Remembering Tom Alberg, the Man Who Made Modern Seattle

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Tom Alberg, the business visionary who died of a stroke last Friday at age 82, may have been the most influential leader of his generation in Seattle, though in his shy, Swedish way he never would have agreed. Nor is he likely to have a successor.

Tom was also a friend, a business partner, and a co-inventor of civic schemes. I first came across him in writing a 1969 story in The Argus about the rising young establishment. Alberg had grown up in Seattle and went to Ballard High, but when he was at Harvard he helped form the ABC Club of reform-minded young Republicans: Tom Alberg, Chris Bayley (also a Seattleite), and Bruce Chapman of Illinois (a roommate of Alberg’s). 

The three, once they settled in Seattle, were loyal mainstays of the reform organization CHECC (Choose an Effective City Council) that modernized Seattle politics, with Chapman getting elected to the City Council and Bayley toppling the conservative kingpin, Prosecutor Charles Carroll. Republicans in those days were Dan Evans and Nelson Rockefeller acolytes. Bayley and Chapman eventually drifted rightward, but Alberg, a wise power behind the throne, ultimately became an Obama Republican.

Alberg’s steady path to wider influence came through his position in Perkins Coie, the Boeing legal firm and largest in town. Alberg perceived that Perkins needed to diversify its clients, particularly by spotting rising sectors of the law business, such as technology. That led to Alberg’s taking a senior executive role in McCaw Cellular, where Craig McCaw’s ability to “see around corners” greatly impressed the young Alberg.

As a lawyer, Alberg reluctantly helped engineer the merger with AT&T, and he long wondered about what a restless McCaw would have accomplished had he stayed the cellphone course. In effect, Alberg found out by forming a long partnership with Jeff Bezos of Amazon, the source of Alberg’s considerable fortune since he was an early investor and longtime board member.

Curiously, Alberg and I were involved in three publishing ventures. That reflected his keen sense of the importance of media for corporations and his commitment to civic progress. He became an investor in Seattle Weekly as it expanded to the Eastside in starting Eastsideweek in 1990. Earlier, Tom and I and others launched a high-minded quarterly, The New Pacific, that reflected his appetite for Northwest regionalism. TNP’s first editor was Eileen Quigley, who became a staunch friend and admirer of Tom’s as she moved to key positions in the thought-and-action worlds of carbon transition. TNP was an early effort to create a Northwest think tank, another passion of Tom’s and his close friend Paul Schell’s, which led to Tom’s solid backing of Bruce Chapman’s Discovery Institute.

As I was winding up my leadership of Town Hall Seattle (another Alberg beneficiary), Tom gave me a call and said that he thought a web-only news site could capture migrating advertising dollars. That led to his early participation in the formulation of Crosscut.com in 2007. That prediction about advertising dollars didn’t pan out, and I remember Alberg saying that in chancy ventures (including Amazon), you need to spot the moments to pivot to a new business plan. In Crosscut’s case that meant shifting to nonprofit status and (guided by Tom), the merger with KCTS.

Where Alberg’s far-sightedness did pan out was in perceiving that the Seattle area had a big opportunity to get Silicon Valley firms to migrate to the more affordable (at the time) Puget Sound region, where Microsoft and the University of Washington had laid the foundations. As the founder and principal leader of the foremost Seattle venture capital firm, Madrona Ventures, Alberg had attained the clout, connections, and trust of the Seattle business community, and he soon steered the local ship of state to this new tech-rich vision. 

This saga is narrated and generalized in the book that Alberg barely managed to finish and publish before his disabling stroke last fall, Flywheels: How Cities Are Creating Their Own Futures. The flywheel (an Amazon term) is set spinning when cities attract and hold talent and business and government line up to enable a tech-based future. In a sense, the book is a narrower version of the broad-minded Alberg many of us came to know and admire. As such, it is subject to the growing second thoughts about neoliberalism and techopolis.

If anyone created modern Seattle, Tom Alberg is right up there with Jim Ellis (fighting sprawl), Dan Evans (parks and education) Sen. Warren Magnuson (funding UW and its medical research), Scoop Jackson (environment and the military). Tom led a rich life devoted to family, sailing, organic farming, wines, and small hotels (the closest he came to a financial disaster was launching the new Four Seasons Hotel). He never sought the limelight, and there are few buildings or institutions named for him. 

