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At 64, Jon Eliassen still feeds and breeds success

Sun., May 22, 2011, midnight

People who know him say Jon Eliassen is the busiest retired person they know.

After working for Washington Water Power, and then Avista Utilities, for 33 years, Eliassen retired in 2002 and went off in a new direction.

Within a few years he took on a second career, becoming executive director of the agency that recruited companies to Spokane, the Spokane Area Economic Development Council.

After leaving that job behind, Eliassen jumped back into the corporate suite, taking the job as CEO and president of Red Lion Hotels Corp. He’s still there and said he hasn’t finished the goal of retooling the hotel group, which has 45 hotels in the Western U.S.

The 64-year-old shrugs off suggestions he’s doing anything unusual. “I just come down to work every day, like everyone else,” he said.

After retiring from Avista as its chief financial officer, Eliassen found himself recruited by the Spokane EDC board, which just lost an executive director. It wasn’t a job he ever coveted.

“The last thing I thought I’d ever do was to run an EDC,” he said. “I didn’t know what one looked like.”

He served as interim executive director until 2007. At that point the EDC was folded into Greater Spokane Incorporated, the group that replaced the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce.

He kept busy, becoming chair of the board of Itron, the Liberty Lake utility company and one of the most successful makers of utility hardware and software in the world.

In January 2010 he agreed to take the interim roles of CEO and president at Red Lion, which like other hospitality companies was forced to reassess its business plans in the middle of a severe downturn.

He said he’d stay on for roughly a year.

A year later Eliassen agreed to become full-time CEO. He is careful saying how much longer he’ll keep the job. He enjoys working on building a stronger management team, and he’s willing to take anywhere from six more months to a few years to get the company on firm footing.

This ability to move and restart his career is part of Eliassen’s goal of active retirement. “My idea of retirement is to continue to do things on a flexible schedule, but continue to do something,” he said.

A workhorse by nature, Eliassen still has enough energy to sit on four boards of directors, in addition to long days of deskwork and travel needed to run Red Lion.

In addition to the Itron board, he’s been a board member for Red Lion for eight years. He also serves on the board of tech company IT-Lifeline, based in Liberty Lake, as well as on the board of the state-funded Washington Technology Center, based in Seattle.

He’s become a go-to board member and business consultant for two reasons, say friends and associates. He’s extremely well-connected, and he focuses on the upsides in any business challenge, said Tom Simpson, who has managed Northwest Venture Associates, a Spokane-based venture capital group.

“Jon has an amazing intellect, broad connections, a clear vision of what needs to be done and an unselfish desire to fuel economic growth in Spokane,” Simpson said.

“Plus he has a warm heart. All of that makes Jon popular, and a utility player in multiple capacities and in a variety of industries,” he added.

In 1997, Eliassen persuaded Simpson to move back to Spokane to start Spokane Capital Management, a precursor to Northwest Venture Associates. Eliassen, the CFO of Avista by then, often dropped in on Simpson, just to say hi and pass on some ideas.

Eliassen often showed up dressed in his trademark outfit: blazer, no tie and solid black Jos. A. Bank turtleneck.

When he offered advice, it was never critical, Simpson said.

Those skills led Red Lion’s board chairman, Don Barbieri, to offer Eliassen the head job at the company Barbieri and family members helped start in the 1970s.

Eliassen, Barbieri said, had the analytic skills the hotel group needed, along with a vision for where the company needs to be in 10 years.

Earlier this year, Eliassen oversaw the $71 million sale of the Seattle Red Lion hotel. Eliassen pulled together a deal whereby the buyer continued using the Red Lion name, to help maintain the company’s presence in the important Seattle market, Barbieri said.

“He’s a follow-through guy, not a skipping rock,” he said. “Some of us are skippers, doing something but not working our way through the whole process of what has to be done. But he’s the kind who will drill down and get results.”

The visionary thing is not a phrase Eliassen himself uses to describe what he does. He prefers saying he likes to find great team players, then empower them to achieve their best results.

But others give him credit for figuring out the key steps to realize the potential of good ideas.

Rich Hadley, CEO and president of Greater Spokane Incorporated, said Eliassen has three key management skills: “He’s strategic, at the core. But he is also very practical and efficient.”

Hadley said Eliassen gets a share of the credit for the growth and development of Spokane’s University District. That complex of university buildings, labs and companies has been taking shape for much of the past 10 years, and has been an economic development goal of civic leaders for longer than that.

Back in 2001, Eliassen, who was working at Avista, arranged for a pilot to fly over the downtown area and take dozens of photographs of the proposed University District. In 2002, when area leaders made their annual Washington, D.C., “fly-in” to champion projects that needed funding and support, Eliassen and chamber officials were able to use the photos to help explain the goal.

When meeting with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Hadley said the photos helped make the district a concrete idea with clear benefits. “We ended up meeting with Senator Murray for an hour” talking about that plan, Hadley said.

That meeting led to funding for extending Riverside Avenue into what is now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Hadley noted.

Hadley and others who’ve worked with Eliassen say his commitment to economic development is directly due to having worked at Washington Water Power, the publicly traded utility that has also been a seedbed to a number of spin-off companies. Among the companies that WWP, then Avista, helped spawn include Itron, Advantage IQ and ReliOn.

Former WWP chairman Paul Redmond said Eliassen fully embraced the utility’s philosophy of strong commitment to the economic well-being and social nurturing of the community it served.

Redmond, who retired in 1998, lives half the year in Spokane and the rest at his home in Southern California.

Working with Eliassen, Redmond saw a guy who was serious about his job, and at times, “almost a workaholic.”

But he had a fun side and the ability to relax away from the office. “Jon really has a great sense of humor. But you have to get him away from work to find it.”

Redmond said he wasn’t surprised to see Eliassen retire from Avista, at age 56. “Jon was always looking forward to an early retirement,” said Redmond. “He had other things to do before his working career was over.”

Eliassen said the retirement in 2002 was thought out well ahead of time. “When I left Avista, I knew I wasn’t going to sit home and plant flowers.” He planned to do something with his business connections, but also take time to travel with his wife, Val.

Much of his own business success, Eliassen said, is the result of having worked with several strong and supportive business leaders in the community. He sums it up, referring more than once to the motto his Twisp High School 1965 graduating class adopted: “I am a part of all I’ve met.”

His future, however, follows the mantra that work should be fun, but in the end, is merely work.

“I like to tell people, ‘You should take time off or take a sabbatical if you have the chance. Do what you want to do, while you still can.’  Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

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