Vanessa Sturgeon and Henry Wessinger reflect on how they carry on their family heritage.
Beer and real estate: Two sectors of the economy that brought two Portland businessmen fame and fortune. The master of beer was Henry Weinhard, a German immigrant who founded a brewery in Portland in 1862 and whose namesake beer continues today. The real estate entrepreneur, Tom Moyer, left an indelible mark on the city’s skyline, with two iconic buildings to his name: the Fox Tower, completed in 2000, and the 30-story Park Avenue West building, opened in 2016 and completed two years after his death.
The descendants of Weinhard and Moyer are forging their own paths in today’s evolving economy. Henry Wessinger, 65, the great- great-grandson of Henry Weinhard, recently launched a nonprofit, State of Safety, which advocates for gun safety. Vanessa Sturgeon, 40, the granddaughter of Tom Moyer, leads TMT Development, the commercial real estate firm her grandfather founded in the late 1980s. Last year she branched out by launching an Opportunity Zones fund, Sturgeon Development Partners.
In January Oregon Business sat down with Sturgeon and Wessinger to discuss their grandfathers’ legacies, how their family name has influenced their own careers and the responsibility that comes from being born into privilege.
(Photos by Jason E. Kaplan).
This interview has been edited and condensed.
OB: How important were your grandfathers in shaping your approach to business?
Vanessa Sturgeon: The biggest lesson I Iearned from him about real estate is that so much of it is based on what you feel in your gut about a location. He focused less on demographics and data than he did on his gut. I learned to mix both things because the world has changed; you need to back up your gut with data now to obtain financing. I have learned to be confident in my gut reactions to site location. That was something he was amazing at.
Henry Wessinger: I think the traditions that were established by my great-great-grandfather and by his daughter, my great-grandmother, and my grandparents and parents have remained the same: the importance of being in the community and being part of the community. My great-great-grandfather arrived here prior to Oregon becoming a state. My great-great-grandmother traveled across the plains and ended up in Oregon City, and they met here — two German immigrants who met and decided this was their place.
I think the commitment to place is part of the legacy. Commitment to place means being involved with the community beyond the specific business you are involved with. That is the tradition that has been passed down. I am sure that for you, Vanessa, your involvement in the community allows you to understand the community and be committed to it.
VS: Henry said it really well. It is one of the things I really appreciated about my grandfather: He gave his employees the grace and the time during the workday for community service. He did that long before it was discussed as being good for a business. I am on four boards right now. I chair the New Avenues for Youth board. We work with youth who are homeless. Being part of that organization for the past 13 years has taught me just as much as being at the helm of a company.
[Tom Moyer was one of the founders of New Avenues for Youth, a nonprofit for homeless youth.]
OB: What was it like growing up with the family name?
HW: I always had a sense that my family was known and that I was known. It is a very powerful privilege to have a sense that when you are with your father and mother, people recognize them, and that is different to what other people experience. On the one side, it meant that when we got to high school and there was an admonition, “Thou shalt not have a party in our house when we are not here,” because it would put our business and livelihood at risk, we took that seriously.
But it also meant having a sense of being able to do things. One of the legacies of my family is a sense that individuals can make differences. My father was heavily involved in the Bottle Bill, which was the first of its kind in the nation. [Enacted in 1971, the bill provides a 10-cent refund value on redeemable beverage containers.] I knew people who did things I thought were tremendous, such as setting aside the Columbia River Gorge as a National Scenic Area. The tradition that individuals can make a difference — and that is a tradition in Oregon — is part of what got passed down. It is part of the reason I have taken on the project I am involved in with gun safety: that notion that individuals can and should work to make differences.
OB: Vanessa, your grandfather had a colorful career. He was a successful amateur boxer. He owned a movie theater chain. What was he like to work with?
VS: He was not easy to work with. [Laughs.] He was a lovely man — really well mannered, very kind and soft-spoken, very slow to anger. He was also very ahead of his time in that he was highly focused on using local vendors. He was highly focused on gender and racial equity. That is unusual for a person of that generation. I think it shows in the fact that he chose a young woman to lead his business.
But at the same time, we were from very different generations. When I started with his company, there wasn’t a single computer in the office. That was in 2000. When the underwriting was done for Fox Tower, the CFO did it on a big green sheet of paper. He was the same age as my grandfather. I would be sitting in my office and I would hear, “Oh, goddamn it,” and he would crumple it up and throw it in the basket. [Laughs.] And that is how Fox Tower got built in the late ’90s. I am sure the bank took what he did with the proforma schedule and entered it into a computer so it was in an actual Excel sheet. There was tension there because I wanted to modernize things. The first thing I did when I took over reins of the company in 2010 was to get phones that had the capacity for voicemail.
