Each year, we report on myriad businesses and leaders that are so amazing, it would be impossible for us to pick just four to bestow our annual Innovation, Distinction, Excellence, and Achievement Awards upon. That’s why we rely on our readers to tell us all about their favorites in four diverse categories. The following story contains the results of that call to action. You’ll learn about a charitable restaurateur, a pioneering technology solution firm, a Huskies football star-turned-leader, and a generations-old family bakery. Read on to discover why our readers felt these four are deserving of one of our coveted light bulb IDEA Awards trophies.
For Bellevue-based serial entrepreneur Ryan Neal, everything is about efficiency. Cutting waste and speeding up processes, he said, have been at the center of the more than 15 companies he has purchased or started over the course of his career.
So, even as a self-admitted “nontechie,” Neal saw an opportunity in 2013, when he and a business partner recognized massive inefficiencies in the traditional consulting industry.
“The way that technology is changing and rapidly improving renders the old traditional consulting model obsolete,” Neal said, referring to many consulting companies that have long provided only strategic guidance, or acted only as staffing agencies, without filling the gaps in between or holding themselves accountable to results.
“We think that’s a very inefficient, broken model,” Neal said. “So, we decided to create a company that helps businesses across industries with strategy and delivery and then hold ourselves pretty hardcore accountable to the ROI for the solutions that we create.”
That’s how Blueprint Technologies began: as a small, ambitious startup in Bellevue with one employee and a big mission. Originally, the company focused solely on consulting but pivoted two years ago to include a focus on aspects of technology. In seven years, the company has grown into a global brand, with more than 700 employees, making it one of the fastest-growing private companies in Washington state two years in a row.
Neal credits Blueprint’s trajectory of success to its high-quality technology products and solutions, which until a few years ago were marketed solely by word of mouth.
“For the first four years, we didn’t have a marketing department, and for the first five years, we didn’t have a sales department,” Neal said. “We wanted to grow quickly but without those things because that means that your customers are exceedingly happy with what you’re providing them, and they want more of it and want all their friends to have more if it, too. For years of our growth, it was almost entirely referral-based, both for our customers and for our employees. More than half of our talent acquisition (still) comes from internal referrals, which I think is also a big measure of our success.”
The solutions and products that Blueprint’s customers are so happy with are complex and varied. All of them, however, work to improve efficiency — from analyzing data to automating predictions across supply chain processes — which is increasingly urgent in today’s corporate climate.
“We call it the Amazon effect: What Amazon is doing forces everybody else to move two to three times faster,” Neal said. “It’s putting an intense amount of pressure on traditional industries, and these companies that have been around for generations are now going out of business. So, the fact that all of our products and solutions are designed to automate and eliminate waste of motion, waste of effort, to make businesses more efficient, can be huge for them.”
And rather than use a classic model of establishing contracts with companies meant to last five or 10 years, Neal said that Blueprint is staunchly built on a firm belief of “working ourselves out of a job.”
“Most of our projects are anywhere from 90 days to 18 months,” he said. “If the customer chooses, we move our solutions into either a licensing model or value-based pricing that allows them to tie the money that they’re paying us for the solution to an actual business outcome they want to achieve.”
The approach of cutting waste, serving customers and employees with integrity, and working out solutions for different industries in its own innovation lab keeps Blueprint Technologies in the enviable position of consistent growth without having to cut quality. For this, Neal thanked his team of employees, saying that the company has found success by “finding good people who like to work together on cool projects.” — ZB
Legacy Business of the Year
On Bothell’s Main Street, nestled in among modern storefront after modern storefront, is a building that stands out: Its narrow frame and front brick exterior look to have withstood the test of time more so than any other neighboring structure. This impression is proved accurate when one sees the text on the bright blue canopy above the entrance: “Hillcrest Bakery,” it reads. “Family Owned & Operated Since 1934.”
