The Connectors


When developing our list of The Connectors, one theme continued to surface: the power of karma. As touchy-feely as that might sound, the idea of doing good deeds for business associates without necessarily expecting anything in return is a thread that runs through the practices of the people we profile in this section.

The art of connecting has to be natural or it won't pass the smell test. It requires offering clients the same genuine regard bestowed upon your closest friends. Good connectors, Seattle Business magazine has discovered, invariably subscribe to the "what goes around comes around" theory.

Geir Hansen of Silicon Valley Bank is ready to lend a hand to an entrepreneur even before asking whether the businessperson will be a client. Guiding Lights founder and former Clinton speechwriter Eric Liu wants to change the world through mentoring. If startup maven Janis Machala sees an entrepreneur who needs help, count on her to start making connections.

When it comes to listening, few connectors are better than GLY Construction's Charlie Hafenbrack and marketing consultant JJ McKay. The two have learned that knowing when to act and when to listen are the difference between whether or not a client makes a major deal. And if McKay is inspired by Entrepreneur A on Monday and fascinated by Entrepreneur B on Wednesday, expect him to invite them both to dinner on Saturday, where they might build a business partnership.

The world has always been full of brilliant minds and talented people, but it has been The Connectors, such as the five who are profiled here, who often bring brilliance and talent together.

The Life of the Party
Florida native JJ McKay's gift for bringing people together stems from his southern charm and his innate ability to listen.

He said he wasn't the kiss-and-tell type. It was only after insisting upon a meeting over a cup of coffee on his "home turf " at Uptown Espresso at Fourth and Wall streets, that JJ McKay agreed to explain his unique way of doing business.

Known simply as "JJ" by Seattle's business community, the Florida native is the founder of JJMcKay and Co.; a Seattle-based marketing/consulting firm that has helped dozens of startup and midsize companies develop successful sales strategies.

For Commerce Bridge Bank, McKay's role has been to find investors and stakeholders. He helped get Butter London, a national retail chain of express manicure salons, into airports around the country and brokered its promotional partnership with Alaska Air Group. He put together a cookie fundraiser at Geraldine's Counter in Columbia City to benefit the Rainier Valley Food Bank. He also is the spokesman for the nationwide marketing firm 206. Among his long list of charitable activities, he sits on the board of trustees for the Seattle Opera.

But the best way to describe McKay is that he is one of Seattle's ultimate connectors. McKay has brought his version of Southern warmth to bear on the polite-but-chilly Northwest mentality. As a result, he has found great success bringing people together.

His 30 to 40 dinner parties each year are famed for connecting a diverse crowd. Often held at his Belltown condo for the benefit of local charities, the events are a laboratory of sorts for this extrovert. For fun last year, he threw a toga party that he described as a "Grecian Bacchanal," which drew the likes of Jack and Becky Benaroya, and Leigh and J.P. Canlis. (Oh, and, he does all the cooking, too.)

Some party guests have even formed permanent relationships. "There have been five marriages, one engagement and two of them are seriously dating," he says with a sly smile.

Whenever McKay meets an interesting businessperson, he makes a mental note and files it away. Like the general manager of a baseball club who tries to find the right combination of players for a pennant run, McKay makes sure to do the same for his dinner parties, which, word has it, are always home runs.

At his parties and in his business, he often connects completely different industries that end up having similar needs. He led the charge, for example, to get the Pilchuck School of Glass, of which he is a board member, to display glass art at Sea-Tac International Airport later this summer. The airport needed more art for its collection. Pilchuck needed a way to reinforce notion that Seattle is the heart of the glass art industry. "It was a natural fit," McKay says.

While McKay says problem solving is his greatest asset, his ability to listen is a close second. Sit across from him in a coffee shop and suddenly you're the most fascinating person in the world. That's how he makes his clients feel, and that's why they hire him.

When he was living in Panama City, Fla., and working for the American Heart Association (AHA), he wanted to expand services to the African American community, so into that community he went, attending meetings of several organizations. He rarely talked. He just listened. And gradually, he brought awareness of the AHA to that community.

McKay says you can never go into a situation saying, "What's in it for me?" Connecting people must be about what you can do for them, what problems you can solve. That is the nut of his business of creating growth strategies, he adds: helping companies share their stories with others.

To learn more about JJ McKay and his many gatherings, visit

Making the Right Associations
While it's important to join corporate boards, trade associations and philanthropic groups, Charlie Hafenbrack proves the key to connecting is honesty and an ability to learn and listen.

If you're serious about succeeding in business, make damn sure you're a member of a trade association, a corporate board or even your kid's PTA, because you never know where that $100 million deal is going to come from. Just ask Charlie Hafenbrack.

Five years ago, when Kemper Development bought the stalled Lincoln Square mixed-use project in downtown Bellevue, owner Kemper Freeman hosted a hard-hat tour of the project for members of the business community. Hafenbrack, on the board of the Downtown Bellevue Association and director of business development at GLY Construction, got himself one of those golden tickets. And he made the most of it by being sure GLY president Lee Kilcup tagged along.