HW: I was struck by you saying his commitment to equity was very early. Where do you think that came from?
VS: I think it probably came from his sense of being overlooked. The way his family business rolled out was hard on him. He dropped out of school in ninth grade. He flunked third grade. He was not a good student.
HW: Do you think he was probably dyslexic or had some kind of learning disability that would have been diagnosed today?
VS: Probably. He was very good at math, though. It was amazing how good he was at it for having a limited education. But his family passed him over for leadership of their theater chain for a brother who had gone to college. He brought the idea to his family of doing theaters with more than one screen. They told him it was a terrible idea.
HW: And it was a huge idea.
VS: Right. It made him feel bad about himself. Even though he knew it was a good idea, his family didn’t believe in him. It gave him an internal sense that life was not always fair for people.
HW: So the person who is unfavored deserved a break too.
VS: Exactly. He was a pioneer for his time. He had three full careers. He had the boxing career. His last amateur fight was also Sugar Ray Robinson’s last amateur fight. They fought each other to a split-decision draw at Madison Square Garden. Then he was in movie theaters. And real estate was his retirement career.
OB: To be a boxer, you need to have a certain personality. Did that come through in his business dealings?
VS: He was incredibly persistent. He was really hardworking. He was also way ahead of the health curve. He never smoked. I remember being a kid and going on vacation together. We were 59 years apart. He would go on a 7-mile jog; that is not what people did back then. He really never cared much about societal rules. He did his own thing, which is often what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Most entrepreneurs have some serious personality quirks. I assume your great-great-grandfather probably did.
OB: Henry, are there any family anecdotes that indicated your great-great-grandfather had a quirky nature?
HW: I think he was a pretty serious guy; although the Portland lore is about his offer to run beer through the Skidmore Fountain in its first 24 hours of operation, and the city fathers gracefully declining the offer. The family always wondered whether it was a true story or not.
VS: That doesn’t sound true. [Laughs.] Great story.
HW: It is a more amusing story than when I was working at the brewhouse in the summer of 1976 during a strike. I was doing 12-hour shifts. About 3 o’clock one morning, I look outside on Burnside, and there was steam rising from the street; I hadn’t closed the proper valve, and I had dumped 50,000 gallons of wort that were running down Burnside. I don’t think anyone was especially pleased. [Laughs.] Fortunately, my cousin a few weeks later did the same thing during the day shift.
OB: Why didn’t you choose to go into the brewery business?
HW: I always intended to, but the business was sold shortly after I finished graduate school. I didn’t see it as an opportunity for me.
OB: Do you both think your priorities differ a lot from you grandfathers’?
VS: No, not really. In fact, we really try, even though he is gone now, to stay true to the culture he established. At every quarterly meeting, we talk about some of the key values — most of them harken back to people and community. And it is a presentation that every new employee gets. He has really inspired the way the company is run today.
OB: You created a new fund to take advantage of Opportunity Zone tax benefits. What is your thinking behind that?
VS: This is a new political opportunity. It is a very exciting tax opportunity. It is very different from what my grandfather did. It is under a different company. TMT is the Moyer portfolio; Sturgeon Development Partners is just my firm. I have two business partners in that. Opportunity Zones are done under the Sturgeon Development Partners umbrella. It is an opportunity that is very new and exciting. It can do a lot for Portland because we have such a unique Opportunity Zone. You will see a lot of multifamily product being built that otherwise wouldn’t have been built because of inclusionary zoning.
OB: You veered away from your grandfather’s business strategy in that you created a separate fund. What do you think your grandfather would have thought about that?
VS: He probably wouldn’t have liked it because he didn’t like bringing on partners. He really was focused on doing work himself and didn’t enjoy working with other people’s equity. He really liked the fact that he didn’t have to answer to anyone.
OB: Does that work in today’s business environment?
VS: If you can get away with it, it works. He did his work for fun. That is another place where we have a lot of similarities. I love it. It is really fun to me. It is stimulating intellectually. The money is a side benefit.
OB: Henry, you launched your nonprofit, State of Safety. Was there any influence from your great-great-grandfather in going in that direction?
