Politics & Government

'Essence of an innovator'

A state agency with a new name also has a new director.

Former Microsoft executive Rogers Weed took over the state Department of Commerce – previously known as the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development – in March. Weed replaces director Juli Wilkerson, who retired after serving five years in that role.

Weed enters state government at a challenging time. The economy has slowed, statewide unemployment is at 9.1 percent and more cuts in state government are planned to address a projected budget deficit. With that in mind, Weed wants to help the state compete for federal stimulus funds recently made available by the Obama administration for energy-related investments.

Weed, 45, was born and raised in South Carolina. He attended Duke University and received his MBA in marketing from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Much of his work experience comes from a 15-year stint at software giant Microsoft where he managed teams in the Windows, mobile devices, online content and consumer software divisions.

Since leaving the software company and before his appointment, he explored and continues to have an interest in clean energy and climate solutions.

“I really wanted to dig into the whole clean energy and climate issue because how are we going to solve our climate change issue and transition into a clean energy infrastructure?” he said. “That’s a huge business opportunity as well as a social issue.”

To that end, Weed volunteered his time with the Olympia-based nonprofit Climate Solutions and also consulted with a clean energy startup V2 Green, a business creating software to help utility companies manage plug-in hybrid vehicles, he said. Before long he caught the attention of Gov. Chris Gregoire and was appointed to the role of director in March.

“Rogers is the very essence of an innovator – as evidenced by his high-level contributions to Microsoft products ranging from Windows to Encarta to Pocket PCs,” the governor said when she announced Weed as the new director in March.

Weed lives and has an office in Seattle but also spends about three days a week in Olympia. He is married and has three sons.

How did your time at Microsoft prepare you for your current role?

In more ways than I would have thought at first. Microsoft is a pretty large, complex organization with a lot of different stakeholders. … Certainly having worked for one of the largest employers in the state helps me to understand the mind-set of business and how government can help or not help them be successful.

Just like Microsoft has a portfolio strategy, we need to think about the different state industry sectors and what their needs are. The frame that I would bring turns out to be a useful frame for thinking about this job.

Are companies offering clean energy solutions important for this state?

They certainly represent the next potentially big companies that we could have in our state. A less obvious example is if Microsoft comes up with a version of Windows that is 10 percent more energy efficient. That could be a major selling point for them. Or maybe it’s a law firm starting a practice around clean energy. You can go industry by industry and it’s hard to find ones that wouldn’t have an opportunity around a clean energy solution.

Is this state in a better position than others when it comes to clean energy and the future of clean energy?

Could you say it’s ours to lose? I wouldn’t go that far. I’d say we have a chance to be competitive. I do think our state has a history of innovation that is pretty rich, going back to Boeing, Starbucks, Amazon.com, Costco Wholesale and certainly Microsoft with personal computers. We have a storied history of innovation in this state and innovation is going to be required to make this transition. But do we have any sort of natural birthright to being leaders here? That’s not clear to me, so we need to be focused on it and investing to make it happen.

What have you been doing the first nine weeks on the job?

I picked a couple things to focus on – besides where’s the bathroom and introducing myself to 148 state legislators.

The first thing I picked was aerospace because I felt there were some key decisions coming up about Boeing making some production location decisions in the next six to 12 months, and the difficulty with the strike they had in the fall. So I thought anything I can do to get involved in that situation and increase their chance of success was going to be a big priority. The second one was energy. As I looked at the job, it seemed like there was one obvious place where there were giant pools of investment capital for our state to compete for and that was in the Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. There are $30 billion to $40 billion of federal investment being held at that level for allocation based on competitive proposals. If there’s anything I can do to help our state be more organized to compete for that money, that should be an obvious priority.

In the 20 years that you have been in the state, where is the economy today? Is this the worse it has been in 20 years?

We’ve had our share of boom and bust cycles, largely around Boeing’s fortunes over the years. When the dot-com market crashed we felt that more than most states, but what we’re in now is certainly a deeper unemployment situation that we’ve been in the past 10, 15 years. Prior to the last 12 months our economy was performing well. We were hit later than most states and harder because we’re a very trade dependent economy. But how will we come out? I don’t have a crystal ball but I feel we have some fundamental advantages that should position us well, such as our diverse economy, our geographic position and quality of life. Those will position us well as we come out of the recession.

What doesn’t this state do well?

We are a higher cost, higher value state; we’re not a low-cost, race-to-the-bottom kind of state. That means we need to continue to foster those things that make us attractive even as a higher cost state, like how innovative we are and the quality of our education system. We have to make sure those remain competitive because right now, at least, on a pure fiscal cost of being in the state there are other places that are more attractive. The real question is: Do you get into the tax policy and tax structure and are there opportunities to optimize that better yes or no? I don’t know yet. And then there are all of the soft costs of doing business here such as transportation and quality of workforce. I hope in three or four months I’ll be a lot more articulate about that.

What do you have in store for South Sound?

I can’t tell you that right now. I know Tacoma would really like to keep Russell Investments in the city but that’s getting kind of touchy because now it’s a Seattle-Tacoma thing. But as opposed to them leaving the state, I’m going to do everything I can to keep Russell in the city. I have three lenses on about how I’m thinking about the economy and the business community and how we engage with them. One is a sector lens, talking to aerospace and life sciences about their priorities, for example. Another lens is geography: What’s going on in the South Sound or Spokane? The third is company size: What Boeing and Microsoft need from the state is way different than what a startup or small company needs that can’t pay a lobbyist to come down and work their issues every legislative session. I’m trying to look at all three of those dimensions: sector, geography and company size to really develop a set of priorities for our commerce plan.

How do you avoid being viewed as someone who might work too closely with Microsoft?

Well, that’s something I have to be cautious about. My priorities really don’t relate directly to Microsoft, but if I thought they should, I wouldn’t hesitate to do that. For me, it’s a question of taking my job seriously in its entirety. In some ways, especially in the beginning, I might be taking Microsoft a little too much for granted because I know the company, its priorities and its industry dynamics. If anything I may be erring a little on the other side more than I should just because I understand that situation pretty well.

What would be the biggest mistake for this state right now?

Raising taxes on businesses right now would be very tough. Holding that line on taxes was the right decision because companies are struggling right now just to stay afloat. I realize there are other points of view on that but in my job that stance was important for preserving the company base in this state and helping them live another day so they can be there with jobs when things improve.

Rolf Boone:360-754-5403