Today, the Kaskes family owns the bakery, and their baking legacy actually precedes that of Hillcrest Bakery itself. Bakers since before anyone can remember, family members have been making a living off of perfectly formed and frosted Dutch pastries as early as the 1830s.
The family’s flagship store is in Wormer, Holland, and still is operated by extended family.
Within Hillcrest Bakery — which resembles a small, European bistro, complete with cobblestone floors and an intimate dining area — there are two clocks just adjacent to their coffee station: one displaying the time in Bothell; the other set to Wormer’s time.
The family’s acquisition of Hillcrest Bakery is largely thanks to the late Peter Kaskes. Peter grew up in Wormer, learning technical baking skills and traditional recipes with his father and older brothers. By the time he entered adulthood, he was a proficient baker and soon met the love of his life, Leida. Leida and Peter survived the German occupation of Holland and, once World War II ended, married and emigrated to Vancouver, B.C., to start a new life.
Around this time, Hillcrest Bakery was finding its stride as a new bakery in Bothell. A man named Frank Cleal and his wife originally opened the bakery in 1934 a few blocks down from its original location. After a couple of storefront occupations up and down Main Street, Cleal settled into the current spot in 1949.
The Cleals operated Hillcrest Bakery for more than 20 years but, eventually, Frank Cleal was ready to retire. In 1958, he sold the bakery to a Dutch man named Bernie Holtrop, who resumed operations with an infusion of classic, Dutch pastries.
Meanwhile, in Vancouver, Peter Kaskes was searching for opportunities to bake and coming up empty-handed. His work status in Canada prevented him from opening a bakery of his own, so he began expanding his search. A family friend informed him that the new owner of a bakery in Bothell was looking to hire a full-time Dutch baker. Peter would be a perfect fit.
Peter leapt at the opportunity, and soon was hired on staff at Hillcrest Bakery. He had to leave his beloved wife and their six young children in Vancouver during the week, but would come home every weekend, feeling fulfilled in his work.
Holtrop took a liking to his dedicated and talented baker, and, when the time came for him to retire, he offered Peter the chance to purchase the bakery with no upfront costs. Peter was able to move his family to Bothell and realize his dream of running a bakery, just as his father had. The Kaskes children would grow up working shifts at the bakery and learning the skills of the trade, as he had.
In 1965, the Kaskes family assumed operations of Hillcrest Bakery. Peter’s youngest son, Bob, recalled waking up at 2 a.m. during his freshman year of high school to core strawberries or do other prep work for the fresh-baked goods.
“Every person in the family has their hand in the bakery in some way or another,” Bob said. Only one of his nephews hasn’t had a shift at Hillcrest, but he does work at a bakery in Bellingham, so his roots in the trade remain.
When Peter died in 1986, Bob and two of his siblings, Barb and Pete Jr., formed a collective to operate the company.
The third generation of Kaskes contributes to the family tradition, as well. Bob’s oldest, Chazz, manages the shop and focuses on business development. Barb’s son, Neal, is in the kitchen, mastering baking techniques under the expertise of his uncles.
And Leida, the boys’ grandmother, still picks up a shift on Saturdays.
These stories, past and current, are detailed in family photos lining the long wall opposite the dessert case. Every customer who enters gets a glimpse at the years that went into making that perfectly sweet marzipan roll or tart apple bear claw, and the Kaskes will share their rich history with anyone who inquires.
“We’re not leveraging family as a buzzword,” said Chazz. “I’ve been adamant about that: It’s not a selling point; it’s part of our DNA, and we’ve stayed true to that.” — MM
John Howie Restaurant Group
Though celebrity chef and restaurateur John Howie said there are many on the Eastside who think he’s a fictional marketing persona — “Wait, there’s a real John Howie?” — those who do know the man could argue that his name is almost as synonymous with steak as it is with charitable giving.
