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Sunday, June 5, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Into The Spotlight -- The Fisher Family, Long Part Of Seattle's Quiet Wealthy, Takes A More Visible Road In `Hot Talk' Radio, Lake Union Development, Family Fortune Management

When KOMO-TV approached its 40th anniversary last December, someone suggested a party or a program celebrating its achievements.

The idea was rejected. Instead, the station produced low-key spots that hardly mentioned KOMO except to say it was "privileged to be part of the community."

Soft talk has been the hallmark of the Fisher family for more than 80 years. They control Fisher Cos., the diversified holding company whose assets include Fisher Broadcasting, owner of KOMO.

The Fishers are rarely in the newspapers, yet are a big part of life in Seattle.

It's safe to say that virtually everyone here has either watched a Fisher program, eaten Fisher flour or driven by a Fisher building. "We are you," KOMO used to say.

The Fishers arrived here from Montana a few years after the Klondike Gold Rush, invested in the growing city, formed alliances with the Weyerhaeusers and other prominent families, and quietly began building one of the nation's larger fortunes.

The Fishers have worked hard to avoid public attention, but none as hard as the family member who, while serving as an Army reservist, had to be ordered by a general to pose for a radio publicity photograph.

"They're not limelight people," says Sandy Montgomery, a KOMO vice president. "They tend to be on the conservative side. At the same time, they're looking to the future."

Today, Fisher Cos. finds itself thrust into the spotlight by several interesting moves:

-- Promoting the first non-family member to the chief executive officer slot. William Krippaehne Jr. has succeeded longtime chief executive Donald Graham Jr., who continues as chairman of the board. Krippaehne sees himself building on the legacy of the Fishers, whose values mirror his own, he says.

-- Opening in March a $35 million building on Lake Union, the first major new building to open in Seattle's depressed office market since 1991.

-- Buying "hot talk" KVI-AM, home to radio-rabble-rousers Rush Limbaugh, Mike Siegel and John Carlson, and adult-contemporary KPLZ-FM - a signal that the Fishers remain bullish on broadcasting. KVI's purchase may be the most interesting to watch. Now that Fisher Cos. is signing the checks, will Siegel continue his mad-as-hell style?

-- Announcing a 28 percent increase in annual profit for 1993, when it earned $12 million on $170 million of sales, and predicting a record profit for this year.

Fisher Cos. makes its home on the 15th floor of the One Union Square building in downtown Seattle.

Unlike many downtown offices whose reception areas convey power and self-esteem, the Fisher reception area feels more like the living room of a prosperous elderly relative. Painted in a deep olive shade, the room is pleasantly furnished with leather chairs, two love seats and oil paintings. It's not the sort of place where anyone would raise his voice, or have reason to.

Graham himself comes out to greet a visitor, accompanied by Krippaehne.

Graham, 71, is a courtly man who rarely gives interviews and likes to assign credit to people who work for the company. Family members, however, call him the "chief of the clan" and praise his stewardship of the companies, which he assumed when he left a law practice at Graham & Dunn, a firm established by his father. His mother was a Fisher.

Krippaehne, 43, came to Graham's attention in 1979 when the Fishers needed advice on what to do about some aging properties. Krippaehne, a Portland native, so impressed Graham that in 1982 the commercial broker was invited to join the company as head of the property division and executive vice president of the holding company.

Krippaehne is warm and relaxed and seems totally at ease with Graham. During an interview, each would sometimes finish the other's sentence or elaborate on a point the other had made.

Krippaehne later said that many notice the closeness between himself and Graham.

"Not only has he been a tremendous mentor, but he's been very much like a father to me," says Krippaehne. "Frankly, I love the man as a father."

With Graham out of day-to-day operations, only one family member holds a senior management position - Phelps Fisher, executive vice president of marketing at Fisher Broadcasting. Graham says Fisher Cos. has no specific policy on employment of family members. It's reasonable to conclude that no other family member wants to be active in management, says Graham. His two sons have no interest in management positions, he says.

"You don't run a business based on the color of someone's hair or the blood in their veins," says Graham. "You run it on the basis of who's the right person for the need."

The family is well-represented at the board level, however.

That group includes representatives of several branches of the family, some younger family members and some trusted outsiders with helpful business experience.

Among the younger representatives are Donald Graham III, who operates a commercial photography business, and W.W. Warren Jr., professor of physics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Warren

Sr. is the retired chief executive of Fisher Broadcasting, the reservist who was ordered to pose for a photograph. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Dividends paid to family members and other stockholders grew steadily through the '70s and '80s but flattened in 1990, a condition largely driven by a downturn in TV advertising (KOMO supplies most of the revenue, but specifics are not disclosed). In some family-controlled companies, that often leads to boardroom turmoil. But Graham says he's never felt such pressure, much less even had a conversation about dividends.

LONG-TERM OUTLOOK

Fisher Cos. is run out of a sense of obligation to shareholders but also with a sense of investment for the long term. Fisher Properties, most assuredly, does not build schlock.

"They like to build and operate a Cadillac-type facility," says Gary Volchok, a first vice president with CB Commercial. "They hold out for the rents they want. They don't bend a lot. They wait for the qualified tenants that will add something to the property. They're good people to deal with."

Nothing restricts a Fisher from selling his or her stock to an outsider, but Graham says family members rarely sell. Every other year, the clan and company staff gather for a picnic. The purpose is to promote an understanding of the businesses and an appreciation of the people involved in the companies, says Jacklyn Meurk, granddaughter of Burr Fisher and a board member.

