09 Sep

Out-of-state buys of local businesses underline Oregon’s identity as a corporate colony

McDonald’s, most people would agree, tastes like California. The original restaurant was in San Bernardino, the chain evokes what decades ago was known as the “California burger” (lettuce, tomato, mayo) and at least for the first decades, McDonald’s branches were mostly drive-ins.

Plus, only in California would anybody actually dress like the Hamburglar.

Little Big Burger tastes like Portland, or at least the exotic cuisine, food magazine cover boy Portland that has emerged in recent years. The burgers are cooked to order, the condiments are made in-house, and the concept comes from an upscale restaurant operator, not a milkshake machine salesman.

Little Big Burger fries are infused with truffle oil, which is not the aroma that typically rises out of a McDonald’s.

And, like so many other Portland institutions, Little Big Burger is being sold to out-of-state interests. Like so much around here, the key added ingredient is a distant zip code.

At $6 million, the Little Big Burger sale is actually the smallest in the recent wave of Oregon operations being sold across the state line. Precision Castparts, one of only three Oregon Fortune 500 companies – some places can match that number in a city block, or maybe a single skyscraper – was sold to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway for $37 billion, or 10 billion burgers. Standard Insurance, a local landmark ,was sold to a Japanese company, Planar Systems to a Chinese operation and Dave’s Killer Bread to the national company that delivers Wonder Bread.

And last week, Jeld-Wen, the door and window manufacturer that once seemed to make Klamath Falls a company town, and that briefly gave its name to Portland’s downtown stadium, announced it would be moving most operations to Charlotte, N.C.

Oregon, according to a long-term trend, appears to be zoned against corporate headquarters. Over decades, our banks and utilities have gone to out-of-state owners – Pacific Power was already owned by Berkshire Hathaway, and the holding company adding Precision Castparts to its portfolio may locate Oregon’s business center in Omaha – and our largest private employer, Intel, receives its “Dear Corporation” letters in Santa Clara, Calif. Oregon’s one-stop shopping empire, Fred Meyer, now stops in Cincinnati as a division of Kroger, and Meier & Frank, dating from Oregon territory, is now a branch of Macy’s.
Even the Trail Blazers have always had owners in Seattle or Los Angeles.

To some extent, maybe this all doesn’t matter so much. Paychecks can clear whether they’re signed in the West Hills or the Middle West, and buyers generally want to retain the value of their purchase; nobody thinks Dave’s Killer Bread is about to become a white and puffy habitat for grape jelly. Something can have a Portland identity regardless of home address; the company that makes “Portlandia” is based, of course, at Penn Plaza, New York City.

Still, there are some advantages to having local business decisions made locally, and not just in greater willingness to buy luxury suites at home team arenas. Companies with their top management living in the neighborhood (Hi, Nike) have a particular commitment to an area, both in local involvement of executives and employees and in philanthropy. The model is Minneapolis-Twin Cities, where a range of locally based corporations, including General Mills, 3M and Target, take on an extensive obligation to local needs and issues.

Portland seems unlikely ever to achieve that; whether or not we have the attitude, we don’t have the companies. (The sale of Precision Castparts leaves Oregon with just two Fortune 500 companies, Lithia Motors in Medford and Nike in Beaverton.) And admittedly, it was going to be a long time before Little Big Burger joined the list.

But back when our local companies were more local, the arrangement was a bit different. The I-205 Bridge is called the Glenn Jackson Bridge because – aside from “I-205 Bridge” being a not very interesting name – it was named for a longtime member/chairman of the Oregon Transportation Commission, who was also chair of Pacific Power, the one whose headquarters is now in Omaha. There are certainly questions about how much influence local corporate leadership should have, but it’s nice to call it on a local number.

It’s a stretch to see all of Portland’s out-of-town ownership reflected in the $6 million sale of Little Big Burger, even if it’s going to the company that also owns Hooters, less focused on local ingredients than on wings and other body parts.

But every time another bit of local identity and control slips away, it seems like another win for the Hamburglar.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/9/15.