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Puzzling Even in Hindsight

Columnist: Bill Meagher
December, 2008 Issue

Bill Meagher
All articles by columnist

As we race the calendar to the end of the year, it’s worthwhile to take stock of how Marin fared over the last year in what has become the chilliest economy this side of the Great Depression…or, at the very least, Wasilla, Alaska.

To begin with, Marin is still among the three least likely counties in the state to see home foreclosures, joining San Francisco and San Mateo. That may be cold comfort to folks living in Stockton, but an argument can be made that living in Stockton may be bleak even without foreclosure signs creating mini-forests on neighborhood streets.

As fall began carving away daylight in larger chunks, the state’s unemployment rate stood at 7.7 percent, while Marin checked in with 4.7 percent. That isn’t full employment, but it’s still less sour than the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page.

But the best measure of how Marin did in 2008 is a backward glance at business expansion, contraction and defection. I would’ve included more measurements, but I ran out of words ending in -ion.

Let’s start with the bad news, because that’s what sells.  By the time you read this, Thermo Fisher Scientific will be packing up boxes and consulting MapQuest on the best route to Logan, Utah.  Thermo and its 40 Novato employees made film that helped protect sterile materials during transportation and use.  Fisher pulled the plug on Leveroni Court, and all it took was free property in Logan worth $1.5 million as well as $2.74 million in state tax credits.  The company is building an $11.4 million manufacturing plant that will eventually employ 500 people.

Earlier this year, Gardener’s Guild headed across the San Rafael Bridge to Point Richmond, leaving the Mission City behind. The move east cost Marin 160 jobs.

One Marin business that was set to close but was rescued is the Novato Advance newspaper. The weekly hadn’t turned a profit in eight years and was set to call it quits in September when the Marinscope of Sausalito rode to the rescue.  Marinscope, a local chain of five weekly newspapers owned by Indian business tycoon Vijay Mallya, acquired the floundering weekly from Scripps Enterprises of Virginia. While it’s good news for businesses in Novato looking to target their ads locally, residents may eventually find the move makes for a tough read. The Advance has been a good local paper, but it’s larger and more expensive to produce than the Marinscope papers, which are largely known for running on a shoestring.

On the other hand, Marin attracted Blink Logic from Canada. The move stemmed from the hiring of CEO David Morris, a Marin resident. The business software company is moving from a small office in Mill Valley to the San Rafael Corporate Center. Morris has the company in a growth mode, made easier with a $6 million equity investment from a San Francisco hedge fund. Blink Logic’s hook is supplying business software on a subscription basis. Blink has 18 employees now and plans on staffing up on a national basis to a few hundred over the next couple of years.

GoAmerica, a 650-employee company is leaving New Jersey to settle in at the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company in Novato. The company provides a number of different products and services for the hearing impaired and is listed on the NASDAQ (GOAM).

In an environment where investment capital was missing in action along with the 49ers’ offense, several Marin businesses still managed to find equity partners. Solar Power Partners, a Mill Valley company focused on renewable energy production and distribution for businesses, hooked up with United Commercial Bank, Carrelton Asset Management, Globespan Capital Partners, The Enlightened World Foundation, Dry Creek Ventures, Energy Investors Funds and Silicon Valley Technology Group to the tune of $160 million.  Hedge fund D.E. Shaw liked what it saw in Novato’s Winery Exchange, investing $5 million in the Bel Marin company that develops private label wine and beer brands and labels on an international scale. mFoundary, the Sausalito company that’s a leader in providing mobile technology for the banking industry, picked up $15 million in investments from NCR Corp., Motorola and PayPal. And Nordic Windpower, a San Rafael company focused on perfecting wind turbine technology, picked up Goldman Sachs as an equity partner.

Restoration Hardware, the Corte Madera-based home furnishings and yuppie way-back machine, was sold after a brief showdown between Sears and Connecticut equity investor Catterton Partners. Resto, as it’s known by locals, has been teetering for awhile, the victim of over-ambitious growth. Catterton wasn’t cowed by Sears, even when the retailer initially outbid it by a nickel a share. Eventually, Sears and its CEO, hedge fund ace Edward Lambert, decided to concentrate on reeling Sears in from the 1960s rather than buying a company that basks in the charm of yesteryear. Insiders at Resto report the company is making progress toward getting out of the red and into the black under Catterton ownership.

The two malls in Marin that are owned by real estate investment trust Macerich marked this year by having some “work done” as they say in Hollywood. The Village in Corte Madera did $10 million worth of landscaping and reshaping public areas as well as adding retailers Martin + Osa, Michael Stars, Lacoste, Puma, Tumi, Sundance, Shabby Chic and Peet’s Coffee and Tea.

The REIT also owns Northgate in San Rafael, where a $70 million remodel is underway. In recent years, the mall has grown tired and lost traffic to the Village as well as the Town Center in Corte Madera and Vintage Oaks in Novato. No word on what new stores will come with the revamped mall, but one thing is certain: Mervyns’s won’t be among them after the Hayward-based retailer filed for bankruptcy.

While the folks at city hall in San Rafael are happy that Macerich is finally putting some money into the center, privately they’re a little chapped. The city has been after the REIT for years to put some housing in the decaying center, with some of it being of the affordable variety. And while Macerich is certainly investing in the Terra Linda mall, not a dime is going for housing. 




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