"I introduced Lee to the Kemper Development team in attendance, including then-vice president and general manger of Lincoln Square, Ron Smith," Hafenbrack says. Kilcup kept in touch with Smith and provided him with cost estimates and work-planning assistance on several projects. GLY then won bids on projects at Bellevue Square and Bellevue Place.

Those jobs paved the way for the grand prize: the 513,000-square-foot Lincoln Square, valued at about $100 million. Hafenbrack's idea to bring Kilcup and Smith together led to even more work with Kemper Development, a cherished relationship that continues to thrive today.

Not bad for a guy who started out buying malted barley for Great Western Malting (GWM) in Clark County.

Voted most likely to succeed at Kelso High School, Hafenbrack was immediately hired by GWM after graduating. He would eventually become its vice president of grain procurement in 1978. Then Todd Hamachek, CEO of Penwest, parent company of GWM, ran into Sellen Construction Co. chairman Rick Redman. Hamachek recommended Redman hire Hafenbrack. "[Redman] hired me with no experience in the industry," Hafenbrack remembers fondly.

Over the years, Hafenbrack learned to put his ego aside, remain humble and, like many of the people on this list, to be a good listener. He strives to be gracious and honest, whether he is introducing himself to a client or merely socializing. When he's at social gatherings, he winds up listening more than talking.

"People like to talk and tell their story," he explains. "You learn a lot about people that way, and in my work, it's helpful."

It took Hafenbrack more than a decade on the job in the construction industry before he felt he knew enough people in the industry to be effective and established. He also joined several organizations, including the International Facilities Management Association and the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties. He got on early with the Bellevue Downtown Association, Bellevue Rotary Club and Advance Bellevue, a leadership organization. He also became involved in a couple of political campaigns.

Hafenbrack took what he learned from his mentors and morphed it into his own style. He's amassed a broad knowledge about development, design and construction. When he doesn't know an answer, his goal is to find the people at GLY who can deliver--and swiftly.

In the end, Hafenbrack says, his networking panache comes down to this: "I don't know if I'd win a popularity contest but I think a lot of people like me," he says. "People want to do business with people they like."

To contact Charlie Hafenbrack, visit

The Karma of Connecting
Silicon Valley Bank's Geir Hansen has found success by first focusing on helping startups any way he can.

For Geir Hansen, what goes around comes around.

The circular notion that acts of kindness will eventually come back to you in some shape or form was proven not long ago while Hansen was sitting on the screening committee of the venture capital group Alliance of Angels. Executives at a company that will remain anonymous came in to present. Hansen, the Seattle-based senior relationship manager for emerging technologies at Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), liked the presentation and spent an hour with the firm's CEO to discuss how he might help develop the business.

Two weeks later, while at lunch with a colleague from another venture capital firm, he kept thinking about the company. "We were talking about good companies that we'd seen recently, comparing notes about what's going on," says Hansen, 49. "Five months later, the company got funded by that VC firm."

Watching a promising startup find investor support from another venture firm is never an issue with Hansen. To him, karma rules the roost in his life, and this particular case was no exception. Hansen reports that the entrepreneur from the promising startup wants to work with SVB in the future. Since arriving in 1996 at the Seattle offices of the California-based commercial bank, Hansen has helped the local branch grow from three to 25 employees.

Over the years, SVB, which focuses on tech startups of all sizes, has helped hundreds of Northwest clients and built loan commitments into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Those clients include such firms as Bellevue's Onyx Software Corp. and Seattle's aQuantive Inc., which was recently acquired by Microsoft for billions of dollars.

A native of Oslo, Norway, and an avid soccer player, Hansen immigrated to the United States in 1985, where he found that his real skill was communicating and relating to people. He loved playing soccer but was even better at organizing games with friends. The talent seems to have spread into his business. He ruminates on the idea: "Maybe there's something to that, spending time with friends."

For tips on how to connect, Hansen says you should never go into a meeting or networking event needing something. Not only will people smell the desperation, but also you risk developing a reputation as a taker. But if you go in and just get to know people, "that helps build a network over time.

"Entrepreneurs tend to talk among themselves, and banks are one of the main subjects. Your reputation in these bank discussions is how you get on somebody's list," Hansen says. That's how good karma is returned.

His decisions are guided by long-term thinking. For instance, he knows people fresh out of the University of Washington looking for work. He's always glad to help them--in fact, his exceptional connections might well be the result of taking too many meetings, even though nothing may come of them directly.

He was reminded of a recent meeting he had over coffee with the CEO of a young client company. "I said, 'Is there anything else I can do for you?' and [the other person] said, 'Well, I'm thinking about hiring a senior finance person.' I said, 'There's one person you should talk to.' So if you can think of ways to be helpful, it all comes back, eventually."

To contact Geir Hansen, go to

The Politics of Mentoring
Eric Liu uses his wide range of experiences to help people connect with their community.

At first glance, the equation 1 + 1 = 3 makes no sense. But Eric Liu believes this equation is at the heart of creating a better community.

