Mitch Hornecker: A philanthropic calling
Mitch Hornecker has worn more than a few hats during his professional career.
He started as an attorney with Schwabe, Williamson and Wyatt before joining Howard S. Wright, where he eventually became president of Howard S. Wright Enterprises. In 2016, he left that position to start his own consulting business, Modoc Consulting.
The one thing that has remained constant in his professional life has been his commitment to helping improve the quality of life for people living in Portland. He's a co-founder of New Avenues for Youth, which is dedicated to the prevention and intervention of youth homelessness. He also sits on the advisory committee for the Portland Children's Levy and recently joined the board of directors for Meyer Memorial Trust.
As he prepared to accept the William S. Naito Outstanding Service Award from the Portland Business Alliance on Nov. 14, he sat down with the Business Tribune to discuss how he got started working with nonprofits, the decision behind the sale of Howard S. Wright to Balfour Beatty in 2011, and why he's optimistic that Portland will solve its homeless crisis. Some of his answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Business Tribune: How did you find your way into a career in construction at Howard S. Wright?
Honecker: I was a lawyer for 22 years at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. I was a business lawyer and I had a pretty varied practice of private companies — I didn't really do any public company work — and some of them were construction companies. Dale Pellow, who started the Howard S. Wright office in Portland, I started doing a little work for him and over the years, he moved into higher and higher positions of leadership and then he was running the whole business (west coast).
It's fairly common for business lawyers' clients to talk to them, 'Hey why don't you come work for us?' I really loved practicing law; I loved practicing at Schwabe. So [when Dale would ask], ... it was a compliment, but I wasn't interested. Then Dale came around and said, 'Give me a chance to tell you what my vision is.' ... He said, 'I need a partner and I need somebody with your skills sets. I don't want you to practice law. I need help running this business.' He came up through construction and the joke amongst us was I wasn't [from the construction side].
BT: But you eventually moved up to the role of president at the company, so is it fair to assume you successfully learned your way around a construction site?
Honecker: One of my biggest challenges was how [was] I going to "own" safety when I really don't know anything about building. I'm running the business. I'm overseeing the human relations and all the lawyers and all the business people.
I had Dale give me a cheat sheet when I first started, what I could ask about when I first walked a job that would show that I knew a little bit of something. One of my greatest days in the construction industry and I think it was two years in, I was walking one of our jobs and I spotted a safety issue that was concerning enough for me that I shut the job down. After walking a lot of jobs, maybe a hundred jobs, I finally had enough confidence and knowledge to say, 'Okay we're going to do this.'
BT: When Balfour Beatty acquired Howard S. Wright in 2011, what made it the right move at that time?
Honecker: We sold when the recovery had not yet hit construction yet. We were a regional company. Before the recession, we had offices in Seattle, Portland, Bend, Sacramento, San Francisco, Phoenix and L.A. We closed some of those offices once we saw the downturn coming, which is not fun when you're walking in to see people you care about and they know you're there for one reason. We wanted to make sure the company survived so that most people still had their jobs.
Also, we saw the general progress of construction going digital and all of the ways construction was becoming high tech and including safety. The investment in talent and skills upgrading and commitment to excellence is expensive, and ... we got to a point where we were looking where we wanted to go and we had to be honest with ourselves that we still believed we could get there, but partnering up with an international construction company that has all of the infrastructure and resources and opportunity [made sense].
One of the things that made them attractive to us was, we were their missing geography. They called it the smile — they believed the places they wanted to work were below New York City, down the Eastern Seaboard, across the South and Southwest and up the West coast. There weren't very many companies like ours that were all up and down the West Coast. And from the way we ran the business and the culture, it was an unusually tight, good fit. The places that most big companies fail, they were really good at. They were really good with people; they had a CEO that was really authentic.
BT: I understand you're one of the co-founders of New Avenues for Youth. How did that come about?
Honecker: I think I can draw a straight line to Portland's corporate culture of giving back. I showed up to Schwabe's offices in 1986, fresh out of law school. Within a month, a memo crosses my desk and it has a list of nonprofits that are looking for volunteers. It was essentially, you need to pick one because that's what we do. So, the one I picked, not knowing anything about it, was the Salvation Army Greenhouse. At that time, they were providing services to homeless kids and in 1986, that meant kids as young as 12 and 13 on the streets, mostly who had blown out of foster care.
I started a free legal clinic to help them. I went from the legal clinic to onto the advisory board to the chair of the advisory board. There just came a point where most of the people on the advisory board, we were seeing the kids that were 13 and 14 be the kids that were 20 and 21. They really weren't progressing. We had a lot of discussions. A group of us went and looked at what other communities were doing. After traveling around the country, we started New Avenues. We copied a lot of what a program called Larkin Street in San Francisco was doing — they were very innovative, and still are. There were more than few months where we didn't know if we were going to make payroll, but we never really thought, 'Well, maybe this is just too hard.'
BT: What role do you think the Portland metro business community can — or should — play in helping find a solution to end homelessness for our youth, adults and families?
Hornecker: There's a group of people across philosophical lines who think we need to do something about homelessness. They've begun to more urgently talk about what that might be. There's a lot momentum going on right now. Portland and Metro passed housing bonds for bricks-and-mortar [housing for the homeless]. We don't have any funding associated with how we're going to provide services to those. We have a growing awareness that through good times and bad, this crisis doesn't go away. If we keep doing the same thing, we aren't really going to solve anything — even though there's a lot of people working really hard and doing really good work.
With what happened recently in L.A. and San Francisco [passing bond measures and tax increases to fund housing and services together], I'm hoping there's a solution here that looks a lot like that. You have to do it on a big, coordinated scale.
I'm excited and optimistic that it has to be community led. It feels to me like there's this growing momentum in town to get this fixed. It doesn't have a name, yet, but I see this path. I see these other cities that aren't as nimble and committed as we, and I'm thinking we can do it.