Can We Turn Ice into Opportunity?

By Andrew J. Birol, President, Birol Growth Consulting, Inc.

What if you could start off fresh with your business? You can change anything you want—new people, new products, new region. What would you transform, and why? More importantly, what opportunities would you have if you could shrug off all of your current obligations?

Twelve years ago, my wife, Joan, and I made a fresh start by leaving the east coast and moving to Cleveland. What a difference a simple move can make! Fear and freedom, those conjoined twins, quickly turn uncertainty into opportunity, obligations into challenges, and challenges into successes. The exhilaration I felt in starting over was a lesson to me. To this day, whenever life begins to dull and my thoughts seem mired in the same old mud, I pursue my hobby: new experiences. Specifically, I visit a new place, meet new people and experience a new culture.

Recently my family and I spent 18 days basking in the brilliance of Alaska, and it was a vivid reminder of the value of breaking loose from familiar surroundings, familiar problems, and familiar patterns of thought. What I saw in our 49th state swept out the cobwebs and let me see more clearly the state we in Northeast Ohio are in.

The entire nation knows of our plight, since Ohio is a battleground election state because of massive job loss and an economy that lags well behind the national recovery. The candidates bicker about what should be done, but what most Ohioans really want is a simple return to the good times, when rubber was king, steel was queen, and manufacturing jobs were plentiful and profitable.

Do we really believe this is going to happen? And what are we doing about Plan B?

What became clear to me in Alaska is that success is about attitude, not about circumstance. Some examples:

  • Here is a land of astonishing beauty, with vast open expanses that shrink the human form while swelling the human soul, yet the climate is so hostile only three notable cities (Fairbanks, Juneau, and Anchorage) exist, while tribal cultures still struggle for survival.
  • Alaska owns a rich and ancient history made manifest by tribal practices, yet its “birthday” as a state in 1958 makes it younger than most of the business owners I know.
  • In a state that is second only to West Virginia in receipt of government funding, the government manages a peaceful coexistence with private business.
  • With Big Oil the only major corporate presence, business thrives in the form of multiple small companies that do well despite terrible weather, a location as far off the beaten path as possible, and a relatively small population of consumers.

Alaska is a land where the commonplace is extreme and the extreme is commonplace. Where else might you encounter tsunamis, earthquakes, and winter temperatures that turn any inch of exposed skin into granite, yet buy fresh produce from farmers who coax cash crops during a blink-and-you-miss-it growing season? In short, Alaska is a land of contradictions that somehow work together. And its the people that make them work.

Here are four qualities I observed that have led to Alaskas (and Alaskans) success:

  1. A distinct identity: Most big corporations see Alaska as more trouble than its worth, due to the challenges posed by the climate and the small population. But in a time of homogenization, when Main Streets look pretty much the same from Oregon to Maine, being ignored by big business has been a gift. Alaska retains a uniqueness, a distinct flavor that goes all the way back to the lands origins and the way people have coped with climate extremes, that enlivens the senses. If youre hungry for a sub sandwich, youre just as likely to buy it from Sams Salmon and Steaks than from Subway. And the taste is something youve never tried before.
  2. Self-reliance: Alaskas history is ancient but it has a youthful spirit of adventure and possibility. Few people retire there, so the population is by and large young, hardworking, and self-sufficient. In a place where most towns are not connected to one another by roads or trains, it shouldnt be surprising that one in six Alaskans has a pilots license. Remember Maggie O’Connell, the sexy but skittish bush pilot from TVs Northern Exposure? She really exists, although her name might be Charles, Bubba, Ingrid, or Kyoko.
  3. Resilience: Alaska has experienced three major shocks to its economic system and has managed to reinvent itself through each one. The first big change occurred only about 50 years ago when the region was flooded with military personnel charged with protecting a frontier separated from the Soviets by a thin stretch of water. Second, the discovery of major oil reserves and subsequent building of the Alaska pipeline in the 1970s brought in thousands of new workers, the first significant corporate presence, and thorny questions about development and preservation. The third and most recent rediscovery of Alaska has been as a tourist haven. People are willing to pay big money during the summer months—and increasingly, even during the winter—to experience the unique culture and spectacular scenery offered through land and sea cruises.
  4. Community: Tribal and nomadic roots, combined with temperatures that can plummet a hundred degrees below zero, make getting along with ones neighbor a high priority. And because Alaska is a state of “immigrants,” mostly from the lower 48 states, people are welcomed according to what they can and will do. Transplants who work hard and make the best of what they have are embraced quickly, while those who pine for the Florida sun and complain about having no money to leave are labeled “sourdoughs.”

The more I learned about Alaska, the more I kept coming back to the constraints—the obstacles—that we in Northeast Ohio feel we must work around. What does it mean for a troubled region like ours when a state so disadvantaged by climate and remote location can accomplish so much in a short period of time?

It means that we can learn from their example. What can Alaska teach us about our new frontier?

  1. Businesses succeed by making money quickly. Because of extremes in weather, small businesses in Alaska must make their living during a single short season. During Alaskas summer, night doesnt fall until around midnight, while winter days average less than two hours of sunlight, forcing people to make the best use of their time. The saying “Make hay while the sun shines” may have originated with Midwestern farmers, but it encapsulates the Alaskan attitude toward work and productivity.
  2. Breed a culture of self-sufficiency. Unless youre in the oil business, the military or a government worker, you probably own or work for a small business. Tribal and nomadic roots breed a sense of self-reliance and a fresh definition of success that has come down through the centuries.
  3. See chaos as opportunity. During the last half century, Alaska has been a basketball tossed from the military to the oil companies to the tourism industry, and these violent economic changes have nurtured an admirable resilience and adaptability as countless small businesses have sprouted up around each economy and continue to thrive. We have good models of this adaptability here at home; for instance, Akron lost rubber but gained polymers and is still in the process of rebuilding. The trick for our region is to accept and absorb the shocks quickly, and then create ways to capitalize on them.
  4. Compromise for the common good. Although Alaska depends heavily on eco-tourism, there is a whole other culture of people who live off the land, hunting, fishing, and trapping for survival and profit. Turf wars exist, but for the most part Alaskans have struck a balance between the competing interests of those who want to save the whales and those who eat them.

Northern Exposure, which was for many Americans their first glimpse into the Alaskan spirit, captured these ideals pretty well. Those who tuned in every Monday night will recall that when Rob Morrow decided to leave the show, he was written off with an Alice in Wonderland flourish; while hiking in the Alaskan bush, Morrows character, Dr. Joel Fleischman, discovered a “doorway” that let him step directly on to a noisy Manhattan street. The visual pun had to do with the “New York state of mind,” but I can say with confidence that Alaska, too, is an attitude, a way of thinking and reacting to hardship and change that can benefit us in Northeast Ohio. So lets look at the lessons of our nations last frontier. Lets find a doorway into self-sufficiency, adaptability, optimism, and resilience, and turn our region around.

Articles by Birol Growth Consulting are © copyrighted and all rights are reserved. However, articles may be reprinted with prior written consent if attribution is included as follows:

© Copyrighted by Andrew J. Birol, President of Birol Growth Consulting, who helps owners grow their businesses by growing their Best and Highest Use ®. Andy can be reached at (412) 973-2080, by email at abirol@andybirol.com, or on the web at www.andybirol.com.


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