. In grade school, he set up a retail store in his parents’ garage. In high school, he was the kid selling “adult beverages” from the trunk of his car. In college, he ran a thrift store. Harris started Pacific Market International — PMI — in 1983 with roughly a thousand dollars and an abiding curiosity about international trade. With its recent acquisition of San Francisco-based Formation Brands, PMI has added another element to its growing line of food- and beverage-related products. 
 
EARLY YEARS: I grew up in Summit, New Jersey, with two sisters and a devoted stay-at-home mom. My father was a sales-and-marketing guy with Westinghouse Electric Corporation’s Lamp Division, so I grew up walking stores with my dad, looking at retail displays, and talking to store managers and consumers about product, price, promotional opportunities and displays. My father was forever talking at dinner about management, leadership and people development. I learned a lot from him about being a good listener — to employees and customers. In college, I spent summers leading outdoor trips for boys in New England — teaching them to climb mountains, canoe, kayak and sail. After an extended road trip across the country, I landed in Seattle and have called it home since 1980.
 
BEFORE PMI: I have a master’s degree in counseling psychology and worked as a therapist in a short-term crisis psychiatric hospital right out of graduate school. When I settled in Seattle, my first job combined my love of social work and inclination toward business as the business development guy for Northwest Center. In this role, I saw containers of goods coming in and out of the Seattle port and thought to myself, “There’s big opportunity in buying and selling. And I can figure out how to do it better.” With $1,000 in my bank account, I bought my first container of goods. They were ceiling fans that had been abandoned by the company that imported them. I found a buyer and began the initial formulation of what would later become PMI.
 
 
CREATING PMI: I had three principles on founding PMI: growing the company from profit rather than debt; not having any partners (to keep decision making fast and efficient); and buying only what my customers had already ordered, that is, no inventory, tooling or product development risk. When I started PMI, China was just beginning to open to the rest of the world. In Seattle, a lot of people were talking about international business but, aside from Boeing and Weyerhaeuser, very few were actually doing it. I worked my way around the city, securing sourcing contracts with companies like Nintendo and set off for my first visit to China to forge partnerships with factories, some of which we still do business with today. 
 
PMI’S MISSION: We want to revolutionize the way people enjoy food and beverages everywhere they go. We create high-quality drinking and eating experiences, through Stanley’s iconic hot beverage bottle and Aladdin’s water bottles, the best ones in their categories on the market today; and through Migo’s lunch containers, which are available in China, a key strategic market for PMI. 
 
ELEVATOR PITCH: We are a consumer brand marketing and product innovation company focused in the food and beverage container market. We own five brands — Stanley, Aladdin, Migo, Slant and Flair — and have operations in Brazil, China, Europe, Malaysia and the USA.
 
EMBRACING CHANGE: When I started PMI, we were focused on trading — buying and selling goods from Asia. After the first 10 years, I began adding designers, engineers and graphic artists, and shifted the mission to only offering products that we developed, on which we owned intellectual property and around which we could create strict quality parameters. PMI evolved from sourcing for other brands to a brand house itself, starting with our acquisition of Stanley and Aladdin in 2001.
 
PRODUCING IN CHINA: It’s naive to think that a product that comes from a particular region of the world is either good or bad. There are good and bad factories all over the world. What matters is either owning or working with only good factories that treat their workers well and are environmentally friendly. It’s a huge source of pride and accomplishment for me that PMI has changed the lives of tens of thousands of workers in China by the way we run our factories or insist that our partners run theirs. 
 
SUSTAINABILITY: We own an injection molding operation in China that is a clean and green factory. We have water recycling throughout the plant and solar panels on the roof. This is one of the better factories — from an environmental standpoint — in the world. We contract only with factories that can pass one of our environmental audits and we have determined that they conform to our standards around carbon footprint. All of our products are a commitment to sustainability, simply because they replace disposable food and beverage containers with beautiful reusable ones. Many of our specific products are made from recycled materials. It is a priority in our product design process to look for ways to incorporate sustainable materials, implement sustainable processes and minimize our impact on the environment.
 
LOOKING AHEAD: We will double the size of the company in the next five to seven years. But, more important than growing, we are getting faster, smarter and better in all areas of our business. 
 
CHALLENGES: Managing growth globally is one of our biggest challenges. We have employees in China, Brazil, the Philippines, Netherlands and the USA. As a sub-$500 million enterprise, there are challenging complexities to manage in terms of systems, financing and operations. All of it is manageable because we have really good people tackling the issues and solving the challenges. 

Executive Q+A: Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Executive Q+A: Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

He wants the city's strong-mayor system to have a more robust organizational structure.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
Under Ed Murray, Seattle has become recognized nationally for promoting progressive policies like the $15 minimum wage, but he also sees the need for more centralization in the mayor’s office to implement better controls over the city’s large bureaucracy.
 