After all, if one were to spot Howie out and about somewhere other than at his wildly successful local restaurants — which include Beardslee Public House, Wildwood Spirits Co., Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar, or John Howie Steak — the sighting would likely occur at some charity auction or benefit gala. That’s because Howie and his John Howie Restaurant Group always are fundraising, volunteering, or giving something to somebody in need.
In all, Howie estimates his restaurant group has generated the equivalent of more than $2 million in funds, donated time, services, gift certificates, and in-kind goods. As one might imagine, all this giving has garnered Howie and his restaurants a fair amount of accolades.
In 2014, for example, Howie and his restaurant group were honored for their commitment to the community by Secretary of State Kim Wyman with the National Association for Secretaries of State Medallion award and the Corporations for Communities award.
These are just two of the many honors bestowed upon the business for its charity work since its founding in 2002 with the opening of the first brand, Seastar. Countless other honors have been bestowed by the City of Bellevue, the Overlake Service League, and more.
Most recently, Howie returned from the eighth annual Taste of the NFL challenge, where he represented the Seattle Seahawks with donations totaling $170,764 — the equivalent of 850,000 meals — for Seattle-based Food Lifeline and the honors of having raised the most money of any of the other 31 National Football League teams as part of the Kick Hunger Challenge.
“(The Taste of the NFL) is a party held the night before the Super Bowl in the city where the Super Bowl is being held,” Howie explained. “And the Taste of the NFL founders, knowing that the players and the chefs are a little competitive at times, eight years ago, decided to start what they called the Kick Hunger Challenge. You raise money for your food bank in your city, and if you raise the most money of any other city, the Taste of the NFL then gives you an additional $10,000 to give to your food bank.”
This year, the funds raised from the challenge came from three sources over the last six months or so, Howie said: a celebrity poker tournament, a football-themed food exhibition known as the Taste of the Seahawks, and a charity auction.
But this is only the tip of the restaurant group’s proverbial charitable-giving iceberg. For 18 years now, Howie has been hosting a free Thanksgiving dinner for low-income families. He creates signature cocktails and dishes, assigning proceeds to charities like the American Heart Association. He and his wife co-host events benefiting charities like the Ronald McDonald House and the March of Dimes. The group also distributes hundreds of gift certificates for free meals to area groups and schools.
Hopelink, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Ducks Unlimited, Bellevue Lifespring, Olivecrest. The list of charitable organizations for which the restaurant group has cut checks, donated time, or offered discounted catering rates, goes on and on.
Howie’s favorite charity? Anything having to do with children, he said.
“(Kids) can’t really change their situation,” Howie said. “It’s the parents that have to change their situation, and we need to help them. If we do that, then we’re helping the kids. (In particular), the Northwest Children’s Fund has always been a favorite of mine.”
Howie noted that the Muscular Dystrophy Association also holds a special place in his heart.
“My youngest son has a mild form of muscular dystrophy. Now it’s not completely debilitating, but it is something that he’s had to deal with all his life,” Howie said. “So that’s one that is after my heart a little bit.” — JK
Leader of the Year
Hotel executive Denny Fitzpatrick has led people since playing quarterback at the University of Washington in the 1970s, but he scored a leadership touchdown in 2011, when he developed five simple statements that have changed his employees’ lives and made already good hotel teams even better.
“I have found out … these cover pretty much anything behavior-wise, culture-wise in any industry,” said Fitzpatrick, general manager of Willows Lodge, an 84-room boutique luxury hotel in Woodinville’s wine country.
Fitzpatrick, general manager at Willows since mid-2014, was running the Hotel 1000 in downtown Seattle when he created the “Five I’s,” which he’s since employed at Willows Lodge and shared with other businesses.
There are five because it was Hotel 1000’s fifth year in 2011, when he developed them. Fitzpatrick, who joined that property in 2008, wanted to advance the already successful hotel even further beyond its catchy guiding acronyms of WWF (wow, whimsical, and fun), SOB (standards of brilliance), and CME (create memorable experiences) with a catchy new guidepost.