"We've always had a close and very caring family," says Graham. "Historically, all the family was involved in the business. There's always been a sense of stewardship and working for the common good."

That tradition goes back to Oliver Williams Fisher, founder of the business dynasty. He was born poor in Ohio in 1842 and worked as a youth in saw and flour mills. His first big success came from a lumber company he formed in Missouri in 1889. He later invested in timber operations in other states, always careful to make a place for his five sons, Will P., Burr, O.D., Daniel and Wallace, and his son-in-law, William Warren, husband of Lula Fisher.

As the sons grew up, they continued the policy of involving family members in the businesses.

"It was an unwritten rule in the family that when any of them turned up an attractive business deal it was to be available to all and not limited to the one who found or developed it," writes Herman Steen in "The O.W. Fisher Heritage," a 1961 book commissioned by the family.

MOVING TO SEATTLE

Will P. came to Seattle in 1905 and formed Fisher Trading Co., largely a flour brokerage. The family style, then as now, was to stress integrity in all business dealings.

"The wholesale grocers and bakers in and around Seattle soon learned that Will P. was transparently and painfully honest and that he knew his line of goods extremely well," writes Steen.

O.D. arrived in the Puget Sound area in 1906, searching for timber to rebuild San Francisco after its fire. Family members worked together to buy timber tracts along the western slope of the Cascades. A partnership was formed with the Weyerhaeusers to build a sawmill near Snoqualmie Falls. The Fisher lumber company in 1948 was merged into the Weyerhaeuser Co. O.D. and Will worked side-by-side in shared offices in the Pacific Building in Seattle.

O.D., the leader of the Seattle wing of the Fisher clan, bought into the Metropolitan Building Co., which held long-term leases on downtown property owned by the University of Washington. That company built many of the city's most prized buildings, among them the Olympic Hotel, the Skinner Building and the Cobb Building. O.D. also invested in a bank, First National, that later evolved into Seafirst.

The flour mill on Harbor Island was built in 1911 and now makes 1.6 million pounds of flour a day. Distributed to customers throughout the U.S. and Canada, Fisher flour is found in goods baked at Safeway and Albertson's, in Krusteaz and Snoqualmie Falls Pancake mixes, and elsewhere. The company no longer sells Fisher's Blend Flour in stores or makes Fisher scones, for decades a staple at county fairs. The name was licensed to Fair Scones Inc.

O.D. invested in General Insurance Co. and served many years as chairman of the company, now known as Safeco. The Fishers supported Safeco's caution in taking risks, with no exceptions: O.D. was chairman of the board in 1924 when a Fisher warehouse in Puyallup was considered too much of a fire risk to get a policy. Fisher Cos. continues to hold Safeco stock, now worth about $85 million. Graham sits on Safeco's board.

ON THE AIR

What proved to be the family's most lucrative investment began when a Fisher suggested they invest in radio as a means of promoting flour.

Birt Fisher was no relation to the family but found a sympathetic ear when he approached O.D., a radio buff. Fisher's Blend Station took the call letters of KOMO and went on the air in 1926, with Ken Fisher as an announcer. The Fishers also owned KJR until 1941, when the Federal Communications Commissioned disallowed dual operations of stations in one market - a rule since dropped. KOMO-TV went on the air in 1953. A second TV station, KATU, opened in 1962 in Portland. Today, broadcasting supplies the bulk of revenue reported by Fisher Cos.

For decades, the Fisher stations have had a pleasant, homey style. That's hardly a description of KVI's announcers. Will Fisher Broadcasting want to cool the hot talk?

Krippaehne says there will be no muzzles at KVI, but there will be an effort to make sure talk-show hosts do research to back up any facts they present to the public.

"I don't think they want to tone it down in any way," says Siegel, a KVI host.

The acquisition of KVI and KPLZ show that Fisher Broadcasting is not going to passively observe rapid changes in communications.

Rather than fear the future, which some believe belongs to cable TV companies, the Fishers see a big future for broadcast stations, particularly those with strong local presence, through news and programming. A coming technology, digital broadcasting, will expand what a station can offer on its portion of the air waves, says Krippaehne.

"There's been a lot of hype connected with the so-called information superhighway that is probably just that - hype," says Krippaehne. "We have concluded that the over-the-air broadcaster has a lot to offer the American public and has a very solid position in the future."

Solid positions are a Fisher legacy.

During a modernization of the flour mill several years ago, workers busted through the floor and were amazed at how the foundation had been built. The concrete was high-quality and reinforced with steel, a rarity in those days and certainly not required by any building codes. The place was built to last for generations of Fishers. O.D. made sure of that. And so do his descendants.

If there's a dominant family characteristic, says Graham, it's that. "They want to do it right the first time."

----------- FISHER COS. ----------- Few investors know that Fisher is a publicly traded company. With fewer than 500 shareholders, the stock is lightly traded and is not listed in the daily newspaper listings of local over-the-counter stocks. A few hundred shares might be traded in a given week in deals largely among family members and company insiders. Total employment is 800.

---------------------- OPERATING SUBSIDIARIES ----------------------

-- Fisher Broadcasting Inc.: KOMO radio and TV-Seattle, KVI-AM, KPLZ-FM, KATU TV-Portland.

-- Fisher Properties: Assets include 24 industrial and commercial buildings, totaling 1.1 million square feet of rental space, and 201 moorage berths.

-- Fisher Mills: Ranked 14th in capacity among U.S. milling companies. Distribution centers in Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles. Subsidiary: Fisher Bakery Supply Ltd., Greater Vancouver, B.C.

-- Technovators: Licenses milling technologies invented at Fisher Mills.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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