EARLY YEARS: My father was a logger. Two of my uncles died in logging accidents. Later, Dad worked for Bethlehem Steel. He went to business school and ended up on the business side of the Port Blakely Companies and finally worked at the state Department of Natural Resources. As a large Catholic family, we sometimes struggled financially. I had paper routes, washed dishes and even picked blueberries — a job I hated — for clothes and to pay for dental work. In college, I worked full time so I could get insurance.
 
POLITICS: I’ve wanted to be in politics since I was 5, when John F. Kennedy was running for president. There was so much excitement. We stayed up later [on election night] and in the morning, we ran into my parents’ room and jumped on the bed to find out who was elected. There is this natural interest in politics among the Irish in America. I have cousins who’ve been elected mayor in the New Jersey and New York areas.
 
DRIVE: When you grow up where food doesn’t come easy, it’s almost a double fear that you will end up destitute. When you have opportunities like I’ve had in life, you absolutely want to spend every moment making it work. I’m driven and I look for people who are driven. At times, I’ve had to dial back the way I drive others. 
 
MAYOR’S OFFICE: This city has a strong-mayor system. Unlike in Boston or New York, I don’t have to [get city council approval] to raise the minimum wage or do a [child care] program. But we have a fairly small mayor’s office compared to other large cities. I’m responsible for 14,000 city employees in 28 different departments, including Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities, but I have little ability to do independent oversight. We don’t have the controls that the governor’s office has with the Office of Financial Management. For the day-to-day administration, we need another level of centralization so, for example, we can build projects on time and on budget. We’re looking at ways to use statistics to measure performance. How do we monitor construction in real time to catch problems early?
 
BIG CITY: In my first two years in office, Seattle went from the 20th to the 18th largest city [in the United States]. That [growth] creates challenges. I’ve brought in some of the most innovative people in the country to work in the mayor’s office, to be directors of departments to take us to that next level. I focused on folks who’ve come from big cities because we don’t have a lot of depth when it comes to big cities.
 
PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENT: The fact that we have been able to pass five ballot measures in two years to really catch this city up on transportation, parks and bus service. Maybe our pre-K [early learning] program will be, in the end, the most significant. If we get this right, we will radically change the outcome for those young people.
 
BUSINESS REGULATION: I worry about the impacts on the smallest businesses in the city. In a city that is rapidly changing, their situation is the most precarious. We need to do a better job on how we engage and assist them. That’s why I brought in Brian Surratt as director of the Office of Economic Development. But many of the things we have done, we have done with with business. Business was there on pre-K and transportation. If we don’t have a transit system that works, business doesn’t work. Even on minimum wage, business is not happy, but we created a model of phasing it in that has become a model around the country. With the housing levy, developers for the first time agreed with low-income-housing advocates to accept a requirement to build or pay for affordable housing in exchange for increased density in our urban villages. This has been a collaborative process. I do worry at times that some on the council don’t understand that most businesses operate on the margin. I do worry that there could be a piling-on effect without understanding the full implications of that. But business needs to do a better job of articulating what they want and not simply what they are against.
 
BUDGET: We have to be really sensitive to levy fatigue because we have a really regressive tax system that leaves us few choices other than property taxes. Having said that, the housing levy did pass by 70 percent. That was the fifth levy I had sent out in two years. I do need to add that Seattle’s tax burden is less than some of our suburban cities. Still, there are real risks here. On every budget speech I give, I remind the council that a lot of increased revenue we have received is off of construction that will ultimately slow down. We are keeping a high reserve to prepare for worse times.  
 
HOMELESSNESS: The first year I was in office was the last year of the 10-year plan to end homelessness. The city identified and built every unit it said it needed to end homelessness and yet the problem is worse. We need to be innovative about finding new ways to deal with homelessness. But the myth that Seattle can solve this problem hurts the homeless. Seattleites are pointing at each other for a problem that only the nation and state can help us solve. We’ve stepped up big time, but there is this issue of income inequality, and the massive heroin epidemic in this country while the government is retreating from its responsibilities. We are number 47 in what we spend on mental illness in this state. What disappoints me is the folks in Seattle don’t realize that towns up and down the West Coast all have homeless crises. That’s an area I have to own a failure — not being able to create a dialogue to create a bigger movement.
 
TAKE 5: GET TO KNOW ED MURRAY
 
HERO: “When I was 13 or 14 and Wes Uhlman was elected mayor at 34, I read an article in the Seattle P-I that showed a picture of him on the balcony of the old City Hall. That’s when I wanted to be mayor.
 
FAVORITE VACATION: Visiting the Washington coast with his husband, Michael Shiosaki.
 
A LIFE IN POLITICS: Murray once confided to reporter Joel Connelly: “In 18 years, I have never been on a vacation where we haven’t been interrupted by some legislative crisis or some controversy in the media.”
 
TRUTH TELLER. “The biggest myth is that we have a large tax burden. We are the 18th-largest city [in the country], but in terms of tax burden, we are something like the 50th.”
 
GO, PILOTS. Murray was born in Aberdeen in 1955 and grew up in West Seattle and Lacey. He has a sociology degree from the University of Portland.
 
EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.