He wanted to get at the heart of issues that still plagued operations, even in a successful property — issues like defensiveness, finger pointing among departments, or complaining without offering solutions. The Five I’s first-year impact was immediate.
“Game-changer, record year,” Fitzpatrick said.
The Five I’s help employees, managers, and leaders improve themselves in ways that also benefit the group. They’re common-language guides to personal growth.
“I see people change,” he said.
In 2012, when The Hotel 1000 team was discussing annual business goals, Fitzpatrick asked whether Five I’s was done. Six employees spontaneously said, “No,” recalled Fitzpatrick. He asked one woman why she said that. “She goes, ‘Because they’re changing me.’ ”
He continued the Five I’s until the 120-room hotel sold in mid-2014. After the ownership and hotel management company changed, Fitzpatrick, who was regional director for management firm Benchmark, moved to Willows, another Benchmark property he oversaw as regional director, to stay with the firm. The Five I’s transferred with him.
Willows — with its attractive rooms, grounds, spa, Barking Frog restaurant, and location — already had a great reputation and performed well, Fitzpatrick said, but the property has broken performance records each year since.
“When Denny came in and introduced the Five I’s, we kind of looked at it and joked about drinking the Kool-Aid,” said Court Knoop, a Willows food and beverage manager. “But once we actually started living it and believing in it, it really started making a change in the culture. The whole culture has shifted, and we started communicating with each other, and we were able to have hard conversations with each other, which, beforehand, we would get really defensive. … It has been a game-changer for the property.”
Fitzpatrick, himself, has made impressions, too.
Rhanda Rosselot, Willows marketing manager, said Fitzpatrick has had a huge impact on her life.
“Denny is one of the most thoughtful, passionate, and caring individuals, who leads his team by example,” she said. “His charismatic demeanor and natural leadership qualities inspire others to achieve their greatest self.”
At UW, Fitzpatrick was casting the mold for that person, getting most of his QB snaps in 1973 and 1974.
“Being a quarterback, you have to lead, you have to show strength,” he said. “When you’re in the huddle and you’re behind 24-nothing and the linemen are looking at you, if they see fear, they give up. If they see hope and we’re going to do it just one play at a time, it just lights up the huddle. So I take that same attitude and approach in
Wearing No. 14, Fitzpatrick rushed for 249 yards in his last game, a 24-17 win in his hometown of Spokane over Washington State, a single-game record for a UW QB that still stands, and won the Guy Flaherty Award in 1974 for most inspirational player, an award voted on annually by players since 1908, making it the football program’s oldest team award. Fitzpatrick was celebrated on the field as a Husky Legend before UW’s opening game last season.
While his dream of going pro didn’t materialize, he found a passion for the hotel business, thanks to a UW alum and total stranger who sent him a card after his final game, congratulating him on the award and season, and urging him to call if he ever wanted to learn more about the hotel industry. Fitzpatrick saved the card and, needing a job, called that alum, Dave Evans, then an executive in the company managing what’s now the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. They met, Evans talked about the industry and arranged an interview, and Fitzpatrick was hired as a front-desk agent. The rest is history.
“I believed him,” Fitzpatrick said of Evans’ offer, which changed Fitzpatrick’s life. That sincerity guides Fitzpatrick’s messages today. “I’ve never written that if I’ve never meant it.”
He stayed at the Olympic until it closed for renovations, then worked at different hotels in Seattle and around the United States, including as general manager of the Beverly Hilton in California, working for Merv Griffin. Fitzpatrick and his wife, Karen, returned to Seattle, where two of their three daughters live, to run Hotel 1000.
Married 46 years, the couple also has four grandchildren. Now 67, Fitzpatrick said Willows is his last hotel, but he’s having too much fun to retire, even as he deals with Parkinson’s disease, which affects his right side.
“I’m finding ways for me to run it, not it to run me,” he said. — JS