Business

Bill Virgin: 2015 kept us busy with unusual local stories and headline stars

Haggen’s rise and fall captivated readers in 2015.
Haggen’s rise and fall captivated readers in 2015. adickson@theolympian.com

It was a weird year for business news in this region.

How weird? So weird that the story that generated the most reader interest and commentary did not involve Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, the ports or China, but a hitherto obscure Bellingham-based grocery store chain.

The meteoric rise of Haggen from a company unknown outside its little corner of Washington to a would-be significant West Coast grocery chain, and the subsequent spent-rocket plunge of the company into bankruptcy, fascinated readers and pundits. That fascination was rooted in just how short and audacious the trip was, and how many people — employees, customers, vendors, investors — were scorched on the way up and down.

The Haggen story has one more chapter to go because what’s left of the parent company has proposed putting the 33 remaining stores in Washington and Oregon up for sale. It’s possible that the buyers will maintain the name, but why would they? The problem of Haggen name recognition has been solved, but now people know it for all the wrong reasons. It may not endure as a name on the facade of grocery stores, but as a subject of cautionary case studies and as a warning to others, its legacy is secure.

Haggen wasn’t the only topic we tackled in this space in 2015. In reviewing the list for this year-in-review column, we find some other subjects, issues and controversies making recurring appearances.

The Northwest Seaport Alliance. In terms of substance, the merging of seaport operations in Tacoma and Seattle was the nonstory of the year. Plenty of news involved the international maritime sector — the West Coast port slowdown, China’s economic slowdown — with big implications for both Northwest ports, but much of it was of a nature that the alliance has little control or influence over, nor much of a plan or interest in dealing with those short-term developments and long-term trends.

Boeing didn’t make big headlines in 2015, on the order of deciding where it might put a new assembly line. That there’s been a contrast of the quiet, steady march of the 737 Max to completion to the high-profile, delay-plagued 787 is good news for the company and employees, if not so dramatic for those writing about it.

But Boeing still generated plenty of food for mental chewing, including the naming of a new chief executive (who has yet to put a definitive stamp of his own on the company) and the regional economy’s continued dependence on the health of aerospace as a driver of prosperity.

Then there was Weyerhaeuser, who did make big headlines, proposing to gobble up the region’s other major timberland holder — Plum Creek — while continuing to trim itself to two (or maybe one) lines of business with a possible sale of the cellulose fibers business.

Next year will see Weyerhaeuser’s move to Seattle, the possible sale of the Federal Way headquarters building, resolution of the pending Plum Creek deal and maybe some other structural or strategic changes. Expect to see the company in this space next year.

Gasoline prices are always fodder for conversation and columnizing (“I can’t believe they’re so high!” “Have you seen how low they are?”). In 2015 it was a lot of the latter, and 2016 may bring still more of it, given how much is still being produced. The effect of low oil, gasoline and natural gas prices was extensive and profound. Aside from putting more money into the pockets of consumers and businesses, low gasoline prices provided the political cover to turn a proposed gas-tax increase to fund road construction in this state into a relatively uncontroversial matter.

Some topics we ruminated on may have already faded from memory (Starbucks and it’s “let’s make our baristas pester customers on the subject of race” initiative). Others are old favorites or continuing stories — sports arenas, the fate of KPLU — and will carry over into 2016.

If there’s one theme that permeated many of the columns in 2015, it’s the continuing disruption, usually driven by technology or economics or both, hitting so many industries and sectors, from retailing to higher education to health care to manufacturing to media to transportation (driverless trucks and pilotless planes). That’s not going to stop, or even slow down, in 2016.

And that’s what will drive the conversation in our weekly get-togethers in the new year. To get ready for that, we’ll spend time in the next few weeks discussing where we are economically (spoiler alert for those who’d like to avoid bad news over the holidays: it’s a real mixed bag with some signs of wobbliness out there) and how Tacoma is positioned for 2016.

That’s the plan, anyway, but it can always be interrupted by breaking news — such as a minnow in the grocery (or any other) business deciding it wants to graduate to whale status, overnight.

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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