HW: I think the tradition of working to make a difference fed into this. I am fortunate in that my gene pool is a long-life gene pool. My father quit going into the office at 90; he quit riding his bicycle at 89. At age 61, I retired from 32 years in the financial services industry with the idea of taking an intermission and then finding a second career in a nonprofit field. I spent some time as an interim development director for a nonprofit. Then a year ago, I asked myself, what are the things that really motivate me? That was after the Las Vegas shooting but before the Parkland shooting.
[On Oct. 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on concertgoers on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, killing 58 people. On Feb. 14, 2018, a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 students.]
I couldn’t believe that after the Las Vegas shooting there was still a lack of action on the part of Congress. I said, I want to understand this and see if I can make a difference in gun safety. I was doing that work at the time that the Parkland school shooting occurred on Valentine’s Day 2018. At that point, I said, “This is nuts.” I have to figure out how I can make a difference. I became involved with two families who had lost family members in the Clackamas Town Center shooting in 2012. We developed a measure that was Initiative Petition 44, which we ran out of time to collect signatures on. But we had done enough work that we knew we had a good piece of legislation. We subsequently formed State of Safety and then our 501(c)(4) — the State of Safety Action.
[The nonprofit introduced legislation this year, the Cindy Yuille and Steve Forsyth Act, named after victims of the Clackamas Town Center shooting, which advocates for the safe storage of guns.]
OB: How important do you think your family name is to the success of your nonprofit’s mission?
HW: I think it has certainly been helpful in some areas. But I think the generation that knew my parents is clearly aged and is no longer as active. There is some name recognition. But more important is that I bring a certainty when I walk into a room that I am supposed to be in the room. I hadn’t thought about privilege much before the last decade. The concept of privilege was something I was initially hesitant to embrace because it is a challenging concept — to say you are less than you thought you were because of the gifts you have received.
Eventually, I worked through my thinking and realized it has been incredibly important that I was born into a family that valued education; that was an intact family; that was presented in a place where there was positive recognition. I think the name and the attitudes I bring when I walk into a room are important — that sense that if I place a phone call, I expect it will be returned. There is a perceived arrogance there, but there is also the actuality that it occurs. I think it is a sensitive area that I want to use for good use.
VS: I so appreciate that you recognize it. It is a fact for me, too. But most people don’t think about it and aren’t aware of it.
HW: If I am in a car and I see a pair of police lights flashing behind me, my assumption is I have been speeding or I have a burned-out taillight. I am not concerned when the police officer walks up. I think the age of video cameras and video phones says there are a lot of people for whom that is not a safe experience always. That is not bashing the police; I have never had any bad experience with the police. It is simply saying my life and how I was set up in life is hugely beneficial to me. People say, “So and so made a home run in their life.” I was born a foot away from home plate. All I had to do was lean because of how I was positioned in life.
VS: I have become even more keenly aware of privilege since raising a black son. He was born in the Congo. He is adorable now at 7, but when he is 6 feet tall and 15 and wearing a hoodie in Lake Oswego, it might not be the same experience for him. Those realities are part of my daily life. It has been really good for all my children to understand that not everyone is born into privilege.
OB: If you were your grandfathers, would you have done anything differently?
VS: I would just have suggested my grandfather work a little less. He was a workaholic. It made everyone around him crazy. My grandmother finally told him, “I am going to leave you unless you give me 30% of the concession-stand receipts.” When she was going into surgery — she had cancer — she was starting to go under anesthesia and she grabbed the side of the gurney and said to my mom, “Don’t let them move the clock,” because they were moving at the time. They had a really tall grandfather clock. There were hundreds of thousands of dollars stacked up inside of it. She was hiding it from my grandpa because it was either boom or bust with him. He was always taking them to the very edge to grow the business. She couldn’t stand it. She always wanted a plan B.
HW: I would have sold the business before Prohibition.
VS: [Laughs.] You have 20-20 hindsight.
HW: My great-great-grandfather died in 1906, so he didn’t face Prohibition. But if I were passing back any information, it would be to lose the business before Prohibition.
[Prohibition, which began in 1914, lasted 19 years. The brewery survived by producing sodas and nonalcoholic beers.]
VS: The root beer still is the best, though.
HW: [Laughs.] I agree. In seriousness, I don’t have anything. My great-great-grandfather’s will was very generous with a huge number of bequests. During his lifetime, my great-great-grandmother founded the German Aid Society. Part of the block that the Unitarian church is on was donated by my grandfather. There are parts of the public ownership of the West Hills parks that were done by the family that were never acknowledged. I think they lived life pretty well.
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