Wall Street vs. Green Street: Who is Doing Better?
The companies joining in this financial venture have been thinking big. They are attempting to build not only their own individual financial brands, but also a whole new conservation-based economy stretching over a thousand miles of the Northwest Pacific Coast. They've labeled their community Salmon Nation, after the area where Pacific salmon run.
Three of the financial organizations involved in building and branding Salmon Nation are Ecotrust, a self-described conservation organization promoting natural capital objectives in the Pacific Northwest and creator of the Salmon Nation concept; Portfolio 21, an investment company that works in partnership with Ecotrust objectives; and ShoreBank Pacific, a full-service bank formed by a partnership between Ecotrust and Chicago's ShoreBank Corp. All three are neighbors at Ecotrust's Natural Capital Center building in Portland, and all share in the vision of Salmon Nation.
In contrast to Wall Street, where profits and investor returns trump all, Salmon Nation is modeled on a broader principal where profits aren't necessarily everything because protecting the health of the planet while ensuring social equality are just as important.
Ecotrust: Dedicated to Economy, Ecology and Social Equality
Spencer Beebe founded the nonprofit Ecotrust in 1991 to preserve the temperate rain forests of his Northwest home and to spread the economic rewards from sustainable development among all the region's citizens, including Native Americans. He's a fourth-generation Portlander who had previously spent 14 years with The Nature Conservancy, serving as the organization's West Coast director. He also helped to found Conservation International.
Ecotrust's underlying principle is that sustainability is best achieved through the development of localized economies. To that end, it funds local and sustainable projects that fall roughly under the headings of food and farms, Native American, fisheries, and forestry.
On Wednesday, I sent Howard Silverman, a writer and analyst for Ecotrust, an email. "How are you guys doing amid this Wall Street mess? Are you singed, immune, engulfed? Please do tell."
Silverman promptly responded with a reply from Beebe. Speaking in particular about Salmon Nation's headquarters, Beebe says, "The Natural Capital Center is full and has been from day one. We're getting market rents, almost 4 million visitors, and host to over 2,000 conferences. We turn down a potential tenant every 1-2 weeks for lack of space." Sitting in the heart of Portland's Pearl District, the Natural Capital Center is a nexus for the green community. It hosts a farmer's market, retail shops including Patagonia, meeting spaces and restaurants.
As mentioned, Ecotrust has focused on building a "conservation economy" based on the principles of economy, ecology and (social) equality -- what Beebe describes as the three Es. In addition to his efforts in the Pacific Northwest, "Ecotrust Australia was launched last week based on careful analysis of Ecotrust and Ecotrust Canada as models for addressing native, community, environmental and economic needs in Australia." Sighting Thomas Friedman's new book “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” Beebe describes the Ecotrust economic communities as "bioregional arks supporting hundreds of Noahs (local leaders) and trying to inspire innovation around a new system-wide approach to conservation and development."
In 2004 Beebe repurposed the phrase Salmon Nation from a book Ecotrust published in 1999. It became a goal-defining phrase linking Ecotrust to the conservation economy theme. The genius in this concept is that the founders created a brand around a goal in which everyone in the Northwest can take ownership. Even those who aren't investors or account holders can take pride in the vision. Try that with Citibank, Merrill Lynch or Oppenheimer Funds, or any other Wall Street firm.
ShoreBank Pacific: Support Sustainable Local Business
ShoreBank Pacific is the implementation arm of Salmon Nation, a retail bank that services local depositors and makes loans to local businesses. Last spring, I met ShoreBank's dry-witted CEO, Dave Williams. "My children remember the time when I used to say recycling was a conspiracy to move garbage out of the landfills and into our garage," he says. And now imagine Williams, this fiscal conservative, running a green bank in the People's Republic of Portland.
"I understood the business reasons" for going green, Williams continues. "It's the right thing to do. Secondly, you can't have a business where you're going to go out, cut down all the trees, then shut down the mill since you've harvested all the trees and now have to wait 40 years to begin again. It doesn't work to harvest all the fish then shut down the canneries. So if you're looking for sustainability, and you're looking for sustainable communities, you've gotta have sustainable business, which means you've gotta do things in an environmentally sensitive way."
In 1997, Ecotrust and ShoreBank Corp. formed ShoreBank Pacific, opening its doors in a double-wide trailer as "the first commercial bank in the United States with a commitment to environmentally sustainable community development." It's a perfect example of what Ecotrust likes to do -- start and/or support unique businesses with a sustainable framework and spread the Salmon Nation mission.
So how is the bank doing? I asked this as I read that Washington Mutual has just been taken over by federal overseers.
"We, like many community banks, have avoided the mortgage mess, thinking that there are a lot of folks in the mortgage business and we don't need to go there,” Williams says. “Further, since we are privately held and therefore immune from the quarterly forces of tomorrow's earnings, we avoided the developer loans that so many community banks went after to bolster earnings. And we have always felt that buying the securities of the agencies is a mistake that would cause us to incur their risk when it isn't something that we want to incur ourselves. (Nevertheless we) are very concerned about the tariff that we will need to pay to the FDIC to rebuild the reserve fund for the folks who did play these games.
"As a result, we are very strong from a capital and liquidity perspective and are being approached by banks that are in a little worse shape to acquire them."
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