By Ben Miller – Staff Reporter, Chicago Business Journal, published to Biz Journal
Michelle Connor knows her way around the offices of Seattle land conservancy Forterra. She’s been working for the organization for nearly her entire professional life — about 26 years — and was named CEO and president last year.
She has been instrumental in several major Forterra projects that were out of the ordinary for the land preservation group. One deal brought prominent Seattle-area venture capitalists together with immigrant business owners to buy and convert the Knights Inn in Tukwila into an international market. It was the first time major venture capitalists had partnered with Forterra to invest in a real estate development.
She also oversaw Forterra’s move to partner with Lake Union Partners and a group called Africatown Community Land Trust to buy Midtown Center, a retail center now under redevelopment in Seattle’s Central District. The idea is to help the African American community that has lived in that community to profit from recent gentrification, a solution called “inclusive development.”
Connor, who replaced founder and former CEO Gene Duvernoy, heads the 60-person agency with an annual estimated budget of about $25 million.
What does Forterra do? Forterra is a sustainability organization focused on land and securing land for conservation and community uses because land underpins public health, environmental well-being and economic opportunity for communities.
How would you describe your leadership style? As a leader, I view my job both to be a passionate champion for the efforts that we’re working on but also to find ways to bring everyone’s thinking together.
What were you doing before you joined Forterra? I’ve been with the organization for 26 years. Before that I was a research assistant at the Japanese consulate in Seattle studying the economy, environment and community of the Pacific Northwest.
What drew you to Forterra? In my family and experience, I saw the challenges that we face on the ground. My dad sold residential real estate to families who were first-time homebuyers coming out of the military down in the Olympia area. At the same time, I saw a lot of those homes going into greenfield sites that were beautiful. As a kid it was distressing to see beautiful places converted into subdivisions, not fully understanding that balance of affordability and needing homes and not understanding why we had to make those choices.
What’s more important in your role as CEO: political skills or business acumen? Both. I say that because as a nonprofit organization, our specialty is understanding what’s politically possible and what’s economically possible. It’s all about people, right? In this cause, if you enjoy people, and are genuinely curious about their interests and values, you can often — with persistence — get to outcomes that leave everybody satisfied. Because at the end of the day most everyone wants to contribute to something positive for the future.
When have you needed to use those political chops? Recently we learned of a 150-acre farm near Arlington that had been re-zoned as 10-acre home lots, with a cul-de-sac paved and utilities installed. A spec house was already built and sold on one of the lots. But interest in the other lots deteriorated when the Great Recession hit, and the would-be builder faced foreclosure. Given how far along the project was, turning the land back into a farm was far-fetched. Urged on by local farmers, though, we set out to try. The most challenging aspect by far was undoing the land’s subdivision status. As you might imagine, no one at the permit desk had ever had someone come in and say, “We want to unwind this zoning, devalue the property, and turn back the hands of time.” In the end, though, it worked.
What has been Forterra’s greatest accomplishment since you’ve been there? When I started, this organization was a pro bono client in Gene’s (founder Gene Duvernoy’s) land-use practice. He was paying for the stamps, the copying, the mailings and for my time out of his business operations. To see the organization grow from an aspiration or a vision about how this region can work together and the values that most people who live here share about a beautiful place with opportunity that’s accessible to everybody, to a going concern that I can look to the future and expect it’s going to be here for the long haul.
What’s the biggest project on Forterra’s horizon? Currently, we’ve been working to refine our ability to muster social impact and investment capital to solve some of the environmental challenges and community challenges that lack public or philanthropic dollars. For instance, the issues facing orcas today are not questions of scientific uncertainty. We actually know what needs to be done. It’s a question of how do you gather the resources to make that work possible.
If you weren’t at Forterra, what other dream job would you have? I’d be doing this work. This is the dream, right? Getting to work with communities to solve huge challenges that feel like climbing a mountain. I can’t imagine doing anything else. And I love this place, so if I wasn’t at Forterra I’d find some other way to do this work.
Forterra is an unconventional land trust that works across Washington’s communities and landscapes, from the ranches and shrub-steppe of the Yakima basin, to the estuaries, farms and forests of Washington’s coast, reaching more than 100 counties, cities, towns and rural communities. Working cooperatively with people and nature, Forterra drives land stewardship, management and planning; innovative programs and policies; farming and forestry approaches; community ownership opportunities; and development solutions. Visit www.forterra.org.