His style was old-school. Like the good lawyer he was, he learned to keep quiet and listen until he had something clarifying to say. He stayed true to friends for 60 years, even when he differed from their approaches. He launched several hundred innovative companies. He perceived and helped restrain Jeff Bezos’ genius! 

Our mutual friend Eileen Quigley said it well: 

He was extraordinarily unassuming for a man of such prodigious skill and intelligence. He possessed a deep Scandinavian work ethic; a meticulous thoroughness and attention to detail that reflected both his lawyerly training but also his M.O.; and a calm, quiet command of any situation he was in. He is unique among the men I know and knew of his age, privilege, and trade in that he never felt the need to assert his ego, nor remind everyone he was the smartest man in the room, even though most likely he was. He had a very generous spirit and never once didn’t take time to meet with me when I asked him to help me solve a business problem I was struggling with. Every year on his birthday, I would send him an email, and no matter how busy he was, nor how famous he became, I would hear from him.”

In short, the best exemplar of Seattle’s deep traits. I fear this combination is unlikely to be repeated in the polarized, arrogant, mercantile world of modern Seattle.

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

13 COMMENTS

  1. The “modern Seattle” that handful of lawyers created last century is dystopian now that remote working is the default business operations paradigm for tech and other white-collar employers. Seattle no longer operates as a “flywheel” drawing creative types to start new companies, nor does it pull in hundreds of thousands of daily commuters to downtown offices on the mass transit those “visioneers” insisted was needed. Amazon does not need either all the Seattle office buildings that group thought would be the key element to everlasting regional prosperity, nor does it even need Seattle residents: Amazon migrated all its tech and corporate operations from Seattle to clouds of networked servers. What that group of guys left in their wake here was economic inequities, the worst state and local tax structure in the country for households (except the uber-rich like themselves), and a host of land use policies producing unneeded office buildings, excessive amounts of expensive one-bedroom apartments, and mass transit that is both grossly expensive in terms of regressive taxes and a failure in every respect that matters in comparison to mass transit everywhere else in the country.

    • Frank, Covid restrictions were the catalyst that lead to the now-antiquated downtown engine of growth, along with government mandates to close businesses, and donations to the workers for not working.
      Seattle would soon rebound IF our city leaders quit trying to placate the socialists and govern for the citizens, starting with prosecuting crime, eliminating the graffiti, toss the drug addled in hospitals or jails, respect our police, and fix the damn potholes.

  2. “… a Northwest think tank, another passion of Tom’s and his close friend Paul Schell’s, which led to Tom’s solid backing of Bruce Chapman’s Discovery Institute.”

    Well, I guess you can’t win ’em all. An organization opposed to evolution, climate change, mask mandates …? Looks like something went sour in the “think” tank. We need a better word for that kind of mental activity.

  3. What a lovely remembrance David. Alberg was a remarkable leader and as you and Eileen described, an all around nice guy. The best of Seattle.

  4. In my experience, Tom was an extraordinarily creative thinker and always forward-looking. I wish his mojo could be applied to some of the civic challenges our region faces today. We could use a think tank inspired by his example.

  5. I realize this is an obit but I’m reeling that the hostile-to-science Discovery Institute is being appreciated here, or called a “think tank.” A “religious values tank” maybe? A “cultural crusader tank?” Invite anyone to read the Pa. judge’s famous decision tossing out intelligent design, about the “utter waste of monetary and personal resources” which that Christian fake-science movement caused to some school districts. Sorry but … can we not gloss over what a low moment for Seattle’s intellectual reputation that was? P.S. Yes both my brothers are evolutionary biologists so I take it personally, as did they!

    • Alberg’s support of Discovery was mostly an expression of his loyalty to his old friend, Bruce Chapman, founder of Discovery. Tom helped Discovery get a 10-year grant from the Gates Foundation to support transportation studies, as the institute tried to broaden its areas beyond the “intelligent design” focus of its early years.

  6. And in the process Chapman manages to further stain his name, with association with George `what the poor need is supply side capitalism’ Gilder.

    — `The so-called “poor” are ruined by the overflow of American prosperity. What they need is Christian teaching from the churches …’

    No one ever got it perfectly right every step of the way. Some parts of this story would have been better forgotten.

  7. Another thank you David for this on Tom Alberg. As a commoner resident of Seattle, we once lived across the hall from him at the Watermark. I knew llittle of his talents, now I do and that respect in 1987 has been verified.
    Miriam

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