Author, organizer, teacher and a former White House staffer for President Bill Clinton, Liu is a "civic entrepreneur." He explains his equation this way: "When you and I connect, stuff happens in the world that's bigger than either of us."

His ability to connect with people at a very fundamental level has guided him toward success, personally and professionally. And being in the right place at the right time hasn't hurt, either.

Liu began his journey on the political scene, earning a spot as legislative assistant to former Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.). A contact he had made, Mercer Island native Jeremy Rosner, helped Liu secure a job as a White House speechwriter in the Clinton adminstration. In fact, Liu penned Clinton's 1994 speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

During Clinton's second term, Liu was promoted and named deputy domestic policy advisor. In 1998, he published the acclaimed book, "The Accidental Asian: Notes from a Native Speaker." Earlier this year, he completed a book with Seattle venture investor Nick Hanauer entitled "The True Patriot," which discusses how political progressives need to reclaim the issue of patriotism.

But the experience that appears to be most transforming was his long-term project to interview luminaries from all walks of life about who influenced them and how they continued to pass on their wisdom. The result was his 2004 book, "Guiding Lights: How to Mentor and Find Life's Purpose."

Liu spent two years interviewing 250 people, 16 of whom made the final cut. "It was about teachers [and] mentors from all walks--a Hollywood acting coach, an inner-city entrepreneur, a major-league pitching coach, a Proctor & Gamble executive--and looking at what it is that makes them all transformative mentors and teachers," he says. "Writing it was transformative to me."

Writing the book also inspired Liu to create the national Guiding Lights Weekend conference, a two-day seminar that will bring several leaders and mentors to Seattle Center at the end of this month. "For me, everything I do around Guiding Lights is all about creating community," he says. "I'm not a venture capitalist. I'm a social capitalist. I keep trying to deploy those stocks of social capital. That's my whole operating mode."

A facet of Guiding Lights is the Talking Circles—essentially roundtables of six to eight people from different backgrounds coming together to answer two questions: "Who influenced you?" and "How do you pass it on?"

"It never fails," he says. "Putting those questions before people [will] get a remarkable harvest of story, a remarkable flow of community, connection and empathy," he says. "In the first year, Starbucks sponsored a series of [Talking Circles] all over Seattle."

Liu says the 500 to 700 people attending the weekend meetings often form new relationships, but he doesn't like to call it networking. He says it's more like weaving oneself more deeply into the fabric of the community. "When you do that," he says, "good things happen."

To learn more about Eric Liu and his seminars, visit

Queen of the Startup Scene
Janis Machala has developed into one of the startup community's top connectors when it comes to advice, financing, ideas and talent.

If you are a Northwest entrepreneur with an idea, chances are you know Janis Machala. And if you don't, you probably soon will.

Dubbed "the queen of Seattle's startup scene," Machala has become one of the Puget Sound area's famed connectors, with ties to talent pools and access to investment capital. It is Machala's job, as founder of the consulting firm Paladin Partners, to help high-growth companies develop strategies for success.Often that goal means finding the right addition to a management team or tweaking an idea that needs a little help.

Never mind getting paid; she often does the work merely for the love of helping new companies grow. Her client list includes many of the region's startups, ranging from domain-name registration company Dotster to Pyramid Breweries. Case in point was a recent visit from a friend of Machala's who had just left a company he had founded. He wanted her opinion on a new business concept he was developing.

"I listened to the idea, added some thoughts about what to do differently this time around and then introduced him to the guys who he must hire for patent counsel," she recalls. He took Machala's advice. She also introduced her friend to venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, who were both ideal investors and potential company team members. She says she was not looking for "founder shares" or any kind of consulting agreement. She was "just helping a friend with a great idea."

And that activity lies at the heart of what Machala does: She likes to share her knowledge with her friends. She is willing to talk to someone on the phone or meet for coffee, knowing that, from the outset, she might not get anything in return. But somehow, the effort always pays off.

"That good karma of help usually comes back in some way later on," she says. "It might be two years later when someone e-mails me or calls and says, 'So-and-so said you are the one I need to hire,' and I don't even remember who the so-and-so person is because I helped them eons ago."

Machala, who spent a number of years working for Microsoft and Sun Microsystems before launching Paladin in 1995, says she was always the extrovert. Connecting with people is a natural part of her personality. Those connections helped Machala be named director of LaunchPad Services for the University of Washington's TechTransfer Program. The year-long appointment will call for Machala to work with UW researchers, helping them connect with entrepreneurs and investors, develop an entrepreneurs-in-residence program, coach researchers who want to learn how to start a company and act as the bridge between hand-wringing investors and untapped technological advances.

Machala says she won't help just anybody; they have to prove themselves worthy of being networked. She links only with colleagues she would "live in a foxhole with." That way, there is the necessary respect on both sides.

She also doesn't want to waste anybody's time. "The older I get, the more precious [time] is," Machala says. "Younger people don't get that as much. But once you're over 40, it becomes more of a factor and more obvious to us in that age range."

To get in touch with Janis Machala, visit

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