Business Columns & Blogs

Plenty of local business topics to intrigue us in 2015

Gee, too bad there wasn’t much to write about on the business scene this year.

• The two biggest local business stories of 2014 were Weyerhaeuser’s decision to vacate its landmark headquarters in Federal Way for an office project in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, and the proposed Seaport Alliance between the ports of Tacoma and Seattle.

Will those also be major stories in 2015?

Weyerhaeuser isn’t scheduled to make its move until 2016, so unless there’s some dramatic change in plans — or, for that matter, in the company — the most newsworthy element of the story is whether a buyer, tenant or new use can be found for the building and the campus.

As for the Seaport Alliance, will it be rendered irrelevant before it’s even formed and some specifics are provided as to what it’s supposed to do (beyond badgering federal and state governments for more money)? The protracted fight between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the resulting slowdown in cargo volumes at West Coast ports might just accomplish that.

In the meantime, the West Coast ports are getting increased national attention, for all the wrong reasons. The Wall Street Journal ran a story highlighting one apparel marketer’s frustrations in getting cargo stuck at the Port of Tacoma for weeks out to stores, which must have induced some cringes among those trying to promote the Puget Sound ports for their reliability and efficiency.

Competitors are noticing, too. Canadian Pacific’s website currently promotes four-day service from Vancouver to Chicago or Toronto. “Part of the global supply chain, we’re helping customers become more profitable with rapid, reliable rail,” CP says. Gee, whatever could they be referencing as a comparison?

Not that the Canadian ports have never known labor disruptions of their own, but they do represent a competitive alternative, one among multiple options that shippers will try in an emergency and may stick with if they like it. That list of options is growing. In 2016, the expanded Panama Canal is due to open. In 2020 a Chinese-financed canal in Nicaragua, on which construction began this month, is to open. Perhaps by then the West Coast labor dispute will have been settled, and the Seaport Alliance will have figured out how to erase the reputational damage from it.

• We’ve been tracking the retail sector over the course of the year, considering such trends and issues as retailers’ forays into financial services and electronic payments, and the competition between and future of the brick-and-mortar outlets vs. online.

One bit of news from early in the year made a reappearance in the headlines in a big way late in 2014, and will make an even bigger splash in 2015. In order to win federal regulatory approval of the combination of grocery competitors, Safeway and Albertsons, the sponsors of the deal agreed to unload 168 stores, including 146 to Bellingham-based Haggen. And yes, this column expressed skepticism when the deal was announced about assurances that no stores would close, since that’s not how mergers usually work. Turns out you do see something new every day.

What’s striking about this is that Haggen, a regional player with 18 stores and an uncertain future (it had closed locations of its Top Foods subsidiary, including one in Tacoma), is suddenly transformed into a player of significant size in the West. It’s a crowded space with focused players, but a larger and reinvigorated Haggen makes for an even more fascinating competitive landscape, and we’ll sort out how it makes it so.

• It wouldn’t be a year of business columns without multiple appearances of some perennial themes that, given how much news they’re generating at the moment, we’ll be discussing in 2015. Minimum wage (with Tacoma now the focus of a campaign for $15 per hour). Cybersecurity (if the Sony-North Korea confrontation didn’t wake up those asleep on this issue, nothing short of having their own systems nuked will). Taxes (especially with the governor having that certain gleam in his eye). Restructuring of education and health care. The future of cable companies such as Click. What Boeing is up to this time.

That should keep us more than busy, so with that in mind, use the holiday interlude for some relaxation. We’ve got a lot of ruminating, prognosticating, preaching and recommending ahead of us.

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