Publicly traded companies don’t always bring good times to towns like Tacoma

Contributing writerJuly 31, 2011 

The News Tribune’s recent and exhaustive autopsy on commercial real estate developer and investor Prium revealed a lot of gory details about the company’s bankruptcy case, but it also revived a long-standing economic development story not for the faint of stomach:

Tacoma’s disappointing history with publicly traded companies.

As reporter Kathleen Cooper noted, one of Prium’s principals, Tom Price, worked for a Fife-based equipment leasing company run by his father. Tom Price eventually rose to president, while his father served as chief executive officer.

As such things go, T&W didn’t have a long run as a publicly traded company. Its S-1 registration to go public was filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in August 1997. Its last SEC filing (according to the commission’s online database) is dated December 2000, a news release announcing a judge’s approval of a plan of liquidation, containing the grim note that “although the plan is expected to generate a partial distribution to general unsecured creditors, the plan expressly provides for no distribution to shareholders of the Company and all stock will be canceled as of the effective date of the plan.”

T&W’s flameout couldn’t be fairly characterized as spectacular, given that the company wasn’t of a size or in a line of business to make much of a splash in public or the media, and its failure came on the cusp of the more attention-getting dot-com-bust. No one invested great hopes on T&W as a foundation block for a new generation of locally based publicly traded companies mainly because few paid much notice to it.

Still, T&W is hardly alone on a list of companies with stock traded on recognized exchanges that failed, were bought out or moved away. Consider these examples:

 • Weyerhaeuser, who moved its headquarters up the road to Federal Way in 1971.

 • American Savings Bank, bought by BankAmerica in 1989.

 • Puget Sound Bancorp, bought by KeyCorp in 1992.

 • Pacific First Financial, moved to Seattle in 1989, bought by Canada’s Royal Trustco, later sold to Washington Mutual.

 • Hillhaven Corp., a nursing home operator spun off from National Medical Enterprises in 1990, bought by Vencor Inc., 1995.

 • Holly Residential Properties, a real estate investment trust, merged into Wellsford Residential Property Trust, 1994.

 • Rainier Pacific Financial Group, subsidiary bank taken over by regulators in 2010.

If you wanted to broaden the definition of Tacoma to include Federal Way, you could then keep Weyerhaeuser in-house. But you’d then have to include such departed companies as Paragon Trade Brands and Pacific Nuclear Systems.

There’s no common thread to these stories other than they were once based here and contributed to the local economy in ways tangible (jobs and charitable contributions chief among them) and intangible (helping raise Tacoma’s profile).

As unhappy a history as Tacoma has had with publicly traded companies, it’s not a phenomenon that is unique to it. It happens to small towns (particularly vulnerable when they are so dependent on one locally based company), medium-sized communities (i.e., Tacoma) and big cities (see Seattle, and Boeing, Airborne and WaMu, to name a few).

One difference is that the bigger communities have a larger pool of potential from which new publicly traded companies can emerge (as happened with Seattle-based Zillow). Tacoma is not of a size or type of city that easily generates fast-growing startups that can go public, meaning it will have a much tougher time replenishing a thin portfolio of publicly traded companies (currently down to just two – Columbia Bank and TrueBlue, the former Labor Ready).

But given the dismal track record of holding on to what we’ve grown, it might be nice if on occasion it was someone else lamenting, “Why us? Why always us?”

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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