At the Helm: Jeff Wright

By Patricia Olsen

A few minutes with the chairman of Seattle's Space Needle.

At the Helm: Jeff Wright

 

Chairman, Space Needle, Seattle

 

Generation of family ownership: Third. There were originally five partners. My father, who was part of Howard H. Wright Construction, bought out his partners in the Space Needle in 1982.

 

Company revenue for 2009: $35 million.

 

Number of employees: 450 at our peak time (summer).

 

Years with the company: 13.

 

First job at this company: Chairman. Previously I worked for Bechtel, an engineering and construction company based in San Francisco. After five years I was homesick for Seattle, so I returned and developed residential properties and retirement housing. My father passed away and I was elected chairman by my siblings.

 

Most memorable thing I learned from my father: Meet and greet people and make sure everyone feels appreciated, whether it’s the elevator operator or the company president.

 

Best thing about this job: The Space Needle is an icon for the city of Seattle. We’re the largest restaurant in the state and the No. 1 paid tourist attraction. There’s a lot of pride that goes along with this job.

 

One of our greatest successes: In 1999 we embarked on a major remodel that updated the interior but kept the integrity of our exterior architecture. In light of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair in Seattle, we’ve successfully updated the Needle for the next 50 years.

 

Best advice I ever got: Look people in the eye and give them a strong handshake.

 

Quote from our company’s mission statement: Space Needle team members are committed to providing a world-class hospitality and entertaining experience to every guest.

 

Artwork on my office wall: I have a few watercolor pieces from the 1950s and 1960s depicting Seattle. But my favorite is an oil of a father and son with the Space Needle in the background, by Bo Bartlett, a Northwest artist.

 

One of my greatest accomplishments: Being awarded the Legion of Honor last year with my wife, Korynne. It’s awarded to people who have contributed time and energy to Seattle Center, the campus of the 1962 World’s Fair. Seattle civic leaders decide the recipients, so it was quite an honor for me.

 

My mentors: I’ve been extremely fortunate to have four outside directors who are leaders in the community. They’ve assisted me in strategic decisions and negotiations and are my greatest asset.

 

Best thing about working in a family business: I have the support of four siblings, who are shareholders, as well as their spouses.

 

Worst thing about working in a family business: If you’re close to your family, which I am, it’s vital to make sure each voice is heard. That can be challenging.

 

Philanthropic causes our family supports: We have a Seattle Center Foundation to keep the area alive and growing. I serve on the board of Rainier Scholars, which promotes the advancement of children of color through education.

 

Books I think every business leader should read: The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. The Big Short, by Michael Lewis, is on my bedside table.

 

I realized I had emerged from my parents’ shadow when… I came to the Space Needle after working elsewhere first. My dad created a huge shadow in Seattle. By establishing myself in a multinational corporation and then becoming a successful entrepreneur, I developed the confidence to lead this organization.

 

Words I live by: Humility, integrity and compassion. I have those words on a 3x5 card stuck on my bathroom mirror.

 

— As told to Patricia Olsen

Article categories: 
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Issue: 
Winter 2011

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