This year’s honorees of the University of Washington Tacoma’s Milgard School of Business leadership awards individually have built bridges, helped improve beer, sourced products for companies, helped low-income people buy furniture and ran the Milgard School of Business for more than a decade.
The Thursday event begins at 5 p.m. at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center.
Business leader of the year
The CEO and president of Stellar Industrial Supply said he was surprised to learn he had been selected as business leader of the year.
Never miss a local story.
“My default style is servant leader,” said John Wiborg. “I see myself as trying to help other people succeed and having a team environment to create a great place to work and do something where we could be productive but also have fun.”
The Tacoma-based company sources products for other firms. Around two-thirds of those manufacture their own products, he said. The company also helps other companies improve their processes to help them save money over time. In 2016, the company logged nearly $13 million in documented cost savings because of its work, Wiborg said.
“It takes a lot of people, and it’s taken a lot of help for me to develop my leadership and grow into it,” Wiborg said.
His volunteer work has included serving on several boards. MultiCare Health System, YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties, Bellarmine Preparatory School, Greater Tacoma Community Foundation and others have benefited from his business acumen.
“His steeled resolve and belief in the power of the human spirit makes you literally believe that the impossible is possible,” said one section of his nomination letter. “You want to follow him to take that hill. It does not occur to you to do otherwise.”
The letter also praised his “kindness, generosity and empathy.”
Wiborg founded the company in 1988. Today it has around 180 employees, is the largest independent industrial distributor of 3M products and is on track to break the $100 million mark for its sales and services in 2018. Stellar Industrial Supply has offices in Washington, Montana, Oregon, California, Arizona and Florida.
Small business leader of the year
You may have Green Air Supply to thank for the bubbles in your beer, and soon your coffee.
The company builds wall-mounted nitrogen separators for the beverage industry, eliminating the need for tank deliveries and allowing restaurants to have a constant supply of nitrogen on hand.
Company co-owner and President Tom Hoare said he hopes the company can increase its direct rental program and add workers.
“We would grow a few employees and we would start to add to their income, and hopefully support their families even more, as well as our own,” Hoare said.
The company started in 2005 with business owner Jesse McLaughlin, but Hoare’s love of quality beer started long before that, as a student at University of Colorado at Boulder. He became focused on the way blended gas — nitrogen and carbon dioxide — can improve beer draft quality.
A beer’s carbonation level is part of a brewer’s recipe, he said. Bars use the nitrogen-gas mix to push the beer out of kegs and into your glass without changing the beer’s carbonation, Hoare explained.
Green Air Supply sold its first unit in 2006. Today it has six full-time and two part-time employees, working out of two North Slope garages, where they can make 50 units per month. Green Air supply has more than 300 customers in six states. Recently he took a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, to explore another line of business: nitro cold brew coffee.
Green Air Supply surpassed a million in sales a couple of years ago, he said. The company is now exploring export of units to Canada.
Hoare said he likes to hire self-starters.
“I like to give people room to do their job. … I like having good people around and letting them use their talents and their strengths. They like to thrive in their own jobs,” Hoare said.
Nonprofit leader of the year
For a while, the mother tried to pretend she and her son were camping. She hung sheets up like a tent, and they ate dinner on a cardboard box on the floor.
But the charade masked the reality: She couldn’t afford furniture.
Another family’s children were embarrassed to have friends over because of their lack of furniture.
Bill Lemke has heard those and many more stories for nearly 10 years, since he co-founded NW Furniture Bank.
Lemke remains the executive director and said he is humbled to be chosen as nonprofit leader of the year.
“The furniture bank is a lot bigger than me,” Lemke said in March. “I may be the designated leader, but there are a lot of other people who make it happen.”
The previous night, volunteers from Life Center Church assembled donated furniture from Ikea in the 14,000-square-foot warehouse where clients can pick up the items. The nonprofit has 33 employees and more than 100 regular volunteers, he said. NW Furniture Bank will celebrate 10 years in June.
For $75, a family can get a home full of gently used or new furniture, Lemke said. A 7,500-square-foot retail store carrying some of the more choice donations helps support the charity work, while a 11,500-square-foot floor employs former inmates to take apart old mattresses for recycling.
Since its inception, Lemke said it has helped more than 22,600 people get furniture who otherwise could not afford it. Funneled there by other organizations that verify the clients are in need, they often include domestic violence victims, foster children who have aged out of the system and veterans.
“They are no different than you or I,” Lemke said. “We didn’t have the financial collapse of what a medical injury can do to you.”
Lifetime achievement award
Karl Anderson started working for the family business when he was 10, weeding a small flowerbed in front of what is now known as Concrete Technology Corp.
The company’s prestressed concrete technology has supported bridges, monorails and buildings from Alaska to Indonesia.
And while he’s pursued business for his Tideflats-based company, Anderson has been in pursuit of a far greater goal for him, his employees and the community.
“Happiness is not something you can go to Amazon and order online,” said Anderson, now the chairman of the company’s board. “… It’s not a tangible thing, and it’s not a destination. It’s a journey.”
When he became leader of the company in the 1980s, Anderson said the employees didn’t look happy. In 1988, Anderson authored a companywide memo, which urged employees to create top-quality products, even if it came at the expense of speed.
“We want each of our employees to be proud of their work because they’ve done their job right and in the best way they can,” the memo reads.
Under Anderson, the company’s profit-sharing program shifted to allow employees to take more of that money home to their families. A retirement plan also changed to the workers’ benefit, he said. And when workers wanted a forklift to replace one that was 40 years old and hard to find parts for, Anderson told them to buy a new one.
“They looked at us like we were from Mars,” he said.
Today the company has around 240 employees, and Anderson said they could use 30 to 40 more.
“We could have taken more work, but we don’t have the workers,” he said.
The jobs, which start at $15 per hour, require manual labor, and he said he has a hard time finding people who want to do that type of work and remain drug-free.
Over the years, Anderson has sat on more than three dozen boards and committees, many involving children, the arts and regional business.
Anderson said he almost didn’t accept the award. He looked at the list of people who had earned it before him: George Weyerhaeuser, Frank Russell, Melanie Dressel.
“I prefer to work quietly behind the scenes, let other people take the credit,” he said. “I’m just happy when they grab a hold of the reins and they’re happy.”
Distinguished leadership award
He could have worked anywhere in the country, but in 2004, Shahrokh Saudagaran became the inaugural dean for the Milgard School of Business.
“There was plenty of potential here to build a big business school from the ground up,” Saudagaran said. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1986. “If you are going to build a business school for somebody, why not build it for your alma mater?”
From his start until 2015, when he stepped down to become the director of the school’s Master of Accounting program, Saudagaran said the school set a high bar for excellence.
“Not everybody can drive to Seattle every day to go to school,” he said. “We sought to provide a UW-branded, world-class business education right here in the South Sound. That’s why I came here.”
The average tenure of a business school dean is 3 1/2 years, Saudagaran said.
“Having done three times that to grow the business school is gratifying,” he said.
UWT Milgard School of Business Business Leadership Awards
The award ceremony recognizes outstanding business leadership in the South Puget Sound for business leader of the year, small business leader of the year, nonprofit business leader of the year, lifetime achievement award and distinguished leadership award.
Time: Reception and check-in begins at 5 p.m. Dinner and program start at 6 p.m.
Date: Thursday, April 13.
Place: Greater Tacoma Convention Center, 1500 Broadway, Tacoma
Cost: $125 per person, or $1,000 for a table of eight.
Registration: Register online, or call 253-692-4580 for more information.